Korea's Cultural Juggernaut is a Soft-Power Strategy Worth Copying

Korean pop group T-ara performs at the 2015 Summer K-Pop Festival. Flickr/Republic of Korea

Conquering the world, one K-pop hit at a time.

In seeking to raise its international profile and influence, Taiwan can take lessons from South Korea’s growing soft power. Its soft power has been expanding through the growing appeal and attraction of its popular culture (a.k.a. Korean Wave or Hallyu) worldwide. As a result, the government has vigorously promoted Korean popular culture, taking advantage of its growing popularity to enhance Korea’s international standing and national image, as well as shape foreigners’ attitudes and preferences on issues of importance to Korea.

The urgent lessons of Korea’s growing soft power for Taiwan are twofold. While smaller countries cannot surpass larger countries in terms of hard power, the former can not only increase their soft power, but even surpass that of the latter. Increasing the ability to shape the attitudes and preferences of foreign peoples and their governments through cultural attraction can offset a country’s limited hard power. As in the case of Korea, Taiwan can expand its soft power to counterbalance its limited capabilities and constricted international space. More importantly, there is no limit to Taiwan’s expansion of soft power, as there is in the acquisition of hard power.

The second lesson is that the most cost-effective and potent means for smaller countries to increase their soft power is to promote popular culture, in order to gain greater recognition, respect and status in the international community. In this regard, Taiwan enjoys many of the same advantages as Korea in being able to successfully launch its own “Taiwan Wave” or Tairyu. Just as greater personal and artistic freedom, made possible by democracy, has led to a renaissance of popular culture in Korea, Taiwan is well situated, as a vibrant democracy, to encourage its people to freely use their creative talents to develop innovative cultural content that can appeal to a global audience. That Taiwan has the capacity to export its popular culture was made evident in the early 2000s, when its TV dramas and pop music became popular in East Asia for a time. Taiwan also shares Korea’s expertise in highly developed information technology, which has enabled Korean entertainment companies to effectively spread Korean pop music (K-pop) worldwide by uploading K-pop content on YouTube and marketing it aggressively through social media.

The Korean government’s policy to promote its popular culture in order to boost its soft power is based on two remarkable developments that have since the early 2000s. For the first time in its history, Korea’s popular culture, driven by television dramas and pop music, has global reach. It established a firm foothold in East Asia, and subsequently spread to South and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, North and South America, and Europe. The emergence of Korean popular culture onto the international scene is best exemplified by the spectacular success of the Korean singer Psy’s song “Gangnam Style,” which became a genuine global hit in 2012 and subsequently set an all-time record of 2.6 billion YouTube views.

To put this phenomenon in perspective, the growing popularity of Korean popular culture around the world, facilitated by YouTube and other social media, is unprecedented. In 2015, the number of foreign fans of Hallyu, including dramas, music and food, hit 35.5 million in eighty-six countries, a 63 percent increase from the year before. The Asia-Pacific region had the largest number of fans, 26.2 million, followed by the Americas with 7.58 million, Europe with 1.62 million and Africa and the Middle East with 170,000 fans. The number of active Hallyu fan clubs also increased from 1,229 to 1,493 during 2014–15, with Peru leading the way with 114 fan clubs and Hungary with 112. As these numbers attest, this maybe the first time that a popular culture of a non-Western country is making meaningful inroads into the global cultural market, which has largely been dominated by Western countries, in particular the United States.

This remarkable development has caught the attention of China and Japan, which are now envious of Korea’s growing soft power and anxious to duplicate the success of the Korean Wave. China is benchmarking Korea in developing its own culture industry, with Chinese companies forming partnerships with Korean media and entertainment companies to co-develop cultural content and to enhance their own capacity to promote Chinese culture abroad. Japan has also launched its own version of the Korean Wave, named “Cool Japan,” to promote its culture and increase its cultural exports.

Along with its growing global presence, Korean popular culture has been a resounding success in winning the minds and hearts of people worldwide. People who have little to no knowledge of Korea or its culture are mesmerized by its highly entertaining TV dramas (a.k.a. K-dramas), featuring attractive actors with strong acting skills; interesting, suspenseful storylines; and high production values such as beautiful cinematography, scenery and original soundtracks. But, more importantly, they emotionally identify with the themes of love, friendship and family, and the intriguing combination of traditional and modern values that define the Korean lifestyle depicted in the dramas.