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.