A General Essay on Korean Branding (that won second place in the MOFAT contest^^)

KTLIT LogoI think a clever reader will see where literature fits in here.^^

And, apparently I win a camera of some sort:

Congratulations!  Your essay was selected as a silver prize winner in the Essay Contest on Korea’s National Image. The process was especially competitive as there were nearly 500 submissions, and you should be proud of your achievement.  As a silver prize winner, you will be awarded a Korean brand digital camera.

And here is the actual thing –


As a citizen of the United States who has lived in Korea for five years, and was interested in it for many years prior, I see Korea’s international image as mixed, but quickly improving. This essay will discuss where that image is positive and strong, where it is weak or negative, and some of the steps that might be taken to expand, strengthen, and improve this image.

First, Korea has a trinity of categories in which its image is positive and distinct from other nations. These categories are internal economic development, outstanding exports, and an increasingly strong standing in so-called, ‘soft-power.’

Economic development is an unarguable area of positive image. Korea is well-known for its internal economic achievements, the “miracle on the Han.”  In fact, one way this international knowledge of Korean success can be measured is to look at the waves of international students who come to study in Korea. Other nations clamor to send their students to Korean universities and MBA programs hoping to learn from Korea the secrets to national economic development. These incoming students are in Korea to learn from perhaps the most successful country in the 2nd wave of development into an industrial, then post-industrial nation. Korea’s amazing march to development is one of the three pillars of its positive overseas image.

This economic success has had a corollary effect. Korea is also known internationally for the quality and price of its products. Overseas, Korean brands such as Samsung and LG have replaced Japanese brands as the guarantor of quality, reliability, and good value. Korean cars routinely win praise in automotive magazines. One cannot go very far in the United States or Canada without seeing someone driving a Korean car, or talking on one of Korea’s cutting-edge smart-phones. Export success is the second pillar of Korea’s positive overseas image.

The third pillar is soft-power, and until recently this had been the weakest of the pillars. While hallyu (The Korean Wave) had swept across Asia, it had done little to land on North American and European shores. Slowly but steadily, and now at an ever-increasing tempo, this is changing. The change is coming, roughly, in four soft-power categories: cinema, food, literature, and music.

The change began first in movies – Korean movies began to win awards at international competitions.  In 2002, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis won the second prize at the Venice film festival. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 and was a smash with English speaking viewers as well. Kim Ki Duk won two awards in 2004: First the best director award at the Berlin Film Festival and second the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his movies Samaritan Girl and 3-Iron, respectively. The success continued in 2010 with Poetry winning the Best Screenplay Award and Yoon Jeong-hee winning the Best Actress Award at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for her role in that movie. Just this year, Kim Ki-duk’s film Pieta won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, becoming the first film in Korean history to do so. It is interesting to note that these successful movies aren’t necessarily the movies that give the best ‘image’ of Korea, instead they are, quite simply, the movies that are best.

Korean cuisine, after some bumpy starts, began to explode internationally, and from surprising sources. The popularization of Korean food in the United States began with the success of Korean “Kogi-trucks” in Los Angeles. One of the unexpected aspects of this success, and one that bears some importance when looking at the future growth of soft-power internationally, is that the first strong inroads of Korean cuisine began with fusion foods – the “Kogi” trucks in Los Angeles mixed elements of Korean and Mexican food and found immediate success, often by artfully using social media services to drive demand. Once the public was introduced to Korean fusion food, it moved on to fully-fledged Korea cuisine, so much so that in New York Jung-Sik a high-end fully Korean restaurant opened last year in New York and in Manhattan Gaonnuri restaurant opened to rave reviews for both its food and the panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline from it’s 39th floor location. Korean food, thankfully, has escaped from its overseas Koreatowns and is now recognized as an international cuisine.

In literature, the march is also afoot. Decades ago pioneer Kim Yong-ik became the first successful Korean writer in English. After a hiatus, writers including Yi Mun-yol (Our Twisted Hero) and Pak Wan-so (Who Ate Up All the Shinga?) began knocking down barriers between Korean literature and foreign readers. Authors including Kim Young-ha (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself was a hit in France and Your Republic is Calling You successful in the United Sates) and Kyung Ran-jo followed. Finally, last year, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom exploded on the literary scene, becoming an Oprah book and then an international best-seller. With books from Kim Young-ha and Shin Kyung-sook due out in the next few months, it seems safe to say that Korean literature is beginning to assume its rightful place on the international stage.  These recent successes were partly because these novels were chosen by overseas publishers, who had a good feeling for their domestic markets.

Finally, and strangely, Korean music is now international. I say ‘strangely’ because Korean music groups have long since captured half the world, but only recently exploded into the Europe and the US. Groups like Girls Generation laid the groundwork, but it was the unlikely idol, PSY, who exploded into international prominence. Just as with the Kogi trucks, the movies, and the successful books, PSY was a case of the overseas audience finding something it truly loved, and strongly attaching to it.

As Korea has a powerful internal success story, brilliant products being exported daily, and hallyu finally reaching European and North American shores, it seems likely that Korea is now in the position to become a dominant international brand.

Discussing the negative images of Korea is more complicated. It isn’t that there are particularly negative images of South Korea, but that there is (particularly in the English-speaking world) a small set of outdated or incorrect images in the minds of many people. In the United States for instance, the image of South Korea is dominated by two things that have little to do with South Korea as it is today. The first is the unbelievably out of date image portrayed by the successful, and still in syndication, television show M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H presents Korea as war-torn, populated by peasants who work the land, and incapable of standing up for itself. These are hideously out of date images, and ones that Korea should do everything it can to erase. The second image is, unfortunately, that of North Korea. Because of North Korea’s position as an isolated and sometimes rogue nation, it gets many more news cycles than South Korea, and comes to dominate the public perception of Korea as a whole. This, too, needs to be addressed.  I should note at his point, that the Korean successes that I have mentioned above, have begun to chip away at these images, but there is still much work to do to erase those images and then fill in the lacuna of information that many westerners have about Korea.

An example from my particular interest in Korean culture, its literature, might demonstrate this point about a lacuna. If I go to a dinner or cocktail party anywhere in the English-speaking world), I can ask fellow guests this sort of question, “What do you think of French (or Japanese, Russian, or Chinese) literature and who is your favorite author?” Normally, I will receive an answer with general impressions about the literature and the name of a particular author (Sartre for France, Murakami for Japan, etc.). If I ask the same question about Korean literature, I am likely to be met with a blank stare. This is not because there isn’t an abundance of outstanding Korean literature, it is more because that literature is relatively unknown outside of Korea.

The primary thing that can be done to eliminate this lack of image is for Korea and its supporters to continue doing the good work they have been doing, and particularly to keep working with people and institutions from the international community in which Korea wishes to become more powerful and well-known. On some occasions in the past Korean institutions, particularly governmental ones, have decided on what they thought Korea’s international exports should be, rather than consulting the international audience to see what its interest is. Two quick examples of that might be found in food and music, where some official efforts were aimed at bibimbap and “well-being” food in terms of cuisine and girl-groups in terms of music. As noted above, the actually breakthroughs (in the non-Asian countries) came from fusion food (Kogi trucks, in LA and New York, for instance) and PSY, a solo singer with a remarkably non-standard look, sound, and feel.

This is a lesson that should be applied when discussing the final question at hand here, what Korea should adopt as its “national vision, value, image, brand, or slogan?” I would focus on the national vision and values and the image and brand will necessarily follow. As the Kogi truck, PSY, and Oldboy demonstrate, if the national vision produces a wide range of quality products (in both the hard and soft power senses), the international community will pick up on it. PSY, the Kogi truck and Oldboy were not created by people who cared about image, brand or slogan, rather they were all the result of a vision and values. If Korea, in general, sticks to that kind of principled approach, I think it is inevitable that Korea’s international impact will continue to grow in all arenas, and as in the international sporting arena Korea will punch well above its weight.

This is not to say that there should be no image, branding or slogan, rather this is to say that the visions and values should first be organically developed. Then the image and brand will follow, and appropriate slogans will become obvious.

Two other thoughts present themselves on this topic. The first is that if Korea is to develop an international brand, it needs to focus on what will be popular in the international arena – not on what seems to be the image that Korea wants to project. This means that the branding, image and slogan people need to be outer-directed, not inner directed.  When that focus falls into place, my last point would be that Korea needs to stick to whatever decisions it makes. The recent rapid succession of slogans, for instance, makes it impossible for branding to take place. In quick succession the KTO has offered, “Korea Sparkling,” “Dynamic Korea,” suggested an alternative “Miraculous Korea,” and settled on “Be Inspired.” Any of those slogans, if backed up by vision and values, would be fine. To have four different slogans in such quick succession is to deny the power that a slogan has, which is to stand for something across time. How often does McDonald’s for example, change slogans? How long has Nike stood behind “Just Do it?” If Korea stays consistent, looks outward, and hews to its vision and values it’s internal power will turn outward, and the world will necessarily take notice.



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