Beyond Gangnam Style: The origins and objectives of South Korean Soft Power

Andrew Kwon

In a matter of months, Psy’s Gangnam Style has become South Korea’s (ROK) most recognisable export. However this explosion of popularity and corresponding enthusiasm for all things South Korean belies extensive and arduous government efforts designed to not only overcome as Joseph Nye once opined “being defined by its problematic North Korean neighbour” but also its “difficult history of developing sufficient “hard” military power to defend itself”.

South Korean singer Psy practises some "Gangnam Style" dance steps with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a photo opportunity at the U.N. headquarters in New York

A means to an end…but what end? Current political commentary on the impact of Gangnam Style is part of a much broader discussion on how ROK government efforts have facilitated the greater reach of its cultural assets and by extension its Soft Power. The debate on the “Korean Wave” or “Hallyu” has often centred on the extent of government involvement, with suggestions ranging from pro-active participation and manipulation to a laissez faire approach which is argued as necessary to providing the artistic freedom to produce dynamic cultural assets. However rather than consider wading into an already highly saturated area of discussion, this blog will instead seek to contribute to an area which has experienced only intermittent consideration (Joseph Nye has touched on this area) – The origins and fundamental goals of ROK Soft Power strategy.

What lies within us The strategic framework of ROK Soft Power can be divided into interdependent subcomponents of internal cultivation and external objectives. The internal or domestic cultivation and application of Soft Power is a major basis for the success of the external projection component. The reasons for this lie in the effect of domestic attributes on the availability and viability of soft resources but also as means of grading the effectiveness of methodology. Asset cultivation and its contribution to external applicability is achieved through two stages; firstly through domestic applications of soft power comes the chance to apply and test methodology and secondly successful internal soft power application achieves conditions necessary for the ongoing perpetuation of highly dynamic cultural produce or soft resources.

Despite being lauded as an exemplar of democracy in Asia, much commentary on ROK Soft Power often treats the preceding era of near constant authoritarian rule (1948 – 1987) quite sparingly with the only link established between this period and the present being based principally on the importance of democratisation to heralding the rise of Soft Power. Admittedly though an improved stature in the International System is a critical pre-requisite of Soft Power, it is far too simple an explanation and ignores the need for a sustainable base built on inherent domestic factors that contributes to the quality of accumulated soft power assets and its application methodology.  To highlight this we consider the freshly democratised South Korea of 1987 which was facing the pressing challenges of a fractured society. A key issue during this period was the reconciliation of greater society and state institutions which were widely mistrusted following decades of abuse of power. A natural decision for such a scenario was a concerted effort to overcome the perception of a state defined by invasive martial enforcement to one of benignity which encouraged acquiesces. What subsequently transpired can be considered the formative years of ROK Soft Power, a period where basic soft power application was perfected to originally meet the goal of national reconciliation which in turn had the unintended (or intended) consequences of transforming domestic conditions conducive to the growth of soft resources.

In looking outwards The original focus of the ROK’s external projection of Soft Power was unsurprisingly based on its relationship with North Korea (DPRK). To explain, the ROK sought to utilise Soft Power to overcome its near constant association with the DPRK and concurrently compensate for foreseeable limitations in the development of its hard power assets. This narrow approach has unsurprisingly broadened to reflect expanded ROK interests since the late 1980s. The current objectives of ROK Soft Power seeks to not only accomplish its initial goals but also to help with the creation and occupation of a unique space that allows South Korea to operate with continued independence within the regional and International arena.

The geography and location of the Korean Peninsula is hardly the object of anyone’s envy. Being surrounded by China, Japan and Russia, it is the proverbial runt of North East Asia. The issue of geographically imposed limitations becomes increasingly acute for the ROK which is forced to deal with the aforementioned surroundings but with only half the available space and with the added danger of an unpredictable and often hostile “twin brother”. Though the ROK has done much to develop assets such as its Economy and Military to grow its Hard Power index, both environmental and geographic limitations will inevitably cap the growth of ROK capabilities. It is here that Soft Power helps to expand upon the limits of hard power application. If ROK Hard power is designed to defend against potential threats on the physical front, ROK Soft Power is designed as a means of fighting within the psychological front of the international community. The principal means through which externalised ROK Soft Power is applied is to project the belief that anything bad for the ROK is not only bad for the world, but a world without the ROK at all is impossible to fathom. Whether it is attracting awe through its economic model and national story, to the pervasiveness of the products of its culture and industries or even through the participation of its best and brightest in science and politics; ROK soft power is designed to ingrain the sense of ROK indispensability to the international community.

Though the ROK has its own backlog of domestic issues to deal with, it has done quite well on the international front with perceptions of the state being largely favourable. To perhaps highlight the success of its soft power I pose a question, Can you imagine the world today without Gangnam Style?

Andrew Kwon is a 2012 Masters graduate in International Security from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently an Intern at the Australian Institute for International Affairs (NSW Branch). The views expressed are exclusively his (

(Picture courtesy of


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