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Gangnam Style and Korea’s branding failures

In the FT, former FT Seoul correspondent Christian Oliver points out how Gangnam Style has exposed the failures of Korea’s state-focused efforts to boost its national brand:

During my years as the FT’s correspondent in Korea, I was grilled on panels and radio shows about why I thought such a well-intentioned body was redundant. This was sensitive territory. South Koreans are rightfully indignant that they have been overshadowed by China and Japan despite everything their rags-to-riches nation has achieved.

They certainly do deserve a better global image. However, interference from a state body should belong to a bygone era of central planning and output targets. You cannot forge soft power in the same way as you pick industrial champions. Absurdly, Korean officials insisted the G20 summit in Seoul in 2010 – a technical meeting about global economic policy – would raise the popularity of the national brand.

My argument ran that Korea’s breakthrough would arrive as a big cultural accident, unaided by bureaucrats. Seoul’s government is notorious for its lack of faith in its own people, who are even forbidden to read North Korean websites, but I argued it should just leave its people to their own devices and accept that Korean panache would shine through unexpectedly. I guessed the turning point would be a film. Maybe a sportsperson. (For me, Shin A-lam, the tearful Olympic fencer who spent a lonely, hour-long vigil of protest on the piste believing she had been robbed of a medal epitomised the pride and burn-yourself-to-ashes passion of the real Korean brand.)

I wrote a guidebook for a government organization, so I’m going to excuse myself from this discussion, other than to say he’s right that the “epic saga” of Korean contemporary history is very much what makes this place special (argued later in the column), but it’s a political minefield since there’s still a great deal of disagreement over both the narrative and its details. This makes dealing with the “country’s more colourful but darker recesses” a slightly nerve-wracking experience, especially if you’re a “state script,” as he puts it.

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  • rockon

    Christian sure makes many good points re branding Korea. The state’s desire to construct an image of what Koreans think others should see, rather than promoting what foreigners can experience, most assuredly defines the thrust of tourist marketing in this country, as far as the potential Western audience is concerned.

    Consider the Korean wave promoting food, for instance. I like bibimbap just as much as the next guy, though I doubt the efficacy of any ad campaign that hangs it’s hat on rice, veggies and a splotch of red paste.

    Christian talked about the fencer. Again, I’m not sure if a weeping athlete is a suitable representation of the Korean spirit. There’s just too much potential for phrases that include cry baby.

    What should the Korean brain trust do? For a fresh perspective, I suggest looking at Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013. There, LP ranks Korea as the number 3 country to visit in 2013. The guy who wrote the Korean chapter really seems to know what he’s talking about.

  • Avaast

    These days, my best advice to visitors to Korea is to get the hell out of Seoul asap.

  • http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/ jefferyhodges

    I’ve not yet figured out how branding is done on a country. Where does one apply the branding iron?

    Maybe Korea should just stay a maverick . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  • yuna

    Less ajossis and Mrs Ajossis (not equivalent to ajummas) in these jobs.

  • cm

    Korea’s image abroad is improving leaps and bounds. Seoul now ranks 11th most popular destination in the world by the Mastercard Global Destination Index, with 8 million visitors, ahead of New York and Rome.


  • http://www.chinasmack.com/tag/funny/page/3 Jakgani

    Seoul now ranks 11th most popular destination in the world by the Mastercard Global Destination Index

    all those Chinese and Japanese trying to burn their money…

    are they going back home happy though?

  • http://www.san-shin.org sanshinseon

    Yeah, these issues were my constants during 5 years of working as consultant for the tourism part of the MSCT, and also somewhat during 7 years as a tourism prof — getting the highly-placed Koreans to quit focusing on what they think the “foreigners” should see & what they want to show them, rather than promoting what the international visitors & and residents actually WANT to see & experience. Always an uphill battle, especially Shamanism and anything associated. Well, at least we got the TempleStay program going…

  • cm


    It seems like they’re happy. The numbers say they keeping coming back. In 2011, Seoul’s ranking was similar.


  • guitard

    Jakgani wrote:

    all those Chinese and Japanese trying to burn their money…

    I can’t help but wonder whenever I see another busload of Chinese tourists walking around Namdaemun Market . . . why pay for airfare, lodging, etc. . . . to come to a place that sells mostly Chinese made products – that you almost certainly could get in China for less?

    I realize that a lot of the Chinese tourists are from Taiwan . . . and I’m assuming products made in mainland China are cheaper in Taiwan than they are in Korea.

  • cm

    guitard, it’s called branding. A Honda car will do anything a BMW will do, and even more reliably. But lots of people would still give their arm and their leg to drive a BMW. South Korea, at least in East/South East Asia, has been quite successful marketing itself through the export of pop culture. Perception is as strong factor as reality.

  • DLBarch

    I don’t know how much effect pop music has on national branding, but I know the kids at soccer practice have requested that “Gangnam Style” be included on the playlist for warm-ups, and I guarantee none of these kids could find Korea on a map if you paid them!

    On the other hand, we all know (ahem) how well “Volare” and “Sukiyaki” did to up the brands of those countries.

    And personally, I NEVER wanted a BMW until I heard “99 Luftballons” blaring on the radio.


  • cm


    different dynamics at play here with regards to East Asia, in terms of Korean pop culture. The latest rage for Korean stuff for Asian women are Korean beauty/cosmetic products.

  • hardyandtiny

    fuck off with gangnam style

  • Q
  • Q

    hardyandtiny(작고 딴딴한 *), President Obama might dance GS in celebration of his reelection:


  • http://pawikoreapics.blogspot.com/ pawikirogii 石鵝

    yeah, the boatload of chinese tourists in namdaemun aren’t only there for namdaemun. they’re there to experience another culture that is familiar but different. westerners like jaknani try very hard to shoot down the fact that korea is very popular with asians thus nullifying the comman expat argument that ‘nobody goes to korea for vacation’. all those vacationers in korea are a result of hallyu. the korean government did right. and folks like jak and that a$$hole, hardyntiny, are just stewing. get over it, you’re from yesterday.

  • DLBarch

    I’m with Pawi 100% on this one. I think this whole obsession with WHERE tourists come from when then come to Korea from is nonsense.

    I regularly work with tourism businesses in Napa and Sonoma, and while general tourism promotion is a big focus, I guarantee NO ONE there cares whether tourists from from Asia, Europe, or from elsewhere in the U.S., so long as they come. Origin is just a non-issue.

    I think Koreans should just stop caring whether that next plane full of tourists at Inchon International is coming from Beijing or London. More to the point, if I had to chose between a bunch of Chinese or Japanese housewives with their credit cards or a bunch of Euro-trash backpackers with their “Asia on 10 Euros a Day” travel guides, well, I think you see my point.


  • http://pawikoreapics.blogspot.com/ pawikirogii 石鵝

    well said, dlb. well said.

  • redwhitedude

    The only saving grace for Korea is that its neighbor china is trying to do the same with its CCP propaganda machine. It’s an absolutely paranoid propaganda machine. They try to restrict foreign programming but you know or everybody knows that will only lead to more piracy and butting heads with countries like the US. Not only that their “political correctness” in what chinese produce ends up sacrificing entertainment value which tantamounts to shooting yourself on the foot. As to what the government in Korea is doing they really need to learn to take hands off approach to this. Just look at Hollywood you don’t see Washington trying to peddle it. Let it run its course. No harm done it will put Korea in the map even if it winds down. Some people will remember that there is actually a country between Japan and China.

  • redwhitedude

    I remember when the Iron curtain came down. Russians would flock to the French riviera. Nobody cared where these Russians got their money whether it was from honest days work or illicitly. However If you want to do something about tourism it would be better to diversify the source of tourist not from just one or two countries but from many incase these countries hit a rough patch and tourist numbers goes down you can cover from other countries.

  • cm

    #17, the biggest spenders are the Chinese tourists by far. Then come the Japanese, followed by Western countries. There’s a tendancy to count out the Chinese as not important “tourists”, but just based on their purchasing power, they’re the most important tourists who spend a great deal of money, not just in Korea, bar none. Do not underestimate the Chinese.

    And Pawi, I thought hardyandtiny’s comment was very funny. It was probably just a joke mixed in with a little bit of exasperation at hearing that god damn song all the time. lol.. just take it easy there.

  • DLBarch

    OK, here’s my compromise. Bear with me…this may take a while.

    Last night, I threw a little post-election, mid-week dinner party where the results of the election, coming on the heals of last week’s World Series’ sweep by the Giants, put everyone in a pretty good mood. A lot of free-flowing booze also helped.

    The conversation turned (by me, ahem) to this week’s release of “Skyfall,” and the men at the table did as men will do and started arguing — much to the chagrin of the ladies — over who was the best Bond girl. (I went with the feisty Olga Kurylenko, but Sophie Marceau won out in the end once the ladies stopped rolling their eyes and re-joined the discussion.)

    So what does this have to do with Korea? Well, it quickly occurred to me that there has never been a real, genuine Korean Bond girl. Japanese and Chinese, yes, but no Korean.

    And, no, Kim Yuna does NOT count, thank you very much!

    So this is my proposal. Forget centralized government attempts at national branding, and let’s dismiss “Gangnam Style” as a truly freakish fluke, and instead petition the Korean powers that be to concentrate their branding resources on getting an honest to goodness Korean actress as a Bond girl, pronto.

    And as someone who knows next to nothing about the current status of Korean filmdom, I will nonetheless risk ridicule and nominate Song Hye-gyo.


  • dinkus maximus

    Korea’s “national image” ultimately boils down to one thing: ESL. Thousands of twenty-somethings with status updates about kimchi and noribongs. Thousands of Korean students studying abroad. Samsung the icing on the cake. Gangnam style and Yuna Kim just sprinkles.

  • http://askakorean.blogspot.com thekorean

    And as someone who knows next to nothing about the current status of Korean filmdom, I will nonetheless risk ridicule and nominate Song Hye-gyo.

    Strangely, I never thought Song Hye-gyo was all that pretty. Never could understand the appeal.

  • cm

    Chinese actress Tang Wei, purchases expensive land in Bundang.


    There are rumors that she’s in a relationship with actor Hyun Bin who’s currently serving in the military. So many Chinese tourists, but not enough hotels and accommodations to meet the high demand. Therefore what savvy Chinese investors are doing is they are buying up properties in Korea, then rent them out to short term tourists from China, while waiting for the real estate market to make a come back. And these investors enjoy automatic permanent residency status in Korea with a social insurance number.


  • brier

    @25 cm,

    If this catches on, just unit Chinese investors push up the prices of properties through investments and the locals start to moan and gripe. Reading the newspaper will be daily entertainment then.

  • Drowned before the ship sank

    I wonder what the numbers are for return tourists? I think if the Korean tourism officials are going to have any hope of increasing the numbers they need to get people to return to see areas outside of Seoul. To be honest, it’s just another big Asian city that can be ‘done’ in one trip. I think the Korean tourism officials need to try to sell the real Korea, not the KPop and K Drama version. My students here in Thailand who have travelled to Korea (rich international school students, Thai and other nationalities) although they enjoyed the trip were surprised and kind of disappointed that Korea wasn’t really like what they had seen in dramas. Drunk soju ajoshi’s look much more interesting on TV than in real life.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    Tang Wei and Hyun Bin:


    Wow… I wonder how many takes it took to get that?

    To DBTSS, I’d have to say there really isn’t much to see in L.A. or NYC either, but plenty of foreigners still go there. I guess when you are use to something you don’t understand the appeal that thing you are use to may have with tourists.

  • cm


    Actually tourists from Thailand and Malaysia are growing in double digit numbers since 2009. They’re also becoming important tourist sources.


    Within Asia, S.Korea is making a big name for itself mostly through its media and popular culture. It’s outside of Asia that S.Korea is still having some problems, although it’s reputation still improving gradually.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936


    People’s comments on Korean tourism in this blog is kind of like the GOP’s opinion of the electorate. If it ain’t white it ain’t important. But… that’s not the right conclusion.

  • cm

    WK, it’s just that they’re looking through their own window or only through their own experiences. If they would just take the time to see through the windows that Asians see from, the picture maybe a lot different. This is something I imagine is very difficult to do.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    “If they would just take the time to see through the windows that Asians see from, the picture maybe a lot different.”

    Good luck with that.

  • feld_dog

    The best Bond girl is Diana Rigg.
    And Kim Hye-su should be a Bond villainess.

    That is all.

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  • http://www.san-shin.org sanshinseon

    Ah dunno, guys, but has any bond girl ever really topped the first, Ursula Andress…? (or Miss Undress, as we wags used to call her).

  • bballi bballi Paradise

    dumbest thing I read on this post,
    I’d have to say there really isn’t much to see in L.A. or NYC either

    Best thing written on this post
    And Kim Hye-su should be a Bond villainess.
    Hells Yes

  • R. Elgin

    . . . So many Chinese tourists, but not enough hotels and accommodations to meet the high demand. Therefore what savvy Chinese investors are doing is they are buying up properties in Korea, then rent them out to short term tourists from China, while waiting for the real estate market to make a come back. And these investors enjoy automatic permanent residency status in Korea with a social insurance number.

    Once again, “cm” is very much correct. The Yeosu Exposition was about selling the southern coast of Korea as a tourist/investment situation – specifically targeting Chinese money. The environment came in last place, by the way.

    Chejudo has seen an influx of Chinese investment in tourism operations and property investment. There will be protests over the naval base there but Koreans are very quiet about investment in their island paradise and other parts of the country.

    I wonder why . . .

  • iMe

    TK @24


    Now you know. You’re welcome.

  • Maximus2008


    Casino Royale had Eva Green, who is not exactly a Bond “girl” (more like a Bond “lady”).

    Considering Bond is not such a young guy, a more mature lady would fit perfectly. To choose a Korean to suit Western tastes (just because Bond is immensely popular in the West, and that would surely attract westerners to “what else do they have in Korea”), I’d have only 2 options:

    - Kim Hye Soo
    - Uhm Jung Hwa

    They both have big “attributes” that we all love. Bond would love too.

  • Arghaeri

    Now you’ll know, you were correct!

  • Maximus2008

    Why my comment in moderation? I thought this blog was pro Kim HS and Uhm JH!

  • hamel

    Blog-meister Robert wrote:

    I wrote a guidebook for a government organization, so I’m going to excuse myself from this discussion

    What kind of guidebook did you write, and why does that mean you must excuse yourself (recuse?) from the discussion?

  • genie222001

    When I was in the US, I saw many Japanese restaurant run by Koreans. My problem with those Japanese restaurants that are Korean-run is that they tend to have a bunch of Korean dishes on the menu. Bi bim bop, , bugogi, kim chee, etc., are Korean, not Japanese. Since Japanese culture and Japanese food are more well-known to Western people in general, Koreans tend to call their restaurants “JAPANESE” to attract people.

    I dont mind if Koreans run Japanese restaurants, as long as they show their respect to Japan and Japnese cuture. But what we’ve seen is totally opposite. Although Koreans want to make sure that they abhor Japan, they try to take advantage of the popularity of Japan at every opportunity.

    There is the French convention named “Japan Expo” which is a dedicated to Japanese culture, and it has been held in
    Paris every year since 2000. Over 200,000 people attended “Japan Expo” this year.

    In 2006, when “Japan Expo” invited 8 Japanese cartoonists as their officia guests, a south Korean publishing company somehow sent 11 Korean cartoonists without any invitation and demanded that the name “Japan Expo” should be changed to “Korea-Japan Expo”or “Asia Expo”. This was ridiculous. But some shameless Koreans have been attending “Japan Expo” every year since 2006 just to promote Korean products. Here is a pic of the “Korea” booth at “Japan Expo”. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-xX2coNSudWU/T_ZNn2-nrwI/AAAAAAAAAj8/j9r20fS6YS8/s1600/0022.jp

    If they think that they are proud of their own Korean culture then why not just hold their own “Korea Expo” in France. Let’s see if it can attract crowds of over 200,000 people.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936


    When you go to Japan you are going to see a lot of Korean bbq places run by and owned by Japanese people (ostentatiously known as “yakiniku” restaurants there). These “yakiniku” restaurants also serve (in addition to what is obviously Korean inspired meat dishes) various forms of kimchi (or “kimuchi”), bibimbap (or “bibimbapa”), pajon (or “chijimi”) and soju (or “shochu”).

    I dont mind if Japanese run Korean restaurants, as long as they show their respect to Japan and Japnese cuture. But what we’ve seen is totally opposite… yada, yada, yada…

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    I mean, “… show their respect to Korean and Korean culture…”

  • http://pawikoreapics.blogspot.com/ pawikirogii 石鵝

    genie is full of sheit. while its true korean japanese restaurants do serve some korean food, the selection is usually limited to tenjang jjige and bibimbap. its also relegated to the back of the menu.

  • http://pawikoreapics.blogspot.com/ pawikirogii 石鵝

    some people say that psy will be a wit hit wonder at least in the international sense. that may very well be but oh what a one hit wonder it has been and continues to be. just look at this flash mob in paris, france. i think psy will have nice memories.

    on a different note, for those who say that people in the west only like the video because it’s done by a funny asian guy, show me where people are making fun of psy. i’m not seeing that. what i see is people trying to copy his silly horse dance. it’s a fun song. people are having fun. ain’t that better than hate? have a look at the video. it’s just nuts.


  • genie222001

    “When you go to Japan you are going to see a lot of Korean bbq places run by and owned by Japanese people (ostentatiously known as “yakiniku” restaurants there). ”

    The difference is that Japanese don’t call their restaurants that serve mainly Korean cuisine “JAPANESE” restaurants. And in the US, I don’t know of any Japanese people opening up Korean restaurants giving the impression that they are Korean.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936


    Nowadays newer yakiniku restaurants are showing more of their Korean heritage, given the recent changing dynamics of Japan’s evolving opinions of Korea and Koreans (particularly those in the South). However, when yakiniuk restaurants were first getting started, there was a lot of negative prejudice towards Koreans so Koreans in Japan has to put a veneer of Japanese culture around it. Thus, you look at the major yakiniku chains in Japan now, they don’t emphasis the Korean culture, but there is clearly Korean food on the menu.

    As for Koreans putting on a veneer of Japanese culture around their Japanese restaurants, they are hardly alone. Sushi restaurants owned by Americans, Chinese and Taiwanese do this as well. People know sushi and sashimi came from Japan and they seem to want that kind of dinning experience and Koreans (and others) are capitalizing on it. I guess you can say it’s just business. Are they giving the impression they are Japanese? I don’t know. Maybe. My dad likes going to a Japanese buffet called Hokkaido where they greet you in Japanese with an exaggerated Japanese accent but all the employees were speaking Mandarin to each other!

    Maybe Koreans and Chinese act like they are Japanese because they think they can charge more for the food? If Japanese people think they could charge more for Korean bbq if they gave the impression they were Korean, they would probably do the same. Given similar East Asian looks, there is clearly the temptation to do so.

  • genie222001


    This topic is about Korea’s global image and Korea’s branding failures, so I don’t know why you keep talking about yakiniuk restaurants in Japan.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    Because it was in response to your thoughts on Japanese restaurants run by Koreans? TMH has a pretty open policy on threads that have divergent themes.

  • genie222001


    I was talking about Japanese restaurants run by Koreans in the US. My point was that many of those Koreans run Japanese restaurants take advantage of the popularity of Japanese food to promote Korean food to foreigners. Japanese do not need to use Korean culture to promote Japanese culture to foreigners.

  • broona

    Genie, there is a Japanese restaurant in Costa Mesa, CA by the name of “oki doki.” It is a Japanese restaurant that serves Vietnamese food. There is another Japanese restaurant in Tustin, CA called “hondaya.” It is definitely Japanese-owned. I dined there, and guess what? They had Kalbi on their menu. Are they trying to promote Japanese culture with the Korean item on the menu? I don’t think so.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936


    Hondaya also serves kimchi.

  • genie222001


    As I said, Japanese people who serve Korean cuisine don’t try to give the impression that they are Korean.

    What do you say about Koreans who creat the “Korea” booth at “Japan Expo”? Are any other countries this desperate?

  • broona

    54, my response to you is that, yes there are Korean-run sushi restaurants, because Koreans love sushi just as much as anybody else. If the restaurants serve korean food, that’s probably because there is a demand for it. I’m not sure what to say about the Japan expo, because I’ve never been interested myself.

  • shadowcat16


    To give another example of Japanese restaurants trying to sell Korean foods as Japanese, there is a famous global Japanese BBQ chain called Gyukaku; there are 3 locations in Manhattan alone. However, I’d say about a third of the items on the menu (and most of the non-BBQ items) are Korean, which include kalbi, bibimbap, tofu jjigae, kimchi jjigae, and more. But nowhere on the menu does it say that these dishes are actually Korean (except maybe for the kimchi, if I recall correctly). There was even a news article written a while ago that interviewed some customers there, and most of them apparently thought that staple Korean foods like kalbi and bibimbap were Japanese and not Korean.

    Last time I went there, I asked the waiter why so many of the items on the menu were Korean and if the chain had perhaps been started by a Korean. He gave a sheepish smile and admitted that he knew that many of the items were Korean, but that to his knowledge, the chain was started by a Japanese guy in Tokyo.

    So there you go. Still, I think that place has awesome (albeit overpriced) BBQ, and I’ll probably go back sometime in the near future.