South Korean nation branding: global recognition as the final step in a successful capitalist development

Perspectives Internationales 04/01/2015 0

Nation branding is a major trend, one in which corporate and state interests are entrenched and have been “adopted in countries with emerging market economies and with established capitalist economies alike.” (Aronczyk 2013)

It could be defined as an apparatus of discourses and practices aiming to create a highly competitive national image in the global market place of nations. It uses corporate marketing and brand management techniques and tools to convey a national image to be broadcast within and outside the nation.

A successful nation brand is assumed to be able to compete for international capital: tourists, investment, import-export trade, skilled labor and highly educated international students; and foster national companies’ competitiveness. It helps “convey an image of legitimacy and authority in diplomatic arenas” (Aronczyk 2013) and obtain a legitimate seat in multilateral negotiations and decision-making.

In May 2006, Simon Anholt, “inventor” of nation branding, was the key note speaker at the “Nation Brands in the Global Market” conference in Seoul, held by the Korea Image Development Committee. He addressed the question of South Korean global reputation and advised the South Korean government on these issues. It is not surprising that two of the most active promoters of nation branding, Simon Anholt and Keith Dinnie, have worked on the South Korean case (Dinnie 2010, Anholt 2011). South Korea is indeed one of the countries, if not the only country in the world, which has put so much effort in its nation branding strategy.

If South Korea is among the world’s most developed countries since its entry in the OECD in 1996, why has its government invested so much money and effort in promoting a South Korean nation brand?

I would suggest here that South Korean nation branding cannot be understood without considering the perspective of South Korean capitalist development initiated by General Park Chung Hee in the early 1960s. Successive South Korean governments have aimed at making South Korea a leading nation, a “top country” (Kim 2014, p.4). Although nation branding is sometimes considered to be a mainly domestic exercise, I argue that South Korean nation branding is fundamentally directed towards a global audience, aiming at completing the state-led development project launched by Park Chung-Hee. The different policies aimed at transforming South Korea into a first-class capitalist country share similar features of a constant state-led project. Nation branding can be analyzed as the final step towards the global recognition of South Korea as a fully competitive and globalized (understand: successfully capitalist) state.

To sustain this argument, I will first recall the successive governments’ developmental strategies from the early 1960s to the early 2000s, emphasizing their common underlying project. Although their mobilization power seems less obvious after the fall of the authoritarian regime put in place by Park Chung-Hee and his successors until the late 1980s, it should not be forgotten that citizens can be targets of developmental mobilization even under a constitutionally democratic regime.

I will then present the main features of Pres. Lee Myung-Bak’s nation branding project, and emphasize the continuity with the core developmental path taken by the country since the aftermath of the Korean War.

From 1960s to 2000s: a developmental strategy embedded in a survival-bound vision of world order

From the early 1960s, the South Korean state founded its legitimacy (albeit contested) in its developmental character. The “miraculous” development of the peninsula has been acclaimed by various international organizations (most notably, by the World Bank 1993) and a wide body of literature (for instance: Amsden 1989) which resolves around a debate on the role of the state in this developmental success. The prevailing explanation for this success from the late 1980s emphasizes the overwhelming role of the state in efficiently managing market forces (Chang 2006).

General Park Chung-Hee took power in 1961 and justified his military coup by the developmental project he advocated: transforming South Korea into an independent and strong nation state, both militarily and economically (Kim, 2004). What is over overlooked, or taken for granted, is the ideological underpinning of such a national project. As Lie noted (Lie 1998, 147), “The crucial underpinning of South Korean state nationalism was the celebration of GNP growth.” His project of modernization of the fatherland, Jokuk Kundaewha, “envisioned a world of nation-states that were in fierce competition with one another and were ranked hierarchically. His rhetoric of “modernization” and “catch-up’ suggests that the kundaewha discourse accepted Korea’s low status in the hierarchy of nation-states and the West’s position at the top” (Kim, 2014, p.4).

In the process of making Korea change “from a pre-modern, underdeveloped society to a modern, productive, constantly growing society” (Park Chung-Hee, quoted in Lie 1998, p.43), Park Chung-Hee’s authoritarian leadership relied on the sacrifice of a repressed labor force, enrolled in the developmental project to provide cheap manpower for the ambitious industrialization programs he set up. South Korean citizens were notably made to participate in national development through the New Village Movement (Saemaul Undong), a developmental program targeting rural areas.

The democratization process took place after the 1987 protests forced President Chun Doo-Hwan to abandon the authoritarian system. The first democratically elected President Roo Mu-Hyun maintained concerns of designing a central place to South Korea, with the Donduka Jungsim Gugka doctrine, aimed at making of South Korea “the center of North East Asia”.

The end of the military regime at the end of the 1980s changed the way the world looked at South Korea. The election of President Kim Young-Sam in 1992 is considered as a turning point in Korea’s engagement with globalization. The new government adopted a new foreign policy paradigm, segyehwa (“globalization policy”).

The core objective of segyehwa was to “become a central country to the world” (Segyehwa White Paper 1998) and an advantaged nation. More than adapting to globalization, Kim emphasized the need to adopt globalization as a state policy.(Segyehwa White Paper 1998) Segyehwa was born out of a “recognition of a move from the periphery to the core” (Segyehwa White Paper 1998) and a worldview in which globalization could be “a shortcut that will lead us [South Korea] to building a first-class country in the 21st century” (KIM Young-sam 1995, New Year’s address, January).

The new democratic regime, pro-business, accepted the principle of economic liberalization of the country. Kim Young-Sam led the opening of the South Korean financial sector to foreign companies, with the goal of entering the OECD. Despite a fierce opposition to this membership by protest groups (such as the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice), South Korea joined the WTO in 1995 and the OECD in 1996.

Although Kim Young-Sam was a democrat and had been an opponent to the military regime, the capitalist project of Korean development underlying segyehwa should not be missed. Indeed, as Kim Nora notes, “Recall that Park saw the world as a place in which nation-states compete against one another and envisioned kundaehwa as a strategy to survive such fierce competition. Kim Young-Sam promoted a similar sense of vulnerability and crisis. At the Seattle Summit conference on APEC in November 1993, he declared the beginning of his segyehwa drive, with which Korea “should prepare for the coming 21st century, an era of unlimited competition, by planning survival strategy of internalization equipped with the supreme competitiveness of the whole world” (Kang 2000, p.448).

The model to be emulated was that of “more affluent Western [states]” (Moon 2005, p.110) and the government emphasized the adoption of international norms and standards. As Kim points out, “As Korea repositions itself from the bottom to the middle and aspires to be a top country, conforming to Western norms has become an important component of developmental strategies”. (Kim, 2014 p.4) Mass mobilization of citizens was considered essential to the accomplishment of segyehwa (Kang 2000 p.450).

Kim Young-Sam’s successors, Kim Dae -Jung and Lee Myung-Bak, although belonging to opposed political sympathies, continued to emphasize the centrality of globalization in the modern development of Korea, again relating to an understanding of world order in which survival is the key driving force of government policies. This was manifested in the continuation of neoliberal policies, and the urging of Koreans to “globalize” (Kalinowski and Cho 2012), culminating in President Lee Myung-Bak “Global Korea” policy.

Global Korea: branding the successful capitalist nation

At the heart of “Global Korea”, the concern for South Korean global image met the phenomenon of nation branding. The discourse of survival, underlined by nation branding consultants, is strikingly similar to that used by Lee Myung-Bak’s administration.

Lee Myung-Bak, former Hyundai Heavy Construction CEO and mayor of Seoul, took nation branding “guru” (Aronczyk 2013) Simon Anholt’s comments on South Korean nation brand’s poor scores very seriously. The concern was focused on the so-called “Korea Discount” phenomenon, referring to the gap between the country’s development accomplishments and its poor image in the eyes of international audiences.

In his 2008 Liberation Day speech, Lee declared: “it is extremely important for Koreans to win the respect of the international community. […] Korea is one of the most technologically advanced nations. And yet, the first images coming to the minds of foreigners are strikes and street demonstrations. If our nation wants to be “approved” as an advanced country, then it […] needs to improve its image and its reputation significantly.” (Lee Myung-Bak 2008) Following this urge, Lee Myung-bak created the Presidential Council on Nation Branding on January, 22 of 2009. Thanks to the Council, his objective was to climb from 33rd to 15th rank in the Anholt-GfK Ropers Nation Brands Index, as early as 2013.

As Dinnie observed, “the government has committed significant resources and energy to position the Korea Brand as a vibrant, dynamic democracy, creative and open to the world.”(Dinnie 2010) According to the former website of the Council, “Nation brand is the dignity of a country. Korea must raise its global status by making efforts to gain credibility and likeability in the international arena.” (PCNB 2009)This is the goal the PCNB should work for. Therefore, the Council’s main objectives were “to increase Korea’s commitment and contribution to the international community; to help Koreans become responsible, respectful global citizens; and to promote Korean products and services.” (PNCB 2009)

In March 2009, the PCNB presented a plan for action in 10 axes, among which aims are to increase the Korean presence on the development agenda, to foster international academic exchanges, and to make every Korean a global citizen by promoting multiculturalism in the country. The PCNB has not been the only actor to participate in the nation branding effort. The private sector was also involved in the nation branding strategy, whether it was the business sector or the entertainment industry (see for instance Messerlin and Shin 2014) . Furthermore, the local governments also participate in the nation branding effort. They try hard to obtain major projects, such as the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

The Council was unsatisfied with the Anholt GfK Roper Nation Brands Index. As its first chairman Eun Yoon-dae put it: “So far, the Nation Brands Index developed by Simon Anholt has been used, but it has problems in its study methods and is scientifically inaccurate. Moreover, we could not really figure out why Korea ranked 31st. So we needed a new index that could give us a more concrete evaluation.” (Lee 2010) Consequently, from 2009, the Council worked with a South Korean think tank, SERI (Samsung Economic Research Institute), to create a Korean index for comparing nation brands: the Seri-PNCB NBDO Nation Brand Dual Octagon. The survey nevertheless encountered much criticism about its national and political bias.

The Seoul G20 Summit: the path-dependency of developmental mobilization

 In November 2010, South Korea presided and hosted the 5th G20 Summit. The PCNB drew a list of goals for the summit, among which: organizing forums of student leaders from the G20 countries, creating self-promotional ads to be shown on international media such as BBC and CNN, promoting Korean culture and food to foreigners, using the Internet to educate people about Korea Friendly Digital Korea media and broadcasting contents easily accessible about Korean culture.

President Lee Myung-decided to take advantage of the Summit to boost Korea’s nation brand in foreign audiences: “Korea should take advantage of the event to become a more respected and powerful nation. It will be a good opportunity, too, to upgrade global awareness about Korea’s potential as well as the remarkable achievements the nation has made during the past decades”. (Na 2010) As member of the PCNB Suh Dae-won noted, since South Korea is “now aiming to become one of the most advanced nations, [it] should confidently display courage and determination to think beyond its borders and accept and implement international standards” (Suh 2009). South Koreans should also “learn globally accepted norms and etiquette and have an international mind-set.” (Na 2009)

 As one foreigner commentator noted (personal interview), “The country was mobilized to avoid any wrong chord. It came from the top; it was a big thing for Lee Myung-bak. It was source of pride for his term.”

According to a Korean interviewee, “Because of the Summit, Koreans were disturbed in their daily lives.” Boards reading “If you come across a foreigner, smile and say “Hello!” were posted in the capital’s subway. Other boards asked South Koreans to behave well towards the foreign visitors excepted in Seoul for the Summit. “G20” was the key term before the summit: it appeared on newspapers, official speeches, ads, and policemen’s uniforms.”

While the foreign heads of states were taken on a tour around the country, Seoul’s mayor took drastic measures to present a clean and modern capital. The streets were cleaned, street vendors and homeless asked to leave the city centre, for they did not fit in the image of a “global city”. Taxi drivers were obliged to attend English classes and shave every day. Other operations aimed at reducing traffic in the city, and present an efficiently working, ordered city (personal interview).

The anti-G20 local demonstrators were harshly repressed by the police, largely deployed in Seoul, and the army. International activists were refused entry visa. Despite these security measures, the protests were fierce against the Summit, but not emphasized by the Korean media, for they did not fit in the consensual South Korean nation brand.

Branding reception and future prospects for South Korean competitiveness

The homogeneity of the branded image is broken by dissident voices. The anti-G20 demonstrations, the South Korean labor unions opposed to the progressive economic liberalization of the country, the fierce opposition to the Iraq war involvement (Saxer 2013): all parasite the Global Korea image that the government tries to sell. The latest social opposition movement came from students and threatens the consensual nation brand: replacing the Korean greeting Anyeong hasimnikka (“How are you?”) with Annyong dul hasimnikka (“How are we all doing?”), they express their misfortune and their impression that the South Korean is tarnished by social resentment and disunity. (Yoon 2013)

In 2013, newly elected President Park Geun-hee decided to dissolve the Council, mainly because it has been the target of much criticism by foreign observers.

In this article, I have traced the origins of South Korean concern with nation branding back to the capitalist developmental path launched by General Park Chung-Hee in the early 1960s, and especially in the 1970s. South Korean nation branding obviously results from the rise of the phenomenon of nation branding in the late 1990s (for further reading see Aronczyk 2013), and it could be argued that South Korean, and eventually all contemporary governments’, priorities, moving from heavy industrialization to image industry, follow the lines of the “postmodern branding revolution” that took place in the 1990s, when advertising, marketing and public relations (PR) became fundamental disciplines and fields of practice and when the brand itself and its logo became “the focus of conventional efforts.” (Jansen 2008)

Nevertheless, South Korean nation branding should also be understood within the context of reinventing South Korea as a site of capitalist accumulation in a global competitive setting (Pirie 2008). Pres. Lee’s nation branding strategy shares common features with previous forms of the developmental project: a strong top-down, state-led character, a sense of vulnerability and crisis facing South Korea (see Kim 2014), and the same concern with the global recognition of South Korea as a fully competitive and globalized (understand: successfully capitalist) state. The way nation branding is imposing on the citizens to participate in “living the brand” (Aronczyk 2008) also recalls earlier mass mobilization of citizens in the developmental project.

South Korean nation branding is one of the last steps in the project of creating modern Korea as a strong player in the game of restless international competitiveness. It seems likely that current Pres. Park Geun-Hye, although she denied this to the PCNB, is working in the same direction. Her promotion of a creative economy and the current praise of multiculturalism are elements of the broader strategy for Korea to survive in what is perceived as the late-modern zero-sum game of global economy.

Juliette Schwak

Juliette Schwak est doctorante au Department d’Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong. Son travail doctoral propose une analyse critique du nation branding de la Corée du Sud. Diplômée du master recherche en Relations Internationales de Sciences po Paris (2014), elle perfectionne son coréen, appris à Sogang University (Seoul) et à l’INALCO (Paris). Ses intérêts de recherche se concentrent sur le modèle économique et social sud-coréen, les études critiques sur la mondialisation et le développement, la philosophie politique non-occidentale (notamment la philosophie politique confucéenne) et les approches critiques des relations internationales. Récemment, dans le cadre de son doctorat, elle se penche sur la politique d’aide de la Corée du Sud en Asie du Sud-Est, notamment aux Philippines.

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