Image of a gold medal and Olympic rings
Gold medal for soft power? Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Korea. Photo ©

Unsplash, adapted from the original.

March 2018

As a successful Winter Olympics comes to an end, Martin Fryer, British Council Country Director Korea, talks to Insight about South Korea’s soft power, and the opportunities for the UK from closer cooperation with the country.

The Real Olympic Success Story

Commentators are already saying that PyeongChang 2018 ranks as one of the better organised Olympic Games of recent times. The world’s media has covered not only sporting stories but also many aspects of Korean culture, food and technology. This will have introduced Korea to millions for the first time, and the tone has generally been very positive. And it has been greatly amplified by the geopolitical background to the Games. Getting North Korea to participate looks as if it has been a successful move by the South Korean government, and there is hope of continuing talks between the two Koreas. This fits well with the theme of Peace that the Olympic movement is meant to embody, and South Korea can claim much of the credit for giving these Games a special atmosphere as a result.  

The 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul is often mentioned as the start of South Korea’s successful soft power push. It was followed by a rapid opening up of the country’s popular culture through K-pop, TV drama and film

The 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul is often mentioned as the start of South Korea’s successful soft power push. It was followed by a rapid opening up of the country’s popular culture through K-pop, TV drama and film. This was all done with full support of its various governments to show a side to South Korea which appeals particularly to other Asian countries. These sectors, to which one must now add the Gaming industry, are now billion dollar businesses. Such success, alongside the rapid rise of the country to become a world leader in business, education, and technology has transformed the country’s image. It is taking steps now to extend its soft power through the promotion of its contemporary arts and traditional crafts, and through its sportsmen and women. Its museums are world class with strong international connections, and its language is growing in popularity, with students often inspired to learn Hangeul thanks to the continuing phenomenon of K-pop. South Korea is also opening up its education system to international students. Government support will be crucial to this next stage of South Korea’s soft power and I see no let-up in the political consensus that soft power matters.  

Lessons & Opportunities for the UK

The UK can certainly learn a great deal from the strategic approach South Korea continues to take towards promoting itself on the world stage. South Korea’s government works closely with business, the media and academics to set its soft power priorities. As a medium-sized power with China and Japan as large neighbours nothing is taken for granted, and South Korea’s trade policy is backed up by a soft power agenda. 

The UK can certainly learn a great deal from the strategic approach South Korea continues to take towards promoting itself on the world stage. South Korea’s government works closely with business, the media and academics to set its soft power priorities. As a medium-sized power with China and Japan as large neighbours nothing is taken for granted, and South Korea’s trade policy is backed up by a soft power agenda

According to a recent report, the UK was one of the most attractive countries in the world to young South Koreans, including for arts, culture and education. South Korea looks to the UK for the way we have built up our institutions, particularly educational and cultural, and to our success in innovating, inventing and creating a thriving creative industries sector. South Korea is also interested in how we are tackling the challenges of an ageing population, and our approaches to integration and social cohesion as a multicultural society. Its interest in diversity extends too to the work being done in the UK to address the barriers disabled people experience in playing a full role in so many fields.  

The two countries can complement each other through scientific and technological cooperation, with South Korea offering such rapid advances in digital and advanced manufacturing whilst the UK’s record in inventiveness and applied design is so strong. There is also lots of interest from both sides in the growing importance, particularly amongst the younger generation, of social impact as a driver for businesses. We can work together to find new ways to invest in social enterprise for a more sustainable future. And we can certainly cooperate in the research that’s needed for successful strategies to adapt our cultural, sporting and education institutions to the needs of older communities. South Korea is now ageing faster than any other developed country. 

Schools in South Korea are keen to cooperate with the UK to develop the inter-cultural skills of their teachers and students. There is also scope for school links, with the South Koreans looking for exposure to English speaking schools outside Korea, and UK schools for opportunities to learn about Korean culture. Both countries’ schools sectors are interested in working together to develop better curriculum and methodology for creative education (arts and design). In Higher Education we are seeing a convergence of ideas between South Korea and the UK about the role of the university in the community.  Meanwhile existing links in high-value applied research in health, technology and science will continue, supported by both the commercial and education sectors. 

Under Japanese rule (1910 – 1945) Koreans were exposed to their colonial rulers’ culture, education and technology and had few opportunities to expand their horizons. After the Korean War US influence dominated most sectors, including higher education, for many decades. The younger generation today (the richest in Korea’s history) has much greater choice as to where to travel and to study and is exercising that choice.  Knowledge and interest in European culture and history has grown, and the UK has greatly benefited from this thanks to the high ranking of our universities, the reputation of our institutions and the attractiveness of our film, TV, and design. 

The UK must recognise that this generation of South Koreans will soon become the decision-makers in business, government, education and the arts. The UK has an opportunity to harness the growing number of South Koreans well-disposed to the UK to increase trade, to grow the UK’s market share of Koreans studying overseas, to facilitate research collaboration, and to further boost the success of the UK’s creative industries. The relationship between South Korea and the UK has great potential to be as positive as it has ever been since the end of the Korean War. It is worth remembering that there is still underlying warmth in the relationship which dates back to the 1950s when the UK sent the second largest number of troops to join the conflict that led to the creation of South Korea. 

Martin Fryer, British Council Country Director, Korea

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