Tag Archive | "soft power"

Five Surprising Ways South Korea and the United States are Working Together

By Jenna Gibson

This week, South Korea became the first Asian country to sign a space cooperation pact with the United States, the first step for the two countries to collaborate on projects like Mars exploration, launching a moon lander, and expanding possible uses of the International Space Station. This announcement strengthens what is already a robust relationship between South Korea’s space program and NASA, which KEI has discussed extensively through our podcast and other research projects.

This announcement may come as a surprise to those who see the U.S.-Korea relationship mostly in terms of security cooperation. However, there are many arenas where the United States and South Korea work together outside of the military alliance. Here are five surprising places where these two countries collaborate.

 1.      Improving maternal and child health

The United States and South Korea have a long history of cooperation on development assistance, beginning with American help in the wake of the Korean War to South Korea’s entry into the donor community in the 1990. South Korea’s development assistance agency, which celebrated its 25th birthday recently, has close ties with USAID. A joint project launched in 2013 focuses on combatting maternal, newborn and child health concerns across sub-Saharan Africa. Another new project will look into ways to promote sustainable development in Southeast Asia through science and technology.

2.      Developing wireless charging technology for electric cars

A grant from the US Department of Energy is helping fund a project to develop wireless charging capabilities for electric vehicles. The Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan) and American company Mojo Mobility are collaborating on the project, which aims to improve the speed and convenience of charging for electric vehicles.

3.      Curing cancer

In 2015, the Korean National Cancer Center signed an agreement with the U.S. National Institutes of Health to share information and work together on cancer treatment and prevention. According to the Korea Herald, “The NCC seeks to set up a database of medical records of its 1.2 million patients who have suffered or survived cancer. Once the database is complete, the NCC plans to analyze the ‘big data on cancer’ for preventive measures and post-recovery treatment of the disease.”

4.      Stopping wildlife traffickers

South Korea and the United States have been working on a range of environmental issues, from climate change to sustainable fishing. But one interesting area of collaboration is on wildlife preservation. According to a Work Program adopted by the two governments in 2013, they are working to “Improve collaboration and communication among judicial, law enforcement, customs, and border security personnel in seizing illegal shipments of wildlife products, investigating wildlife crime, prosecuting wildlife traffickers, and dismantling transnational organized criminal networks.” In a related field, the Work Plan also includes a provision to engage in information exchange and dialogue with the goal of fulfilling wildlife management responsibilities, with an emphasis on the preservation of waterbirds and their habitats, and the restoration of habitat. This includes birds that migrate between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and threatened and endangered species of birds.”

5.      Cooperating on nuclear energy technology

In 2015 the United States and South Korea signed a new nuclear cooperation agreement, or 123 Agreement to replace the original agreement that had been in place since 1984. The two countries have already began to cooperate on “shared objectives such as spent fuel management, assured fuel supply, promotion of cooperation between our nuclear industries, and nuclear security.” An extensive KEI report written last year by former Department of Energy and Department of State official Dr. Fred McGoldrick delves into the details of this new agreement.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from K putt’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Is K-Beauty the Next Hallyu Superstar?

By Jenna Gibson

Amid plunging exports, Korean cosmetics brands are defying the odds. According to new numbers released by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, exports of beauty products are up 53 percent in the first nine months of 2015 even though exports as a whole are down an average of 6.6 percent.

“Experts say the business strategy of product differentiation was the key to success,” writes the Korea Joongang Daily. “Korean cosmetics makers have mainly been focusing their export business on facial makeup and skincare products – such as Cushion foundation, BB cream and facial mask packs – instead of color cosmetics products, where European companies are dominant in the global market.”

Cosmetics giant AmorePacific is leading the pack. The company’s revenue jumped 20 percent in 2014, making it the world’s 14th largest cosmetics company. Meanwhile, Forbes listed AmorePacific at No. 28 on its annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies. Investors cited “AmorePacific’s innovations and booming Chinese business as some of the key drivers behind its success.”

But K-Beauty has gone far beyond China. After opening its first European store in Berlin this February, cosmetics store Missha opened three flagship stores in Spain last month. According to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), Spanish imports of Korean cosmetics have skyrocketed from 250,000 euros in 2010 to 2.61 million euros in 2014.


K-Beauty and Hallyu

Fans of Hallyu know that many of Korea’s cosmetics companies rely heavily on celebrity endorsements – many stores in Seoul’s shopping district of Myeongdong plaster gigantic posters of the hottest actors and K-pop groups across their walls, and fans can earn special merchandise featuring their favorite celebrity for spending a certain amount of money.

In fact, a recent survey of foreigners in Myeongdong and Apgujeong shopping areas found more than two thirds of them said they became interested in Korean cosmetics products after “getting to know Korean dramas or K-pop stars.” According to the study’s author, a professor at Hanyang University, “Interest and affection for Korean culture, or hallyu, has a direct correlation to growth in the cosmetics industry.”

Visit Seoul, the official travel guide for the city, is capitalizing on this trend –cosmetics are second on the site’s list of Top 10 Items to Buy in Seoul. As part of the Hallyu section of their website they have a recommended “Hallyu Star Beauty Course,” that introduces a hair and nail salon as well as clothing stores that are frequented by popular Korean celebrities. Clearly, Seoul knows its audience.

And across the Pacific, this year the United States’ Hallyu mecca, KCon, featured workshops including “Korean Celebrity Skincare Secrets,” and “K-Pop Idol Makeover” as well as booths from many of Korea’s top brands, hoping to capitalize on Hallyu fans’ interest in all things Korea.

Breaking into the American Market

Despite their success at Kcon, many of the big Hallyu trends that have caught on in Asia, the Middle East, and South America have been unable to break into the mainstream in the United States. K-pop acts like the Wondergirls and BoA have tried to break into the American music market to no avail, and while Dramafever has more viewers than ever, we’re never going to see My Love from the Star on during primetime.

K-Beauty, however, may have managed to break out of niche popularity. Sephora, a Paris-based cosmetics retailer with stores across the United States, began carrying Korean cosmetics brand Dr. Jart in 2011 and has since stepped up its offerings. Sephora’s American website has an entire section dedicated to K-Beauty, urging customers to “Get the latest from Korea: the coveted dewy look.”

Perhaps more telling, this year Amazon added a Korean Beauty subcategory within its beauty department, giving American consumers access to all their favorite cleansers, foundations and lotions without the international shipping costs. Even Target has hopped on the bandwagon, adding AmorePacific’s Laneige line to its premium skincare product aisle in 2014. Clearly K-Beauty is on the rise in the United States.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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Happy Halloween: Korea Shows a Growing Interest in the Spooky Holiday

By Jenna Gibson


Halloween as we know it in the United States is still not widely celebrated in South Korea. Trick or treating is limited to kindergarten parties and English hagwons, and you’re unlikely to see many jack-o-lanterns or skeletons decorating peoples’ homes.

But in recent years some parts of the holiday have been gaining momentum. In fact, according to a poll by online retail store Gmarket, 72 percent of Koreans are interested in attending a Halloween party – with 82 percent of those in their 20s saying they were interested in participating in festivities.

The problem? Despite the interest, 69 percent of respondents admitted that they had never actually celebrated Halloween.

Things may be looking up for the spooky holiday, though. This year, many stores, including Seoul’s Coex Mall are holding special events and sales for the holiday. Dunkin Donuts is releasing a special “Party Pack” featuring bat- and mummy-shaped donuts, and Holly’s Coffee has included a Halloween theme for its annual “friends and family sale.” For the first time, amusement park Lotte World will be turning its folk museum into a haunted house and holding a special “Halloween Hip-Hop Night Party” on October 30 that will run until 5:00am on the 31st.

The Seoul city government is even getting in on the fun, hosting a Halloween dance party along the Han River where guests are encouraged to dress in traditional Korean outfits (hanbok). According to a city official, this party is a way to “interpret Halloween – a Western festivity – in a Korean way.”

Online, the Halloween spirit continues. “해피 할로윈” (“Happy Halloween”) was a global trending topic on Twitter throughout the day, thanks in part to SM Entertainment, which held its annual Halloween party this week featuring many of the biggest names in K-pop decked out elaborate costumes.




Clearly there is plenty of interest in Halloween among Koreans, but there are certainly some obstacles that remain. One scary part of Halloween in Korea has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins – it has to do with the outrageous prices for kids’ costumes. A JTBC News video shows outfits online going for upwards of $500. A store-bought Elsa costume for Frozen fans will run close to $100. One concerned mother explained that she felt pressure to buy these expensive costumes for her child because other mothers would be doing so.

One other interesting obstacle could be cultural difference. In Korea, summer is the season for horror. Most horror movies plan their releases for July and August with the idea that scary stories can give people a chill to help cool them down during the hot summer months. On the other hand, because of pagan and Christian religious traditions of honoring the dead in late October and early November, most Westerners consider fall to be the time to celebrate all things haunted.

Clearly there is a lot of interest among Koreans in learning more about Halloween and celebrating the holiday. But with more and more outlets embracing the spooky theme, perhaps we will see Halloween become mainstream in Korea in the near future.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. KEI intern Juni Kim contributed to the infographic in this post.

Photo from tracy ducasse’s photostream on Flickr Creative Commons.

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T-ara, Titanic, and Taeyeon: Pop Culture and North Korea

By Lilka Marino

Recent tensions along the Demilitarized Zone have been notable for one reason: North Korea launched rockets at loudspeakers that broadcasted an array of propaganda from regional and international news, weather reports, and economic updates from both sides of the border. Curiously enough, the program also included certain K-pop songs chosen for their uplifting and inspirational lyrics. The contents of this broadcasts were enough for Pyongyang to threaten “strong military action” should they continue. While the rest of the contents of each program seem like a logical irritant to a regime that depends on maintaining factual silence from the outside world, the innocence of K-pop seems like an unlikely candidate to cause the recent “quasi-state of war”.

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick reports the official party line towards foreign media and contraband, by a defector who received this lecture at work:

Our enemies are using these specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism and to spread their utterly rotten, bourgeoisie lifestyles. If we allow ourselves to be affected by these unusual materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal [Kim Il-sung] will disappear.[1]

While a government such as the Kim regime does rely on its self imposed isolation, and keeping its people from outside influences[2], the reality does not reflect the regime’s expectations. In August, three North Koreans were executed for watching South Korean television programs on their mobile phones.  This execution, along with the threat to destroy the loudspeakers is indicative of the growing fascination with the outside world and pop culture, along with the recent demand for designer handbags and high heeled shoes, trends in East Asia that North Korean women began to emulate when Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-eun, adopted them for herself. Foreign culture has settled into the isolated nation, and will not dissipate anytime soon.

While most foreign media and culture was discouraged in North Korea, the interest in foreign culture started with legal translations of Western classics in the mid-1980s. Kim Il-sung ordered these translations in limited quantities for writers to improve their ability; translations included Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A decade later, these books were made available for the general public to purchase.

Quite possibly the most popular work to be translated, and possibly the most famous example of Pyongyang’s fascination with foreign culture was Gone With the Wind, first translated in a three volume series and released along with other American novels from the 1900s-1960s. The novel permeates North Korean society. When teaching English at PUST, Suki Kim reported that the only American book her college students were aware of was Margaret Mitchell’s work. The typically restricted film adaptation is shown to upper class North Koreans to teach English; one defector reported that the film was a favorite of the elite. Consequently, when the Samjiyon tablet made its infamous debut in 2013, it came preloaded with not only a ported version of Angry Birds, but also Gone With the Wind.

The biggest indication of national fascination is shown by the people’s love of the novel. Gone With the Wind has even made an appearance in talks between North Korean envoys and the United States, with the former apparently quoting “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” during negotiations. One defector reported that for a time, one could not go into Pyongyang and not avoid discussing the work, and that everyone had an opinion about strong Scarlett O’Hara, swashbuckling Rhett Butler, and the destruction of the Confederacy by the Union’s hands. It is the latter that experts speculate that holds the most appeal to North Koreans, along with the plucky heroine, who manages to rebuild and prosper after losing everything to war.

Regardless of what message North Koreans heard from Mitchell’s work, it was clear that the average North Korean is hungry for information from the outside world. This hunger would not always be fed through legal means. In the jammadang open-air markets, one student bought and read a translated book from Russia regarding how capitalism had evolved since Marx wrote his Manifesto, and realized he was being kept in the dark on purpose. How could South Korea and China be worse off than North Korea if Chinese and South Korean goods were pouring into the jammadang?[3]  Another defector reported seeing pirated DVDs and portable DVD players. These DVDs were both Hollywood movies and episodes of South Korean dramas, which sold quickly.[4] A market grew from the demand for media in particular; by 2013, brokers would wait in markets for buyers, who would ask them for the next episodes, waiting only a few weeks after their initial airing in South Korea.

These brokers, usually working with a group known as the North Korea Strategy Center (which focuses on smuggling foreign media into North Korea), feed the demand for drams, movies, eBooks, and music. They are responsible for bringing 3,000 thumb drives into the nation annually. Founder Kang Chol-hwan likened this media to the infamous “red pill” from the Matrix franchise. One broker, a defector by the name of Jung Kwang-il, is another smuggler who deals exclusively with delivering foreign media to the jammadang. He has documented his practice of delivering laptops, radios, thumb drives, and DVDs to North Korean sellers on PBS Frontline. When asked why he risked his life to do this, Jung said:

[North Koreans are] sharing thumb drives a lot. Even officials have one or two. North Korea is trying to hunt them down because the thing that changes people’s mindsets is popular culture. It probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in North Korea.

It’s been reported that almost half of the North Koreans who defect had watched foreign television, even though it’s illegal. Countless defectors cite foreign pop culture as the spark that made them start doubting North Korea. Park Yeon-mi credited the popular film Titanic as starting a “moral crisis”, as both the idea of a man sacrificing his life for a woman as well as the economic development of the early twentieth century being far more advanced than what she had in the twentieth-first century in North Korea would aid her family’s decision to leave.

Surveys of defectors suggest that more than a million North Koreans listen to illegal foreign radio. A fisherman accidentally picked up a South Korean radio program with two women arguing over a parking spot, which was an inconceivable notion to him, as he could not imagine a scenario where there were so many cars that anyone would have to fight over parking.[5] While mp3 and mp4 players are legal in North Korea, downloading foreign media to them is definitely not. Yet one defector theorized that if you “cracked down” on high school and university students who owned the devices in North Korea, all of them would have South Korean music on them.

South Korean dramas were especially powerful to defectors; the sheer beauty in the clothing of the actors and the bustling streets with healthy looking actors and flashy billboards advertising all sorts of goods made watching more addictive; it was fun to picture living in a trendy Seoul apartment until one realized that the reality reflected in Pyongyang’s propaganda did not match up to what they were watching on their portable DVD players. Expert Andrei Lankov has described the fascination with South Korean pop culture within North Korea as, possibly, “the single most important development of the last ten years”.

Seoul has even created media targeted at North Koreans in order to take advantage of this growing interest. One such example is Open Radio for North Korea, a radio station staffed by defectors that broadcast news and personal messages towards Pyongyang. Another is the television program known as Now On My Way to Meet You, which stars North Korean women who now live in Seoul. Part news, part variety show, and part beauty contest, the show aims to show North Koreans the truth about life in the outside world and to especially empower other female defectors. One star even said that she believed that her friends “back home” watch it, fantasize about life south of the DMZ, and even want to defect, too.

Despite the growing demand for foreign media, Kim Jong Un has reportedly sent his security forces house to house, searching for illegal DVDs, and in November 2013 ordered the execution of as many as 80 people, some for watching foreign television. Authorities punished thirty college students with hard labor for watching “Until the Azalea Blooms” on their cell phones last June. Despite the death toll attributed to consuming foreign pop culture, North Koreans still are willing to risk their lives distributing and owning music videos, DVDs, clothes, books, and so much more from the outside world. With this forbidden fruit comes knowledge, and with knowledge, agency.

A young defector summed the allure of pop culture to North Koreans best: “No matter how many people die, the sensational popularity doesn’t die…that is the power of culture.”

Lilka Marino received her Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University with a double concentration in leadership theory and social sciences. Her interests include North Korean politics, Korean history, and traditional Korean culture. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Darrell Miller’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York. Spiegel and Grau, 2009. Print.  p 255.

[2] Myers, B. R. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2010. Print. p 55-75

[3] Demick, pg. 260.

[4] Demick, pg. 255.

[5] Demick, pg. 260

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5 Books to Help You Understand Hallyu

By Jenna Gibson

First coined in China in the 1990s, Hallyu literally means “Korean Wave” – meaning the wave of Korean TV shows, pop songs and even skincare products that has swept across Asia and beyond. Many have noted the existence of Hallyu, and since Psy made his famous debut on the world stage more and more people know about Korean pop culture. But what spurred the popularity of k-culture abroad? And what exactly does it mean for Korea’s standing in the world? And who are the biggest names in k-pop or k-dramas, anyway?

For newbies to the k-craze all the way up to seasoned veterans, these five books can help provide new perspectives on the Hallyu phenomenon.

1.       Soft Power, by Joseph Nye

Not exactly a book about Korean pop culture, but certainly a strong argument for why we’re talking about it so much in the first place. Political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” to mean a country’s power of attraction. Through things like cultural exports, a country can persuade others to follow them without resorting to guns and bombs. And with millions invested in the entertainment industry, the Korean government is surely trying to bank on its pop culture’s soft power potential.

2.       The Birth of Korean Cool, by Euny Hong

Euny Hong’s book is based on the idea that you can’t understand Hallyu without understanding the country where it was born.  Half memoir of growing up in Gangnam decades before the world learned about its signature style, half expose of the massive behind-the-scenes mobilization that allowed Hallyu to flourish, Hong analyzes in great detail the aspects of Korean culture and society behind the popularity of what she calls Korea: The Brand.

3.       K-pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution by Mark James Russell

Less about Hallyu as a phenomenon and more about the bands that have made it possible, this book is a perfect primer for the k-pop newbie. Using bright photos and helpful labels, Russell runs through all the biggest bands in k-pop. Of course, in a few months there will be 50 new groups popping up, but he hits all the big names enough to give a great intro to the industry. Another unique feature – interviews with Ze:A’s Kevin and Brian Joo from Fly to the Sky.

4.       Structure, Audience, and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture, edited by Beng Chua

By providing a broader look at East Asian pop culture, this book explores Hallyu in the context of Korea’s neighbors. This comprehensive look offers some potential explanations for how Hallyu got to be so big – and how long it might last. Why have k-dramas taken off while Chinese dramas remain largely domestic? How are k-pop songs topping charts in Tokyo, while the reverse is unthinkable? This volume gives an essential comparative view of the Hallyu phenomenon.

5.       The Global Impact of South Korean Popular Culture, edited by Valentina Marinescu

While the majority of analyses of Hallyu’s power understandably focus on Korea’s Asian neighbors, this book takes a different tactic. Each chapter is written by a scholars from all over the globe about the spread of Hallyu in countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, Argentina and the UK. While in some of these cases the conclusion is that Hallyu has very little impact, it is interesting to see how far k-culture exports have spread.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Graphic by Jenna Gibson of KEI.

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Bang Bang Bang: Taking on the North Korean Regime through K-pop

Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula over the past few weeks after a mine blast that maimed two South Korean soldiers set off a series of escalations from both sides of the DMZ. One of the moves from Seoul was restarting anti-North Korean broadcasts for the first time in 11 years.

The broadcasts avoid criticizing the North Korean government directly – instead, the key point has been “subtlety.” So, hidden among news reports and information about Kim Jong Un’s health conditions, the broadcasts contained some unusual content – pop music.

The broadcast soundtrack includes songs like IU’s “Heart,” Girls’ Generation’s “Tell Me Your Wish,” and Big Bang’s “Bang Bang Bang” – a not-so-subtle message for the North Korean soldiers hearing the tunes.

In response, North Korea began blaring its own propaganda, mainly in an attempt to drown out the messages coming from the South. The regime then declared a semi-state of war amid escalating tensions on the border, and the broadcasts were apparently a “key sticking point” in high-level talks over the weekend.

On the surface, it seems like a bit of an overreaction to go to war over ballads and bubble gum pop. But for such a closed-off regime, any information illicitly making its way into North Korea from outside is a potential threat.

Earlier this year Wired profiled a high-level defector Kang Chol-hwan who has chosen to fight back against the regime by smuggling thousands of USBs filled with movies, TV shows and music into North Korea every year. For Kang, the USBs are like the red pill from The Matrix – they show a reality that most North Koreans could never begin to imagine.

One of the smugglers who works with Kang puts it more bluntly – “What I do is what Kim Jong-un fears most.”

And he might not be far off the mark.

According to a 2012 study from Intermedia based on a survey of North Korean defectors, more and more North Koreans have access to forms of foreign media – and their views actually have changed because of it. “One of this study’s key findings – that a strong relationship exists between outside media exposure and positive perceptions of the outside world – is clear evidence that the influx of outside media is contributing to a more aware North Korean citizenry.”

Dramas in particular were cited as having an effect on North Korean viewers – one that the Kim regime would certainly want to block. According to one defector interviewed for the study, “I think the South Korean dramas are realistic. North Korea only shows beautiful images. But in the South Korean dramas there is fighting and I think that is realistic. There is also poverty, but in North Korea they only show you good things, so it does not seem real.”

So when South Korea blasts information across the DMZ, even when that information includes some dubstep, it’s no wonder the North gets uneasy.

According to a South Korean military spokesperson, the reason North Korea is so obsessed with stopping the broadcasts is that they lower the morale of the soldiers stationed on the border. That may be why they included songs with lyrics like “Tell me your wish! Aren’t you tired of the boring days? Have you become buried by your ordinary life? Now stop and wake up.” (Tell Me Your Wish)

On Monday, the two countries reached an agreement to de-escalate the situation on the border, so the broadcasts will stop for now. But in future interactions with the reclusive North, the world would do well not to underestimate the power of K-pop.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Dominic Alvez’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Trans-Pacific Love Affair: South Korean Perceptions of the United States on the Rise

By Jenna Gibson

According to at least one poll, South Korea has a higher opinion of the United States than the United States has of itself. In its 2015 Global Indicators survey, Pew Research Center found that 84 percent of South Koreans view the U.S. favorably, while only 83 percent of Americans said the same.[1] This is the highest approval rating for the U.S. within South Korea since Pew started collecting this data in 2002, when approval was only at 52 percent[2].

South Korea doesn’t only approve of the United States as a whole – they also have a positive view of its leader. When asked if they are confident in President Barack Obama to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” 88 percent of Koreans answered affirmatively. The only country surveyed that has more confidence in Obama is the Philippines, with 94 percent.

This approval far outweighs even Korean views on their own government – a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report found that only 34 percent of Koreans said they have confidence in their national government. And their perception of Obama certainly dwarfs his current 46 percent domestic approval rating.

SK Public Perception Graphic

Highs and Lows

South Koreans haven’t always been this keen on the United States. As recently as 2007, only 58 percent of those surveyed by Pew had favorable opinions about their ally. And going back to 2003, less than half responded positively (46 percent favorable).

What caused this significant shift in just over a decade? It’s important to keep context in mind. In 2002, tensions flared after an infamous incident where two Korean teenagers were killed after being struck by a U.S. military vehicle. The drop in favorable views of the United States in 2003 makes perfect sense in this context.

Further, lukewarm responses through the following decade can possibly be attributed to the Sunshine Policy, an attempt to influence North Korea using carrots rather than sticks. According to a Washington Post column, “The policy attempted to soften the tension between the two Korean nations, something that often required breaking, rhetorically or even politically, with the United States. President Roh Moo-hyun did this in part by criticizing the U.S. containment policy – and thus, implicitly, the enormous American military force stationed in his country – in an effort to demonstrate goodwill toward North Korea and, he hoped, to lay the groundwork for real cooperation.”

Since 2009, administrations in both the United States and South Korea have worked ensure that their policies towards North Korea are aligned and public perceptions have moved in a similar direction. In fact, a recent Washington Post article points out that younger South Koreans are among the most pro-American. One possible explanation – “they appear to be more suspicious about China’s rise and are way more suspicious of North Korea’s intentions. For both of these reasons, it’s understandable that they value the alliance with the United States.”

Interestingly, a 2015 poll by the Asan Institute found that South Koreans associated the United States most with capitalism (28.6 percent), military strength (26.7 percent), and democracy (20.6 percent). It follows, then, that when the two countries’ economic, military and diplomatic priorities align, as they generally do at the moment, public opinion will follow.

 Korean perception of the United States can of course be lost in an instant, but it’s important to note that even during one of the lowest points in recent memory, more than half of the Korean people still viewed the U.S. favorably. These polls show the strength of the U.S.-Korea Alliance, even if the two countries don’t always see eye to eye. By keeping this in mind and building on this solid base of support, policymakers on both sides of the Pacific can continue to work together to address issues in Northeast Asia and beyond.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Sue Langford’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] Margin of error for South Korea: +/- 3.2 percent, for United States +/- 3.6 percent.

[2] In contrast, the United States’ other ally in the region, Japan, is less enthusiastic. Favorable views of the U.S. have slid over the past few years from an all-time high of 85 in 2011 to 68 percent in 2015.


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Korean Boom: As Foreign Language Enrollments Drop in the U.S., Korean is on the Rise

By Jenna Gibson

In a June article, Foreign Affairs magazine decried the “decline of international studies,” citing a broad trend of “the scaling back of a long-term national commitment to education and research focused on international affairs.”

This trend can clearly be seen when it comes to foreign language education in the United States. According to a new report from the Modern Language Association, enrollment in language courses dropped 6.7 percent from 2009 to 2013. Across the board, American students are choosing not to study foreign languages.

U.S. Language Enrollments, 2009-13

Foreign Language Enrollments

Source: Modern Language Association

But even as top languages like Spanish, French and German slip, Korean is experiencing a major boom. In contrast to the overall decline, enrollment in Korean classes rose by 44.7 percent across the United States, and was the only language to grow at the two-year, four-year and graduate level.

Students Studying Korean

Source: Modern Language Association

 Officials at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) told the LA Times that there are often waiting lists for their Korean courses, which have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. Even more striking – this increase can be seen both in their heritage classes (aimed at Korean Americans with some knowledge of the language) and in beginner classes for non-Koreans.

This increase comes despite the fact that Korean is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to master. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) includes Korean at the top of its language difficulty scale, along with Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. Because Korean sentence structure and verb conjugations are completely different from English, plus the fact that a significant portion of vocabulary is based on Chinese characters (hanja), English learners can have a hard time picking up Korean. According to FSI, Korean language learners need to spend at least 2,200 classroom hours to achieve proficiency.

Americans are not alone in jumping on the Korean bandwagon. In 2012 the Korean government established the King Sejong Institute Foundation to help provide Korean language education abroad. As of the end of 2014, the foundation had established 130 institutes in 55 countries. Meanwhile, more than 1 million people have registered to take the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) since the exam was first offered in 1997.

Why Korean?

South Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism believes the expansion of Korean businesses globally, along with a rise in foreigners living and working in Korea, have contributed to this trend. However, one of the biggest driving factors may be the spread of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave.

Hallyu, a phenomenon that seems to have originated with the popularity of Korean dramas in Japan in the early 2000s, has now attracted millions of fans from around the world. The rising interest in Korean pop music and television has corresponded with this trend of increased demand for Korean language education. In fact, according to a 2013 survey of Sejong Institute students, 34.3 percent cited interest in pop culture as their main impetus for studying Korean. The second most common response was a general curiosity about Korea and Korean language at 28.1 percent. In fact, the King Sejong Institute Foundation cites “Rapid increase in the Korean language education thanks to the spread of Hanryu [Hallyu]” as one of the main factors that sparked their establishment.

The government has continued to seize on this fact, using interest in pop culture to draw more students. The Sejong Institute in Washington, DC, for example, offers a five-day Hallyu Camp each summer focused on teaching the basics of Korean language along with cultural programming.

In addition, Study in Korea, the official government site providing information on studying abroad in Korea, also emphasizes Hallyu as a reason to study Korean, noting that “while Hallyu fans first fall in love with the concepts and creativity of Hallyu, immersion in language, the true essence of the country’s culture is also a critical step.”

More Resources

Along with the spread of Hallyu, an increase in online resources may be fueling, or at least facilitating, this trend. The popular website Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK) provides free podcast and video lessons ranging from how to read and write Korean characters all the way up to reading the daily news. Since its inception in 2009, the site has drawn more than 8.7 million users and surpassed 50 million total downloads.

And students from all over the globe have better access to Korean educational materials thanks to the world wide web. In fact, G Market, an online shopping service, said sales of books and videos teaching Korean rose around 37 percent from 2013 to 2014. This included shoppers from 76 different countries, up from 57 the previous year.

Through the Korean Wave and a push to increase access to Korean education both on and offline, Korean is bucking the trend in language study the United States and around the world. Whether this increase in interest is sustainable, however, remains to be seen.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shaylor’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Need for Tailored Engagement with North Korea

By Gi-Wook Shin, David Straub, and Joyce Lee

The already serious situation on the Korean Peninsula is worsening. North Korea is on a path to credibly threaten South Korea, Japan, U.S. forces in Northeast Asia, and eventually the United States with a nuclear attack. At the same time, Inter-Korean relations have become dangerously unstable, with the risk of renewed military conflict. U.S. relations with China and Russia are deteriorating and China is gradually incorporating North Korea’s economy, deepening the geopolitical divide between North and South Korea.

To address the growing crisis, concerned countries need to use all available means, including engagement of the North. With the United States and China showing no disposition to change their approaches, however, the principal hope for an engagement initiative rests with Seoul. South Korea’s special relationship with the North and its status as a dynamic middle power give it the potential to play a much larger leadership role in dealing with North Korea.

To be sure, developing and implementing a major North Korea initiative will not be easy, but it can be done. As a conservative leader, President Park has the “Nixon to China” political space in South Korea to pursue engagement. Despite North Korea’s criticism of South Korea, its leaders need foreign assistance and do not wish to be completely reliant on China. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) supports increased inter-Korean engagement, and the United States will not oppose it as long as it does not preclude the continued application of pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.

Seoul has an opportunity to begin to bridge the gap with Pyongyang by pursuing a hardheaded approach that we call tailored engagement. Its aim is to reduce the risk of conflict now while fostering inter-Korean reconciliation and effecting positive change in North Korea, with the ultimate goal of laying the basis for peaceful unification. The concept is based on the conviction that engagement is only one means—albeit an essential one—of dealing with North Korea, but that engagement must be carefully “tailored” or fitted to changing political and security realities on and around the Korean Peninsula. Like President Park’s trustpolitik, it is based on a step-by-step confidence-building approach. It eschews both an “appeasement” approach to Pyongyang and the notion that inter-Korean engagement under the current circumstances would be tantamount to accepting the North’s misbehavior, especially its nuclear weapons program.

Under tailored engagement, South Korea would make a renewed attempt to engage the North in various types of exchanges in a principled and systematic way. Guiding principles include: (1) a focus on the pursuit of mutual interests and benefits rather than on symbolism and appeals to national sentiment; (2) the application of market principles and international standards in economic activities; (3) collaboration with other countries and third-party companies in both economic and people-to-people projects; (4) and pragmatism and flexibility in pursuing engagement at both the state-to-state and grassroots levels in complementary ways.

Key to implementing tailored engagement will be the achievement of greater consensus within South Korea and close consultation with allies and partners. President Park should begin by creating a new senior-level North Korea policy representative position to assist her in developing the initiative, furthering domestic consensus, managing the South Korean interagency process, and leading negotiations with Pyongyang, similar to the “Perry Process” in the United States in the late 1990s.

A significant portion of this study is devoted to a discussion of projects that a government-prepared, comprehensive road map of tailored engagement might include. Such a road map should proceed from projects that are easier to implement, politically and substantively, to those that are more difficult. In practice, this will generally mean starting by expanding existing engagement efforts and resuming worthwhile projects that have been suspended.

There is considerable urgency for Seoul to act. Further rounds of North Korean nuclear and missile tests will make engagement even harder, and strategic mistrust between the United States and China and Russia continues to mount. Despite the challenges, tailored engagement can bear fruit.

The preceding is based upon the executive summary of the new report, Tailored Engagement: Toward an Effective and Sustainable Inter-Korean Relations Policy, by Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. The full report is available here.

Gi-Wook Shin is the Director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and the Director of the Korea Program, David Straub is the Associate Director of the Korea Program, and Joyce Lee is a Research Associate for the Korea Program at Stanford University. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

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The Future of Global Korea

By Sarah K. Yun

Since his inauguration in 2008, President Lee Myung-bak has promoted a “Global Korea” policy for Korea to be a more active and responsible member of the international community. However, with the upcoming presidential election and potential pendulum swing in South Korea’s leadership, what is the future of Korea’s growing global leadership role?

With the U.S.-ROK alliance as the bedrock of its growing global presence and the “Global Korea” policy, Korea has pushed for improved and active bilateral relations across the world. Korea has not only solidified relations with its neighbors such as Japan and China, but also strengthened ties with Russia, countries of Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. President Lee Myung-bak was the first Korean head of state to visit Africa, while existing ties with Europe strengthened with the Korea-EU FTA. Korea has also boosted cooperation with ASEAN.

Korea has worked to improve efforts to fight poverty and contribute as a responsible member of the international community through official development aid (ODA) and peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and Somalia, and disaster relief to Haitai and others. As the only country in the world that transformed itself from an aid recipient to aid donor within five decades, Korea spent $862 million in ODA in 2009, and has planned to double its ODA budget by 2012 and triple it by 2015.

In 2010, Korea successfully hosted the G-20 Summit in Seoul, elevating its status as an economic leader and global summit convener. It was the first non G-7 country to host the summit. In 2011, Korea hosted the fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, participating and leading in issues related to global development and poverty reduction. Korea has been working closely with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and other multilateral organizations for knowledge sharing and technical assistance. In March 2012, Korea hosted the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. From May to August 2012, the World Expo takes place in the coastal city of Yeosu. Korea will also host the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Moreover, Korea’s culture and pop culture, including Hallyu (Korean Wave), has swept across the world throughout Asia, Latin America, North America, and Europe. Korean companies have also contributed to Korea’s global presence. Korea’s soft power has shown to be active and influential.

“Global Korea” has clearly not been a misnomer in the recent years. At the same time, democratic politics in Korea is extremely dynamic and dramatic, which often makes policy predictions difficult especially in an election year. In this year of change, will “Global Korea” hold?  Although a large-sized country with a developed economy is unlikely to need such a policy, a small middle-power country like Korea has a stronger need for such a policy approach to help it find a competitive advantage on the world stage. In other words, a policy such as “Global Korea” is inherently in Korea’s interest to remain competitive. President Lee’s green growth initiative is also similar in nature in that Korea needs to preserve its national capital for sustainable long-term growth. Embedded in “Global Korea” is also the country’s position to stay effective as a world leader. On the other hand, Korea is strategically tying its new global position with a shared growth vision, which takes the edge off the potential negative impacts of national branding.

The one potential hurdle may be that the core issue in the current election campaign is the issue of social welfare. Consequently, both parties may become more focused on domestic policies as opposed Korea’s place in the international community. However, an agenda focused on Korea’s role on the global stage and shared growth should be a non-partisan issue, as the need for increased global and regional governance is stronger than ever before. Therefore, while the terminology and some of the function may change, the idea of Korea having a greater global role should be sustainable under future administrations and the assumption that Korea will continue to strive to maintain its middle-power leadership in the world.

Continuing Korea’s leadership in the world may continue to take shape in many forms, including international summit convener, economic role model, soft power leader, and others. On the other hand, there are three agenda items for Korea to enhance its leadership in the world. The first is to become an industry hub, just as Hong Kong and Singapore are financial hubs and Bangkok is an international development center in Asia. The second is to boost international volunteer programs such as KOICA to engage young leaders in Korea’s global participation. The third is to improve the social safety net that has been impacted by the financial crisis and strengthen the civil society that is beginning to solidify as a significant player in Korean society. At the same time, Korea has to delicately balance domestic and international issues in order to continue as a global leader.

Korea has shown remarkable resilience from historical violence and divisions. It has risen to be one of world’s most stable and dynamic democracies and markets, becoming a role model for many developing countries. Korea is a country that bridges the divide between developed and developing countries. With this responsibility, it would be a misstep to forgo Korea’s emerging leadership role under any administration.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from underclasscameraman’s photo stream on flickr creative commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.