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The Korean Wave: A Hall(y)ucination Or An Attempt At Diplomacy?

The 1988 Korean Olympics did not just jab the accelerated construction of stadiums and manors in the capital, but also catalyzed a larger turning point in Korea’s culture and politics. Back then, Korea was a fledgling autonomy, emerging only the year before from four decades of the U.S. advocated military dictatorships. Korea vigorously bidded for the Olympics to distract citizens from the political and economic struggles overpowering the country. But the Olympics had set Korea’s “neurotic development” on falsifying speed.

In the lead-up to the 1988 Games, the dwellers of Sanggyedong (Slums) were kicked off the land for Olympic redevelopment and were resettled to another area on the outskirts of Seoul, but faced eviction yet again when it turned out that their shanty town was located along the Olympic torch route. The government made it clear that none of the Olympic invitees will be seeing a single poor person in the capital.

This rejuvenation of two back-to-back military dictatorships and their rampant power to alter the urban landscape just before the Asian Financial Crisis led to the biggest consequence of the emergence within Korea, leaving a drastic effect on the Korean chaebols (highly diversified conglomerates which operated in literally every sector of the economy). This crisis forced the chaebols to restructure their business models by relinquishing many of their businesses and concentrating on their core competencies. The then 'President of Culture', Dae-Jung pushed for popular culture and software technology as the two main factors driving the upcoming future of Korea.

“When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken” is what Koreans feel apt to describe their country’s victimization at the hands of their larger and more powerful neighbors.

The lack of trust from China, and the trade war with Japan, have made it difficult for South Korea to position its “middle powermanship” in the Asia-Pacific region. In regards to this, South Korea has adopted a strategy of “soft power” which points to middle power states as an alternative to military compulsion and strict economic sanctions. These states instead act through ‘co-optation’ rather than ‘compulsion’ which would work to avoid adverse perceptions from the foreign public and its governments.

Middle Power Diplomacy

The Republic of Korea has recently been recognized as a fundamental and rising middle power in the Asia-Pacific region, quite late in the race to becoming middle power diplomacy. The mentioning of Junggyunguk (middle country) by policy-makers started with the then President Lee’s slogan of “Global Korea'' in 2008.

“South Korea has been diligent in peacekeeping and counterinsurgency because of its inimitable middle power status that gives it the legitimacy of the diminutive power and capabilities of a great power.

Economic Globalization and Power Shifts have increased the rifts in international relations relative to Korea’s middle power desire. For example, Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, announced trade restrictions on South Korea which triggered a trade war in 2019. Thus, resurfaced the historical bad blood situation between the two nations, and the public started getting involved through the boycotting of each other’s products. This moment holds sublime importance, especially in East Asia, because power appears to be a zero-sum game: Geopolitics is a strategically competitive gameplay where the countries want to increase their own power while decreasing that of others.

Another current political vexation affecting South Korea’s middle power status is the eminent interest of conflicts among the US and China. Seoul’s unstable relationship with the Chinese government restricts South Korea from acting as a mediator between the two superpowers. Although if South Korea would like to mediate the conflict, the complexity of having Washington as an ally will escalate tensions with China, indirectly forcing South Korea to have to choose one side over the other. This quandary puts South Korea in a bind of being a middle power. Additionally, this Korean wave has now emerged into North Korea, referred to as the Nampung.

Koreans believe in Kibun (If you hurt someone's kibun you hurt their pride, causing them to lose their dignity, and thus, their face). Since this is a culture where interpersonal as well as socio-political relationships operate on the principle of harmony, being able to judge another person's state of mind is critical to maintain the person's kibun, which is, Nunchi. This power drift between the U.S and China drove South Korea's Nunchi to extend its arms into being a Soft Power.

Hallyu's utilization of Culture as a Substantial Soft Power

Korean culture strongly believes in the ancestral spirit of Confucian rituals. The 21st century saw the government's push to cultural content for the national economy. With some readjustments, the government shifted its focus in 2008 to creativity in convergence with content, and policymakers have used the term ‘Creative Contents Industry’ rather than creative industry since 2009. This export of popular culture among the foreign masses is called hallyu, the ‘Korean Wave’. The Korean Wave has been unique because it manifests the peculiar progression of local creative industries amid the neoliberal globalization. Once small and peripheral, the South Korean creative industries have since been successful contributors to the national economy and are now known to be “national assets”.

Hallyu began to gain popularity in Japan following the efforts of the Korean private entertainment sector. Despite the entrenched historical bitterness of public consciousness, hallyu promoted the confection of warm national imagery. The rise of this imagery’s production was manifested by the broadcasting of Winter Sonata (a television drama series) in 2002. According to a member of a Japanese audience, “The Japanese have never shown such amiable interest in Koreans before. If the Japanese are able to preserve this welcoming…this wave will become a great preface for reviving international relationships.”

Likewise, popular culture can also be used to enhance relationships between countries. Soon after the success of exporting Korean television shows (K-drama), hallyu grew to include popular Korean music (K-pop), with worldwide recognizable stars such as Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, EXO and BTS. The success of K-dramas and K-pop contributed to an increase of exports, tourism, and cultural exchange. An economic forecasting firm in Seoul, Hyundai Research Institute, found that hallyu industries facilitated a $4 billion increase in business between Korea and Japan. Hallyu is now a significant resource that can create soft power to build a non-coercive and captivating image of the nation, while escaping plausible tensions among other dimensions.

Road Ahead: Middle Power Not to Be Caught in The Middle

South Korea can act as the Bridge Nation by building its identity as a convener and bridge seeking its regional collective interests. Alleviation of Chinese concerns over heightened trilateral cooperation can be done, which will help shape a regional order that moves away from the zero-sum security competition between Beijing and Washington. Furthermore, it can help prevent the risk of betrayal by developing mechanisms for co-operative security through increased information flows about strategic intentions by way of diplomatic activism, niche diplomacy, coalition building, and “good international citizenship". This can provide the needed reassurance that will institutionalize co-operation.

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