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  • Writer's pictureDaeun Choi

A South Korean soft power initiative:What lies behind the Korean wave

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The Korean Wave, known as Hallyu, refers to the popularity of Korean Pop culture around the world. Beginning in the midst of the 1990s, when NHK in Japan aired the KBS drama “Winter Sonata”, the popularity of K-dramas began to soar across Asian countries (, 2022). From the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, K-pop girl’s and boys’ groups expanded the sphere of its popularity from K-drama to K-pop (Ibid). The next generation of the Korean Wave sparked global interest, such as BTS’s global popularity and Netflix’s global sensation “Squid Game”. In the past, South Korea carried a negative image due to the Korean War and North Korea’s threat, but nowadays this Korean Wave has brought economic and global recognition to the country. The outcome may appear to be a great success for private entertainment companies in South Korea, but this phenomenon is not going unnoticed by the country’s public diplomacy. This paper will examine the evolution of this soft power approach as well as its long-term effects on the Asian nation.

Public diplomacy as a soft power tool

Korean Embassy in Thailand and Korean Cultural Centre held a seminar to discuss the way of strengthening cultural exchange between South Korea and Thailand. At the event, director Cho of the Korean Cultural Centre highlighted the two countries’ cultural exchange and fusion will lead to the two countries’ growth of soft power, citing the cases of joint productions of South Korean and Thai film companies (Kang, 2022). His opening speech sheds light on the importance of public diplomacy as a national strategy to enhance soft power amongst countries now. This section will explore how public diplomacy has been improved by comparing it to traditional diplomacy.

According to the conventional viewpoint, diplomacy discusses issues such as conflict, the environment, and trade while focusing on official relations between sovereign states (National Geographic, 2022). Through diplomatic missions, host and receiving states are able to cooperate or solve a problem. It is known as “the practice of state”, and necessitates professional skills and expertise. In contrast, public diplomacy refers to the government’s communication with the foreign public and foreign governments in different ways (Leonard et al.,2002).

The term ‘Public diplomacy’ was coined by Edmund Gullion in 1965, who served as the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA (CPD, 2022). Gullion defined “public diplomacy” as activity and communication with government, private groups, and the foreign public that shape and influence the formation of foreign policy (Birdsall, 2019). American Political Scientist Joseph Nye, defined “Soft Power” as a country’s ability to affect others to obtain the desired outcome for that country through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion, also highlighting that public diplomacy is the key to promoting a country’s soft power (Nye, 2008). It implies that both theories are suitable for the characteristics of today’s public diplomacy strategy, which aims at obtaining the result through cooperation and attraction from others without using coercion in the global era. This trend is especially evident in democratic countries that communicate with the foreign public with the positive goal of sharing culture, knowledge, value and technology (Nawaz, 2021; MOFA, 2022). This helps to create a positive national brand image of the country among the foreign public thereby expanding the country’s global influence (MOFA, 2022). So how South Korea used public diplomacy to do so?

Public Diplomacy in South Korea

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, South Korea has shown the ability to promote its soft power both internationally and at home. The global popularity of Squid Game in 2021 led to a new Korean Wave spreading across the world. In response to its global fame, the Korean Cultural Center, operated by the Korean government’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, held official real-life Squid Games such as those in the Korean Cultural Centers in Abu Dhabi and Chicago (Nair, 2021) (Garcia, 2021). South Korean embassies over the world also hosted the Squid Game events with the purpose of promoting a new Korean Wave combined with a global OTT platform.

Through the pandemic. “the 4th Public Diplomacy Week” took place with an on-offline hybrid exhibition attracting the participation of 47 foreign embassies in Seoul. The public in South Korea responded well to the event, enjoying virtual embassy tours and talk shows with foreign diplomats (PD week, 2021). South Korea organised this event to allow foreign embassies engage with the South Korean public in a friendly manner, and by organising the event, South Korea also develops its diplomatic connections with other countries (Ibid). It is worth noting that South Korea has gone a long way from being a beneficiary of help owing to the Korean War and a poor economy (Marx and Soares, 2013). Today, the country succeeded to build a positive national brand image and serves as a platform to provide public diplomacy opportunities to promote other countries such as “The 4th Public Diplomacy Week” in Seoul.

From “chimney-less industry” to the Korean Wave

Strong media censorship was imposed in South Korea during the administrations of Park Junghee (1961-1979), and Chun Doowhan (1980-1988) However, with the emergence of South Korea’s democratic government in the early 1990s, the importance of the cultural industry was recognized as a tool for future economic growth. In 1994, an advisor to President Kim Young-Sam explained the importance of the entertainment industry putting emphasis on the American movie “Jurassic Park” earning as much as an export profit of 60,000 Hyundai automobiles (Iritani,1996). The presidential advisor’s comment enlightened the government about the importance of the cultural industry. The introduction of cultural industry led to a lifting of government censorship allowing South Korean artists to create movies, song and dramas (Pietrewicz, 2020). Under the Kim Dae-Jung administration: 1998-2003, South Korea enacted “The Framework Act on the promotion of cultural industries” containing investment support and manpower training, and export support as the foundation for the development of cultural industries (Moon, 2020). By enacting this law, President Kim laid the foundation of the cultural industry which contribute to economic growth and the high quality of people’s cultural life.

His administration also allocated 1 % of the total government budget to the Ministry of Culture during his initial years in office in order to develop the cultural industry (Lim et al.,2016). In 2001, President Kim Dae-Jung delivered a speech on the role of Hallyu (Korean Wave) as the economic driver of the country, calling it a “Chimeny-less industry” for the first time (Suntikul, 2019).

Under the Roh Moo-Hyun administration: 2003-2007, South Korea announced a policy vision for “The world’s Top Five Content Power” which aimed to enhance cultural technology and marketing strategy, and network construction (Policy news, 2003). In terms of regulation, the Roh Moo-Hyun administration revised “Copyright Law” to facilitate intellectual property rights in a digital network environment through technological protection measures and right management information in 2003 (Ibid). The “Korea Creative Content Agency” was established during Lee Myung-Bak(2008-2013) administration to coordinate the promotion of the Korean all-content business including music distribution services, game etc. (KOCCA, 2022).

Since the 1990s, South Korea’s democratic governments have been supporting the Korean Wave adhering to the “Arm’s length principle”; Be involved but not intrusive, especially since the Kim Dae-Jung administration. With this principle, South Korea has not only emphasized the role of the state but also the matter of private actors’ participation. For example, it allocated funds to private companies and media channels such as SM, JYP, HYBE, and CJ E&M (Pietrewicz, 2020). For the development of the Korean Wave, the government provides institutional strategies in which private companies and artists, and media channels were able to exert their competencies without political engagement. Considering this point, the Korean Wave is a national strategy driven by both state and non-state actors and it lies in economic development. Therefore, the development of public diplomacy is limited to advanced countries.

A threat to the North Korean regime

The Korean Wave is evidence of the country’s economic capacity, but it proves cultural industry has been improved within the free business environment. This artistic freedom has only been possible within a democratic frame as it is complicated to develop a cultural industry in nondemocratic countries like North Korea where culture is used as a tool for propaganda and manipulation of the masses. Hence, the development of the Korean Wave in South Korea also highlights the result of democratization of the country. It is necessary to focus on how the Korean Wave can be utilized in inter-Korean relations.

The Korean Wave’s popularity is spreading globally including in North Korea where despite the strict surveillance, people are secretly watching South Korean dramas and listening to K-POP (NHRCK,2016). In 2004, North Korean authorities established surveillance bodies to crack down on foreign content and publications, DVDs, especially in South Korea’s drama and K-pop in the name of non-socialist practices (Ibid). This group is called “109 Groupa”.

A noticeable point is that these surveillance bodies are not official groups and these are only created when the North Korean leadership feels the need to crack down on the South Korean content among North Korean people (Ibid). Additionally, “109 Groupa” usually consists of officers from the power structure in North Korea such as the Ministry of People’s Security and Propaganda Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Ministry of State Security (Ibid), so violations of human rights frequently take place in the crackdown.

Recently, in response to the Korean wave’s growing popularity in North Korea, the North Korean government passed the “Reactionary Thought and Culture Denunciation Law” defining a wide range of acts and behaviors as illegal such as distributing foreign broadcasts or importing impure foreign content and books, and distributing music unapproved by the state (Kuhn,2021; Jang, 2020).

Despite the danger, the Korean Wave is secretly becoming more popular in North Korean society and, threatening North Korea’s lifestyle. According to Kang Nara, a North Korean defector in Seoul, South Korea’s drama “Crash landing on You” gained popularity in North Korea with a well-researched portrayal of North Korean society (Kuhn,2021). “Crash landing on You” is a South Korean drama depicting a love story between a South Korean heiress and a North Korean military officer similar to Romeo and Juliet. Kang highlighted that young North Korean people tend to pursue a South Korean lifestyle after watching “Crash landing on You” (Ibid). For instance, North Korean women started to call their partners “Oppa”, the South Korean expression for “honey”, instead of “comrade” (Ibid).Likewise, a lot of North Korean defectors testified that North Korean teenagers imitate Southern expressions after watching South Korean dramas (Jung,2022).

In November 2020, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un strongly condemned “non-socialist” practices that threaten the regime while calling for rooting out such practices (Shim, 2020). In this regard, it indicates that the Korean Wave can be a clear threat to the North Korean regime. After applying the “Soft Power” theory to North Korea’s case, it is impossible to bring about Soft Power or public diplomacy in the North Korean regime, but Korean Wave allows South Korea to hold a lead over inter-Korean relations without military collision such as North Korean people’s escape to South Korea after watching K-drama.

The South Korean government has not officially deployed the “Korean Wave” toward North Korea, but North Korean society is being already infiltrated by the “Korean Wave” now. Therefore, the unofficial Korean Wave in North Korea is likely to be a power in changing the closed regime in the long term.


Unlike in the past, public diplomacy plays an important role in strengthening diplomatic relations such as South Korea’s Korean Wave. This impressive sensation is not just a result of the country’s luck but the outcome of state and non-state actors’ efforts. Considering this point, it shouldn’t overlook that the development of public diplomacy has been only possible within advanced countries which provide funds or a legal environment.

Furthermore, the Korean Wave’s artistic freedom, the growth driver of the development of the Korean Wave, has only been possible within a democratic frame now.In contrast, it is impossible to practice in a closed regime such as North Korea. As previously mentioned, many South Korean dramas including Crash landing on You have had an impact on North Korean society in terms of lifestyle. In response to the Korean Wave’s popularity, North Korean authorities have been surveilling people, and passing “Reactionary Thought and Culture Denunciation Law” to justify their aggressive behavior against North Korean people’s human rights. Hence, the unofficial Korean Wave in North Korea allows South Korea to hold a lead over inter-Korean relations without the military collision and is likely to be a power in changing the closed regime in the long term.


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