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South Korea, the only divided country in the world sharing its borders with North Korea, with its aggregate territory amounting to a quarter of Japan and around fifty million inhabitants, unfortunately does not have the aptitude to be one of the dominant powers in the world. South Korea under the constant threat of North Korea, shelters under the security umbrella of U.S. and therefore seems to have very little hard power. Conversely, it mediates as a middle power in international politics and although it does not exert hard power, it nonetheless wields a considerably significant soft power. And South Korea’s soft power plays a fruitful role in its foreign policy, helping it maintain its status as a middle power.

While British historian Niall Ferguson described soft power as ‘’non-traditional forces such as cultural and commercial goods and then promptly dismissed it on the grounds that it’s, well, soft,’’1 however in South Korea’s case it can be measured albeit indirecly. South Korea’s soft power can be quantified in intangible means by assessing the consequent response from foreign countries and people to the soft power it brandishes.

What is power? Types of Power

To define, power is the ability to influence or change the behaviour of others to comply to your terms and want. Consequently, there are three distinct ways to exert power: first- coercion (force), second- compensation (reward) and lastly coaxing (persuasion/soft power). If compensation is excluded, power results to be of two kinds- hard power and soft power. The Realist School in International Relations theory confers to power as associated with the control or possession of certain tangible resources, comprising of territory, natural resources, population, economic and military strength, midst others.

Ernest Wilson describes ‘hard power’ as the ‘’capacity to coerce another to act in ways in which that entity would not have acted otherwise2. When military and economic means are resort to influence the interest or behaviours of other political bodies, it is referred to as ‘hard power’. This practice of inducing political power is usually forceful in nature, and is most prominently displayed when one political organization imposes upon another of lesser military and/or economic power.

‘Soft power’ on the other hand refers to cultural power. It was first introduced by Joseph S. Nye JR, published in an article in the 1990 Foreign Policy journal edition. Three resources contribute to a countries soft power: the first being cultural power that appeals to foreigners, the second political values that succeed at home and consequently appeal to others abroad, and the third is its foreign policies that has moral authority and is legitimately recognized. To be able to wield soft power also contributes to promoting national identity, and therefore for a country like South Korea, a very nationalistic country in nature, it proves to be a very desirable means of exerting influencing that aids in promoting its national identity. Chung Min Lee notes that, despite its limits, soft power can help Seoul punch above its weight class on certain transnational issues.3

Middle Power Position

Although South Korea’s position in hard power is questionable, as it is the 4th largest GDP in Asia and the 10th largest in the world and therefore is not short of economic means of achieving military power but cannot due to practical reasons such as population and international politics. Not to mention it is also a member of the OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the G-20, deeming it to be included in the group of Next Eleven countries as having the potential to play a dominant role in the global economy by the middle of the 21st century, however its hard power does not manifest. It remains as a middle power nation.

The concept of middle power in international politics was introduced by the writer of ‘The Reason of State’ – Giovanni Botero in 16th century. Botero classified international powers separating them into diverse roles of small, medium, and large states. He extrapolated that middle-sized states were to be the most enduring of the assemblage since they were left to deal with neither violence by their weakness nor to deal with envy of their wealth and power being moderate. He also said that instead of skirmishes, middle powers placed their determinations towards being mediators in international affairs.

Actors of power are entities that contribute in or to endorse international relations. There are two types of actors that is State and non- state actors that are involved in international relations. State actors denote a government while non-state actors do not. However, they do influence the state actors. Non-state actors contain non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but also multinational corporations, academic institutions, media outlets, private military organizations, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, organized ethnic groups, lobby groups, labour unions or social movements, and others. Non-state actors take account of organizations and individuals that are not associated with, directed by, or funded through the government and the structure, interests and influence of NSAs vary broadly.

The Psychology Behind Soft Power

To explain in terms of psychology soft power is constituted of mainly two characteristics: influencing through appeal and classical conditioning. The object in question is first made appealing and desirable to the likings of others. Then through classical conditioning the natural result is that its popularity and necessity grows as well.

Pavlov, a Russian psychologist, introduced this concept of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is ‘pairing a previously neutral stimulus with another stimulus that naturally produces a response.’ Consequently, the two appearing often together result in an association, and the response to it is known as conditioned response.

In South Korea, soft power appeals in the means of soft resources—eye-catching pop culture fixtures like pop music, idols, movie stars and dramas, tourist attractions, and a friendly environment for study abroad programs—and pools them to generate, and set, new long-term changes in how people think about or interact with the country in question. Therefore, the association of the appeals of South Korea becomes like a conditioned response that attracts numerous foreigners.

 Impact of South Korea’s Soft Power


South Korea’s government initiated funding for the creative industries as early 1990s. The funding involved providing stable financial footing along with encouraging South Korean creatives artists to innovate creative production and race with their international counterparts. 1190s also brought Hallyu- the Korean Wave into being. The government’s aims rose from reports as that of a governmental report in 1994 famously comparing the revenue of the film Jurassic Park to the revenue South Korea could earn from selling 1.5 million Hyundai cars overseas.4 Korean shows also began gaining popularity in China, such that when China got enraged at South Korea’s act of installing a U.S. missile defence system, the first way Beijing retaliated was by curbing South Korean cultural exports and tourism.

South Korean government decided achieve real soft power by actively indulging in helping translate its influential pop culture and other soft resources. It became such that anything South Korean stars did or said such as supporting Korean claims to islands disputed by Japan or waving a Taiwanese flag, or even just paying respect to South Korean and American martyrs during the Korean War, could sway foreign policy and turn into disputes. This massive response has evolved into bringing celebrities directly into traditional diplomatic events, recruiting them to support with messages before major negotiations, and more to influence the response.

2009, the then President Lee Myung-bak initiated cultural diplomacy as a national priority, founding the Presidential Council on National Branding as a first. In its first Cultural Diplomacy Manual, released in 2010 with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the council declared that, along with national defense and economic strength, “culture will be the third pillar of diplomatic power in the twenty-first century.”5 The impact also spread to other industries such as fashion, cosmetic and foods.

In 2017, BTS was contributed to be the reason for around 800,000 tourists to South Korea or about which 7 percent of total arrivals. BTS adds more than $3.5 billion annually to the national economy. “Imagine Your Korea” a government website went as far as to provides a list BTS music videos and album covers locations, boosting tourists to visit the sites for themselves to recreate the memories or scenes, or just enjoy the idea that your bias [sic] was once standing in that spot, breathing the same air and seeing the same view. Big Hit Entertainment and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies jointly even created a series of textbooks featuring BTS for international fans to learn Korean, attracting millions to study Korean abroad and also to come to Korea.

Esther S. Im’s research demonstrates that South Korea’s push to brand itself as a multicultural nation, attracting foreign migrants, and mitigating its demographic challenges has had mixed results and revealed inequities in South Korean society.

2018, the notable summit between Moon Jae in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was honoured by a concert performance in Pyongyang. South Korean government endorsed internationally known singers such as Red Velvet and Baek Ji Young to perform. This became a means of manipulating popularity to influence their policy priorities, even if they did not manage influencing through direct messages. The Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange exposes, 62 percent of consumers of Hallyu content say it improved their image of South Korea.

2020 showed the epitome South Korea’s soft power could reach, with BTS albums topping charts, breaking records, and the movie Parasite’s popularity sweeping over the world. But more importantly South Korea’s model way of handling the pandemic was widely appreciated.

Kathryn Botto contributes that, South Korea’s soft power gains from its pandemic response, if used adroitly, could garner the country more clout in multilateral institutions and influence on transnational issues like climate change, though such influence won’t be enough to sway the international community to support its conciliatory North Korea policy.

President Moon’s act of taking famous singers and golf stars to a meeting with former U.S. President Donald Trump, or hosting a friendship concert together with his summit with French President Emmanuel Macron is not clear as to how much it accounts to influence policies other than attracting fans. ‘South Korean officials must be strategic in how they invoke celebrity power. Right now, this process appears to be somewhat trial and error—randomly inviting celebrities to high-profile political events in hopes of attracting an audience of interested global fans,’ denotes Gibson.6 Nonetheless, soft power does play an influential role in the making of South Korea’s foreign policies.

Although soft power cannot be a replacement for hard power it does contribute in its own way. Brad Glosserman denotes that the popularity of South Korean cultural exports won’t sway consumers abroad on thornier policy issues like the historical disputes between South Korea and Japan. However, looking at South Korea one can measure soft power, its worth and power of influence although indirectly. South Korea being a middle power nation and with little hard power, wields a great influence from its soft power. And it’s impact is seen in the revenue, number of tourists it attracts and how the hallyu starts are able to induce influence in the making of South Korea’s foreign policies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Team Eastern Interest


Think Again: Soft Power- Joseph Nye

The Case for South Korean Soft Power CHUNG MIN LEE, KATHRYN BOTTO

Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power Ernest J. Wilson

South Korea’s Soft Power in Middle Power Diplomacy: Enhancing Popular Culture and its Challenges – the Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies

The Rise and Fall of Soft Power- Eric Li

Conditioned Response in Classical Conditioning- Kendra Cherry

How South Korean Pop Culture Can Be a Source of Soft Power JENNA GIBSON

1  Think Again: Soft Power- Joseph Nye

2  Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power Ernest J. Wilson

3  The Case for South Korean Soft Power CHUNG MIN LEE, KATHRYN BOTTO

4  How South Korean Pop Culture Can Be a Source of Soft Power JENNA GIBSON

5  Translating K-Pop’s Success Into South Korean Soft Power- World politics Review

6  How South Korean Pop Culture Can Be a Source of Soft Power JENNA GIBSON

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