Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The South Korean government's role in soft power and Psy's accidental rise

When Psy made his inexplicable mark on the world’s stage last year with the release of ‘Gangnam Style,’ much of the world that had never heard of or had never been interested in K-pop were suddenly inundated with what much of Asia has already been familiar with for a number of years – the Korean Wave, or hallyu.

Psy’s ascendancy helped K-pop, which had for years originally been a mere domestic response to Korean society being flooded with J-pop (Japanese pop music), suddenly find life of its own outside of Asia. Suddenly, college marching bands from Ohio, Ellen DeGeneres, and Filipino inmates were doing the Gangnam Style.

Psy is a purely accidental international celebrity. Explaining Psy’s international popularity is very difficult. Is it due to unique dance moves, or to a funny music video, or to the whims of the mysterious gods that dictate which viral videos become popular? That answer lies beyond my capabilities. The point is that until the moment he gained his international fame (or notoriety, depending on whom you ask), no one, not even Psy, could have predicted that he was going to become an international household name.

It is no secret that the South Korean government is a major force behind the push to export K-pop around the world. Various government agencies such as the Foreign Ministry or the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism or the Korea Trade Promotion Corporation set aside money in their respective budgets to promote K-pop groups (and their parent organizations) in order to boost Korea’s national image in the world.

The irony, of course, is that Psy’s success came in spite of the South Korean government rather than because of it. Prior to becoming an international celebrity, Psy’s interactions with the South Korean government had been anything but cordial. His music had been banned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, he had been fined for ‘inappropriate content,’ had been arrested for possession of marijuana, and had been drafted to serve in the military TWICE because he supposedly ‘neglected’ his duties the first time around.

After his new found fame, however, among his accolades that he can boast of is that the Gangnam district named him as its honorary ambassador whereas the South Korean government appointed him as a goodwill ambassador to UNICEF. How quickly past vices and supposed moral failings are forgotten in the shadow of success and fame.

Hypocrisy notwithstanding, Psy, the quintessential bad boy of K-pop had been co-opted by the South Korean government’s hallyu program in its attempt to expand its ‘soft power.’ And what is soft power? Joseph Nye, who originally coined the phrase, defined it as co-optive behavioral power, meaning “getting others to want what you want.”1

Considering the fact that K-pop seems to be mostly composed of young men who look like anime characters and overly sexed-up young women whose bubble gum pop music and choreographed dance routines that can barely be distinguished from one another, and then applying that to Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power, it becomes very difficult to discern just what it is that the South Korean government wants.

The chaotic mess that is K-pop aside, common sense dictates that the South Korean government’s most probable goals via its soft power outreach is that of expanding international markets for Korea’s exports, to induce more Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), and to attract more tourists. But is the Korean government’s investments in K-pop the way to go?

It goes without saying that in those countries where hallyu is welcomed, the South Korean government may be able to help disseminate and even popularize Korean fashion, music, and movies in such a way that the populates of those targeted countries will eventually come to purchase and consume Korean culture, goods, and services. However, if market expansion for Korean goods is the ultimate aim, does the government need to step in? After all, if profit is the main motive, and it is almost always the main motive of private enterprise, wouldn’t private businesses invest in and sell those things that make market expansion and profit maximization most feasible without having the need for government to engineer sales?

When it comes to other industries such as agriculture, the ethics of trade protectionism or the lack thereof aside, yes, it does make sense for government intervention. However, when it comes to pop culture, an industry whose worldwide sales and distribution are much more difficult to regulate and monitor, it becomes a different story.

Furthermore, the question of necessity aside, the South Korean government’s involvement in promoting K-pop could eventually prove to be counterproductive. Firstly, whenever governments invest in soft power outreach programs, especially of the cultural kind, rightly or wrongly, the project begins to stink of parochialism and chauvinism. Though not related to K-pop per se, this is one of the likely reasons why the Globalization of Hansik” program, which had been headed by former first lady Kim Yoon-ok, became an utter failure.

Once the perception of parochialism or chauvinism has taken hold, it becomes nearly impossible to escape it. This is because governmental promotion of K-pop rests on the assumption that somehow, government officials, who are mostly middle aged men, know best about how to promote the country overseas and that somehow, what consumers might find interesting or worth consuming becomes a secondary matter.

Due to a sheer accident of geography, Korea is surrounded by giants – Japan, China, and Russia. Korea is the proverbial runt of the litter. To add further insult to injury, more people in the world have heard of and know of impoverished North Korea than affluent South Korea. The gods must have a wicked sense of humor indeed. Therefore, it is understandable that the South Korean government wishes to find proactive solutions to improving Korea’s reputation. However, it has to be remembered that reputation is something that has to be earned; not something that we can simply will into existence.

So how can South Korea improve its reputation? It can only do so by actually improving; in this case, improvement in trade; something which the South Korean government need not incentivize (though it could certainly help with the lowering of trade restrictions). If South Korean businesses, regardless of whatever kind, produce quality goods and services that the rest of the world wants to buy, and there is no evidence to suggest that this is not in the interest of Korean businesses, South Korea’s image will improve over time.

It has to be remembered that until not too long ago, for most Americans, their idea of what Korea looked like was defined by M*A*S*H. Long after the South Korean government ended its near-socialistic five-year economic programs, when the South Korean government was not actively participating in industrial production of goods and services, South Korea’s image of being a backwater dictatorship became slowly replaced by Hyundai cars and Samsung smartphones. However, when the Korean government gets involved in even something as benign as food, when the Korean government promotes Korean food as a healthy alternative to other countries’ food, which by definition implies that other countries’ food is unhealthy, then Korea’s reputation takes two steps back.

In the end, the best means available for South Korea to increase its soft power is for the South Korean government to take a less active role in the promotion of K-pop and allow the country's global image, and the K-pop industry itself, to evolve at its own pace over time. As mentioned earlier, Psy gained international fame and popularity in spite of the South Korean government; not because of it.

Now the government likes him.  How's that for irony?

1Joseph Nye, Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (Basic Books, 1990) p. 188.

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