In many ways the Republic of Korea (or South Korea) is on a roll in terms of its positive global image. In soft power terms, it has found an unlikely source of attraction in Psy — whose dance video “Gangnam Style” has been a YouTube global phenomenon. And although in some ways the viral hit informs us of economic differentiation in South Korea (Gangnam being a wealthy area of Seoul), Psy is no rebel. On the one hand, he has demonstrated a willingness to harness himself to South Korea’s diplomatic brand. One of his most publicized events was a meeting in October 2012 with the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, in which Psy praised Ban Ki Moon’s work for Korea. On the other hand, Psy has linked his music to components of corporate Korea — notably a recent appearance in Toronto, sponsored by Samsung, in relation to a new product launch.
While Psy is the popular face of a confident South Korea, ready and willing to play on the world stage, there are other signs of its success. Even if it faced off against much poorer rivals (Cambodia and Bhutan), South Korea’s election in October to the UN Security Council, as a non-permanent member, is a marked achievement. Moreover, as I discovered during a recent trip to South Korea in order to attend a conference on “New Diplomatic Challenges and Responses in the 21st Century,” the country has become an artful proponent of finding functional niches with which it can run.
The hosting by South Korea of the G20, in November 2010, proved a turning point. The summit process allowed South Korea to build some degree of ownership over two key issue areas. One of these areas has been on development through the foundation of the Seoul Consensus — an approach South Korea followed up through the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation culminating in the High Level Forum in Busan on Aid Effectiveness at the end of 2011. Another has been on the promotion of Green Growth, an initiative that has facilitated South Korea’s advances in creating an important new global think tank (the Global Green Growth Institute headed by Richard Samans, former managing director of the World Economic Forum) and a new international institution (the UN-operated Green Climate Fund). Among the other benefits of these diplomatic endeavors has been the location of South Korea as a key hub in a number of important epistemic or technically related policy communities.
Amid these heady achievements, however, are a number of signs that point for the need to temper the image of South Korea as a country on a positive and constructive roll. Leaving aside the question of North Korea (although this issue among many things has prompted South Korea to host a nuclear security summit in Seoul in March 2012), the legacy of the past intrudes through the sensitivity of dealing with Japan. The tough edge of this legacy is revealed in the surprise — but highly publicized — visit in May 2012 by outgoing President Lee Myung-bak to the disputed islands known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese — notwithstanding its implications in escalating tensions and derailing momentum in discussing security cooperation.
But the deeper psychological scars are found in the signs of displeasure in South Korea on so may other issues, including significantly widespread irritation that Psy’s video has not been a hit in Japan (sentiments accentuated by Japanese music bloggers accusing that South Koreans have been using automated viewing programs or ‘bots’ to enhance Psy’s audience). The Korean Wave Research Institute — a non-profit body established in 2010 to promote South Korean popular culture globally and which predicted that Gangnam Style would change the paradigm of South Korean tourism — worked hard to counter these charges of YouTube manipulation, saying that Japanese accusations were “tantamount to doubting a world record in an Olympics Marathon.”
Moreover, in mainstream South Korean policy debates, there are also signs of a deeper and highly sensitive challenge to the economic model that has been at the core of tremendous economic growth. In the presidential elections due to be held on Wednesday, December 19, 2012, all three candidates have shared the view that large business groupings or Chaebols have engaged in unfair practices, squeezing out competitors and stymieing advances in corporate governance. Where the political parties differ, though, is in the degree to which they believe that a process of “economic democratization” means a shakeup of Chaebols. The Saenuri party of President Lee Myung-bak is cautious about any major overhaul, although Park Geun-hye (the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian leader whose rule from 1961 to 1979 helped shared the economic system) agrees that a restriction on cross-shareholdings would be undertaken. Both candidates Moon Jae-in of the leftish Democratic United Party and independent Ahn Cheol-soo (himself an innovator through his antivirus software firm AhnLab) have been robust in their criticisms and their recipes for an overhaul.
And finally, like any other aspirational global player, there are unlikely sources of attention that bring South Korea to the spotlight for the wrong reasons. An interesting point in this regard is the intrusion of the “Patraeus” scandal into South Korean branding through allegations that Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite who is one of the central personalities in the scandal, may have tried to use her position as unpaid honorary Consul for South Korea to get fees for consulting/lobbying work. Whatever the truth, this is the episode that is counter-productive to the positive image of South Korea that has been carefully — and deservedly — built up.
Ambition, therefore, comes not only with unanticipated successes but some possible risks. As a highly resilient country, South Korea will likely be able to benefit far more from the former than be disadvantaged by the latter. Still as South Korea moves into post-election mode in the New Year, the mix of ambition and sensitivity merits close attention — as I hope to observe when I make another trip to Seoul in early 2013.