The “world’s best loved country?” South Korea: public diplomacy in the service of like-ability or national interests?


Last week, during the beginning of our discussion on soft power, there was an interesting debate on the extents of the effectiveness of this power. Questions were raised about the uses of public diplomacy/cultural diplomacy: should their effectiveness be measured by their ability to further national interests? Or is the diffusion of a nation’s soft power internationally, even when it is not backed by a specific, strategic plan, always something good for that nation in and of itself? Although our discussion revolved around the disconnect between the “hard power” and “soft power” efforts of great powers like the United States, I found myself thinking about it again in the context of middle powers when reading the article for this week on the Korean/Hallyu Wave by Wu-Suk Cho.

Cho lauds his country, with good reason, for the sustainability and universality of its cultural exports (ranging from kpop to TV dramas to food to rising interest in the Korean language). Cho mentions the wide global spread of the Hallyu Wave: Korean dramas are particularly popular in Southeast Asia, India, China, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. In a article on a recent symposium on soft power in East Asia, Kwong Yongseok, a Korean professor teaching in Japan, claims that South Korea is “aiming, through its public diplomacy, to become the world’s best loved country.” (

This raises a question: is being “liked” an adequate goal of public diplomacy? It seems interesting that in many of the  countries mentioned by Cho where Hallyu has become popular (besides China),  South Korea, as a middle power, seems to have less national interests at play (for example, in Latin American or Eastern European countries). On the other hand, Ogura Kazuo (former Japanese ambassador to France) believes that in Japan, a country with which South Korea has ongoing national security issues, the influence of South Korean pop culture has faded recently, as historical tensions have come to the fore. Kazuo believes that while cultural, knowledge, and material exchange has increased dramatically between South Korea, Japan, and China, favorable views of each other have not increased. He believes that an abundance of “national sentiment” and historical distrust (especially of China and South Korea vis-a-vis Japan) between the countries has neutralized some PD efforts, and created a domestic atmosphere that makes politicians unwilling to enter into “negotiations to improve relations.”

In an article on Korea’s PD efforts on the USC Center for Public Diplomacy blog, Philip Seib also advocates for a harder line use of PD in which “being ‘liked’ is secondary to goals grounded in global and regional realpolitik.” ( He believes that South Korea would do well to present itself in contrast to China as a leader in the East Asian region by emphasizing the cultural, intellectual and political freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. He believes that the high visibility of Korean cultural products on social media such as YouTube can be used to point to this freedom, but that the quantity of these products means little “unless there is a strategy behind it.” At the end of his article, Cho makes a similar argument, calling for the intervention of government and diplomatic officials to make a “long-term strategic plan” for the Korean wave.

Finally, discussing the places where Korean PD has fallen short, Kwong bemoans the sometimes egocentrism of Korea’s efforts to promote its culture abroad. He believes that in the future, PD efforts should transition to “learning more about other cultures.” On this topic, it is interesting to note that a few days ago, a South Korean publisher,  RH Korea Inc, launched the first comprehensive Korean magazine on Japanese culture, called Boon. (, The editorial team of the magazine insist that the magazine is even more necessary because of the recent bilateral tensions between the two countries, with the editor-in-chief, Oh Sok-chul, claiming that if people are steady in their enjoyment of another country’s culture, they will be less “shaken” by political problems with that country.

7 thoughts on “The “world’s best loved country?” South Korea: public diplomacy in the service of like-ability or national interests?”

  1. Interesting discussion touching on several themes we’ve covered in the course already. The egocentrism of the efforts is something I haven’t heard discussed more but it’s a very good point. We’ve discussed how public diplomacy should be first and foremost about listening, and in a sense I think that a lot of listening went on in the inspiration for the content of the Korean wave, but not so much once it was launched. The Arsenault and Cowan framework do acknowledge the efficacy of monologues for certain types of messages, but presents dialogue and collaboration as much more powerful means (arguably the only means) of achieving real understanding, trust and mutual respect. From the article it seems that the concern with being simply “liked” is ephemeral, if one has not also provided opportunities to be understood and trusted. Starting by trying to understand the other is the first step toward mutual respect and trust, thus the initiative of the magazine on Japanese culture seems great. However, now we are back with the matter of audience reached: who is going to buy and read that magazine? Especially now that the historical issues have been made salient again, the chances are that people who buy it are already interested/tolerant of Japanese culture. I guess magazines can be left in waiting rooms etc. and thus be effective in that sense, but the article doesn’t specify the audience targeted by the magazine: the graphic design package is going to greatly affect who picks it up and glances through it. By definition a magazine can only target a selective audience and thus is limited in that aspect, but this could be a first of a series of magazines, or some of the content in that magazine could be shared to other magazines targeting different audiences, possibly increasing its impact. So back to this soft power hard power question, there are ways of making soft power more efficient, I believe, if one engages in more than just monologue. Lastly, on the initial premise of being liked only by a few, or the question of whether to prioritize public diplomacy recipient country in terms of national interest, I think that this is a rather limiting perspective to take. Countries are parts of the international system and thus all affect each other, if one country that matters somewhat “dislikes” you but the six countries surrounding it and which it has good relations with “like” you, you may not have to do much work in that specific country and let the socialization process do it for you, unless your country has committed some atrocities there that needs apologizing for, but that’s another discussion.

  2. South Korea is very skilled in the art of attraction, as well as subversion. You’ll hear very little about South Korea’s ugly side, but let me assure you, it is there. They are all the same blood on the peninsula.

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