Sunday, August 9, 2009

Korea's Image Problem

A headline in the Joongang Daily caught my attention: "Korea Aiming to Refine Image Abroad." The article which followed the headline dealt with efforts of the Lee Myung Bak administration to improve the nation's brand image in the world. President Lee has convened a Presidential Council on National Branding. Lee Chan-buom, now the Director General of Korea's Presidential Council on National Branding, noted the adverse impact on Korea's image of news media coverage of the anti-US beef import candlelight vigils in early 2008. Those demonstrations were visually colorful, prolonged and mysterious to most western and international television viewers and internet users. Rightly or wrongly so, they created an image that South Korea is unstable, flighty and tends toward anti-Americanism. The article notes that nation-branding may be a difficult task in a country that has seen numerous street protests, corruption and frequent confrontation with its neighbor, North Korea. I'll say!
I've long been interested in the effects of mainstream media coverage, especially television, on public opinion and U.S. foreign policy toward other countries. (see, for example, my article on "Quiet Diplomacy in a Television Era Use the link and you can read the full text, PDF.). That was back in 1990. However, despite the explosive growth of the internet, (see my monograph, The Internet and Foreign Policy) the pattern continues. Korea's new President Council on National Branding will have to deal with television and the internet, most especially since convergence means that television (IPTV) is now part of the internet. In this new media environment, coverage by CNN, BBC World or The New York Times are a fact of life. Anti-beef import protests, stories about the sexual adventures of North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, and almost any topic, will be fair game for the world's media. The internet, television and the media (roughly in that order) are today significant determinants of corporate, national and even individual images. In this context, how should Korea proceed to improve its national image?
I have a couple of thoughts. First, news coverage of North Korea, and news coverage of demonstrations in South Korea are not going to go away. Furthermore, they are not under the control of the South Korean government. The only real solution to the problem that North Korea poses for South Korea's national image is to make real progress toward reunification, and the sooner the better. Second, any efforts to brand Korea should stay away from quick-fix advertising gimmicks like "Korea Sparkling" or even "Dynamic Korea" and should build from long-standing realities. For example, Hangul is the Korean alphabet and that is not likely to change. Kimchi is eaten by Koreans and that, too, is unlikely to change anytime soon. It is an interesting challenge. I don't have any further insights at the moment, but will likely comment in future posts.

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