South Korea’s Soft Power Playbook

By Lauren McCranie

In 1990, Joseph Nye sought to think more holistically about global power dynamics and introduced the concept of soft power: the ability of a country to persuade foreign publics to agree with its policies and stances without explicit force (as opposed to hard power levers like military force). A country’s soft power is generally rooted in an amalgam of its culture, values, and domestic and foreign policies. 

The effects of soft power are often slow, indirect, and difficult to measure, but they can dramatically raise a country’s influence abroad, especially in the digital age. Nye’s initial thinking around soft power coincided with the advent of the Internet and, therefore, did not yet articulate (or know) the role that technology would play in accelerating and validating his thesis. Digital information flows have not only accelerated global connectedness but also allowed an emotional, human component to take root like never before—perhaps due to the ease with which individuals can engage in exchanges of information, both in creating content and consuming it. The explosion of smartphones and apps like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok enabled culture sharing across borders and introduced us to the concept of “virality,” facilitating the seemingly-instantaneous spread of all types of content globally.

Global governments are increasingly aware of the role these non-traditional media platforms play in propagating culture and ideas and have incorporated them into strategic campaigns designed to advance or evolve their reputations overseas. China, for example, has not only leveraged these trends and tools to position itself as a tech-powered global force but also contributed to driving them forward through its strategic investment in technology and entertainment industries, spawning companies like Huawei, Tencent, Alibaba, and TikTok. Japan, too, has taken advantage of increased digital information flow to fuel its “Cool Japan” strategy and promote popular aspects of its culture like manga, anime, gaming, and fashion in hopes of bolstering its appeal internationally.

But digital advancements can be a double-edged sword for governments seeking reputational boosts. Beyond transcending border limitations, technological innovations in communication have also bound policymakers to greater levels of accountability and transparency both domestically and globally. This has led to increased pressure to make popular policy decisions as the world looks on; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, was virtually live-streamed across media and social platforms, resulting in near-universal condemnation of Putin internationally. With this in mind, countries launching soft power initiatives need to look beyond implementation and carefully consider objectives and impact: what are their ultimate foreign policy goals—including desired identity and reputation on the global stage—and how does expanding influence help achieve them?

South Korea’s Hallyu playbook 

While many countries have employed digital diplomacy as a tool for soft power gain, perhaps none have done so more prominently in recent years than South Korea. The country consistently tops multiple soft power rankings: it ranked 12th in Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power 2022, second in Monocle’s Soft Power Survey 2020, and 19th in Portland’s Soft Power 30 Report 2019. Since 2000, Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, has permeated the global stage across entertainment, music, TV shows, and movies, bringing both economic and soft power growth to South Korea. 

Following a string of hit successes with original Korean-produced shows including “Squid Game” and “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” Netflix has committed to investing in more Korean content. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won four awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020–becoming the first non-English film to do so. BTS and other Korean boy bands have garnered a cult-like following around the world, continuously selling out stadiums and sponsored products. The impact of these cultural exports is often quantifiable, and the numbers are staggering. For example, BTS member Kim Seokjin played video games for three hours in front of a live audience of 8.4 million viewers, while the Emmys on the same night attracted only 5.9 million

Hallyu is not only culturally influential on a global scale but increasingly an economic mover as well. In September 2022, a K-Pop ETF (KPOP) launched on the NYSE Arc Exchange, tracking an index of 30 entertainment companies listed on the Korean Exchange. And funds like $2.5 billion VIP Research & Management are dedicated to Korean entertainment plays amid their rising global popularity. VIP’s investments in SM Entertainment (the agency for K-Pop groups like SHINee and NCT) and JYP Entertainment (TWICE, Stray Kids) have helped its flagship funds outperform the benchmark Kospi. 

The continued spread of the Korean Wave is far from a viral happenstance; it is the result of a deliberate, strategic decision by the South Korean government to promote its culture and influence internationally. As early as 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung launched the “Hallyu Industry Support Development Plan,” with the goal of increasing the value of South Korea’s cultural industry. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism partnered with public relations firms and technology companies to tap into overseas markets for Korean dramas, movies, and music. Subsequent administrations have sustained this focus, adding initiatives like tax subsidies and incentives for startups in the space.

Sue Mi Terry at Foreign Affairs sums up the sheer economic payoff of these policies: “In 2019, South Korea exported $12.3 billion in pop culture (up from a mere $189 million in 1998)… According to the Hyundai Research Institute, [BTS alone] generates an estimated $3.5 billion per year in economic activity. In 2017, around 800,000 tourists—about seven percent of all arrivals in South Korea—visited because of their interest in the group.” 

Soft power as a means to what end?

While these cultural exports are certainly visible and economically viable, a comprehensive measurement of soft power must also include policies and values. As eyes on the country continue to increase, South Korea now finds itself with a choice to make on how it will harness its newfound soft power–and the type of global citizen it wants to be. 

The democratic republic, whose closest neighbors include North Korea, China, and Japan, must balance its history in the region, current relationships and trade agreements, role in nuclear politics, and alliance with the United States as it navigates this new position on the global stage. 

Many now expect a larger role from South Korea in advancing human rights and advocating for democracy, both at home and abroad. Thus far, the country has fallen short in leveraging its cultural yields to do so; it has hesitated to criticize the regimes and human rights abuses in China and North Korea for fear of retaliation. For example, President Moon Jae-in’s administration weakened its stance against North Korea’s human rights record and, starting in 2019, declined to sponsor its previously annual UN resolutions condemning the country’s abuses. South Korea has even banned the balloon-powered diffusion of “propaganda” like USB drives and leaflets across the border with its northern neighbor. However, in recent months, the new Yoon Suk Yeol administration has signaled a policy shift on North Korea, establishing the North Korea Human Rights Foundation and appointing an ambassador for human rights in North Korea (a vacancy left unfilled by the prior administration for five years). The current South Korean government has also condemned Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine. 

South Korea’s soft power playbook has proven to be an effective foreign policy tool that should be taken seriously in international affairs and potentially emulated by other countries. But South Korea is more than its entertainment sector, and as it continues to achieve its cultural objectives, it needs to put this influence to work in achieving its foreign policy goals—although it may need to first decide on what those will be. 

Lauren McCranie is a financial communications professional in New York and the Editor-in-Chief of Emerging Voices. The analyses and opinions expressed here are solely her own and do not reflect the views or opinions of her employer.

Image note: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz