Main takeaways:  

  • South Korea’s position as one of the major democracies in Asia, as well as the recent
    election of a China-skeptical presidential candidate, threaten to put pressure on relations
    with the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. More than ever, soft power and cultural
    diplomacy are needed. Democratic partners in Asia are therefore of crucial importance
    to the European Union in this geopolitical chess game.
  • With its ubiquitous presence, it is hard to not be exposed to media and culture from
    South Korea. From television and cinema to music, food, skincare, and lifestyle, there is
    a growing Korean cultural influence in various sectors. South Korea, thus, had two
    mutually compatible goals. The first, to generate revenue to help grow the South Korean
    economy, and second, to change its image across the world as a democratic partner.

On June 14, 2022, YPFP hosted an event on Hallyu – the South Korean Secret to Leverage  Influence on the World”. The event was moderated by Programmes Officers Bassem Chakroun  and Jonas Nitschke, who were joined by Ramon Pacheco Pardo who is Professor of International  Relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Brussels School of  Governance of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Lin Goethals who is director of the European Institute of  Asian Studies (EIAS). She has a keen interest in political and diplomatic affairs between the EU  and Asia, with a particular focus on public diplomacy, education and people-to-people relations  and Hong Sungjun as a diplomatic representative and Second secretary at the Korean Mission to  the EU. 

The event focused on the importance of South Korean cultural diplomacy and soft power. To  understand Hallyu, it is crucial to understand the history of South Korea, specifically from the Sixth  Republic. The Sixth Republic, considered to have begun in 1988, saw the country shift from a  series of authoritarian regimes to a democratic one. The country opened up its economy, its  press, and its borders. It also began to thaw its relationship with its neighbor North Korea.  However, this growth met with a hurdle in 1997 during the Asian financial crisis, which was  remedied by restructuring measures brought about by a bailout package given by the International  Monetary Fund. South Korea is one of the only countries globally with a dedicated goal to become  the world’s leading exporter of pop culture, as evidenced by the inclusion of Hallyu in the public  diplomacy strategy presented in 2017. This was also featured during the discussion. 

The brief presentation by the speakers discussed the fact that South Korea is one of the only  countries globally with a dedicated goal to become the world’s leading exporter of pop culture, as  evidenced by the inclusion of Hallyu in the public diplomacy strategy presented in 2017. As tensions with North Korea rise, South Korea’s position as one of the major democracies in Asia,  as well as the recent election of a China-skeptical presidential candidate, threaten to put pressure  on relations with the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. More than ever, soft power and cultural  diplomacy are needed. Democratic partners in Asia are therefore of crucial importance to the  European Union in this geopolitical chess game. The inputs shed light on the South Korean  elections in March 2022 and the impact of the new conservative president on South Korea’s  priorities in its public diplomacy strategy. The input at the beginning by Mr. Hong also include a  view on how K-Pop Sensations like BTS also generate a massive economic impact for South  Korea and use their voice to influence geopolitical decisions in favor of South Korea. The second  input focused more on the basis of Joe Biden’s recent visit to Seoul and BTS in the White House:  Prof. Pacheco Pardo gave a more historical input while also shedding some light on Washington’s  political support for Kyiv had caused Seoul and Tokyo to fear a refocusing of US strategy on  Europe at the expense of the Indo-Pacific region.  

Ms. Goethals gave a short input on Korean-Japanese relations in light of the worsening relations  but also being dependent on each other as two democratic systems in the region and using soft  power to have influence on the younger generation on social media.

The Q&A session focused more on the EU-Korean relationship emphasizing the importance of  the Free Trade Agreement since 2011 and Framework Participation Agreement. Finally, the  speakers gave exclusive insights into the lessons learned between South Korea and the EU and  how cultural diplomacy could lead to a stronger bond between Asia and Europe in terms of  democratic exchange. 

Written by Bassem Chakroun and Jonas Nitschke, Programmes Officers, YPFP Brussels