South Korea wields ‘soft power’

Satya Sivaraman

Not long ago if you mentioned South Korea and regional power in the same sentence, your audience would have laughed you out of business. Tucked in between big powers like China and Japan and facing off bitter rival North Korea, the South Koreans were seen as another political pygmy in the pockets of the US. But perceptions are changing rapidly, thanks to South Korea’s rise as one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies, its growing cultural influence and post Cold War global transformation making analysts describe it as a ‘soft regional power.’ The term ‘soft’ is meant to show that South Korea’s power does not come from

‘hard’ military or economic might but the country’s good image stemming from democratisation of domestic politics, export of ideas and popularity among the people in the region.

Contributing to South Korea’s role are significant changes in the geopolitical equations of North-east Asia, historically a region of great power rivalry, military build-up and deep distrust. Firstly, the introduction of the so-called ‘sunshine’ policy of cooperation and friendship with North Korea, by the previous Kim Dae Jung administration had defused the greatest source of tension in South Korea’s neighbourhood. For many South Koreans, views of communist North Korea as a serious security threat changed radically after the historic 2000 bilateral summit where the two Koreas pledged to work towards reunification. Since the break up of Korea 60 years ago, the two countries have been bitter enemies. This is no longer true. Secondly, the distancing of South Korea from the US and its willingness to criticise the policies of its former mentor, has given new credibility with China and North Korea. Though South Korea still maintains good relations with the US, growing anti-American sentiment among its people, the quest for greater national sovereignty and regional realities have led it to assert more independent policies.

South Korea’s role as a mediator has been evident at the recent six-nation talks aimed at dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons. While in the past, as a US ally, South Korea would strongly criticise both North Korea and China, it has now moved closer to China and helped tone down hawkish US positions that could lead to devastating conflict. Yet another factor helping the image of South Korea is the sudden escalation in tension between Japan and China. South Korea has emerged as a balancing force. “South Korea as a friend of both

the US and China can play an important role in starting a meaningful dialogue,” says Ye Zi Cheng of the School of International Studies at Beijing University. But the most interesting thing is its growing clout as an exporter of culture and entertainment.

South Korean television drama, movies and music have gone from relative obscurity to being immensely popular in not just east and South-east Asia but all the way to the US and Mexico. Even in Japan, Korean pop or K-Pop has captivated an entire generation. South Korea’s pop culture accounted for $1.87 billion in revenue, last year, from film and TV programme exports, merchandise sales and tourism. “More than money, what all this cultural export is doing is winning the hearts of people across national boundaries,” says a media expert at the Bangkok-based Chulalangkorn University.