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[Voice] How important is national image?

With government to spend over 6 billion won on public diplomacy this year ...

Aug. 12, 2013 - 20:09 By Korea Herald
Korea cares what you think of it. That was ostensibly the message conveyed to the world in the announcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last month that it would survey 50 countries’ citizens on their impressions of the country. The poll, to be carried out over three years, will include Brazil, India, South Africa and Vietnam, among other countries with less-established relationships with Korea than the likes of the U.S. and Japan.

Gauging how people outside the country “feel about Korea” would give the government the information necessary to craft “country-tailored” public diplomacy, a ministry official told local media as the plan was unveiled.

Ma Young-sam, the ambassador for public diplomacy at the ministry, explained to The Korea Herald that the survey was different from previous efforts abroad because it was targeted at ordinary citizens.

“In pursuing public diplomacy, MOFA wants to formulate tailor-made programs that match the mindset, customs and traditions of different nations. To achieve this, we first need to understand how foreigners perceive Korea,” said Ma.

“Previous surveys focused mainly on people that had some familiarity with Korea, but the goal this time is to have scientifically based surveys that target the general population of a country.”

The move follows a raft of measures to boost Korea’s national image abroad in recent years, from spending millions of dollars on the promotion of Korean food, to holding essay contests for children abroad on their perception of the country. This year, the government intends to spend more than 6 billion won ($5.4 million) on public diplomacy.
A foreign resident takes the Korean Language Proficiency Test. (The Korea Herald)

Yet, Korea struggles to feature prominently in the imagination of most foreigners. The country ranked 27th in the 2011 Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, compiled with the results of a survey of 20,000 people asked about their perceptions of 50 countries in areas such as governance, exports, tourism, culture and heritage. Korea fared even more poorly in last year’s similarly themed FutureBrand Country Brand Index, placing just 49, a drop from 42 the previous year.

Simon Anholt, who created the Nation Brands Index and has given policy advice to more than 40 countries’ governments, told The Korea Herald that Korea’s ranking in his index reflected its lack of impact on the lives of most people around the world.

“The reason why most people don’t think about it around the world is because it is just not very relevant to them. It doesn’t impact on their lives in any way,” said Anholt.

He added that a misunderstanding of the problem of weak national image was hampering efforts to raise Korea’s profile.

“The problem here is that often countries are asking themselves the wrong question. The question that they are always asking, and they often ask me, is ‘How can we make Korea more famous?’ This is just a dumb question, there is no answer to that question,” he said. “The correct question is what can we do ― not what can we say to make Korea more famous ― but what can we do to make Korea more relevant.”

Ultimately, Anholt said, Korea’s image would be shaped by its influence on the world, not savvy marketing. He said the country’s “green growth” drive was one example of action that could eventually pay dividends.

“I think it is a matter of having a really bold, coherent strategy for the country that decides what sort of role the country is going to play in international affairs,” he said. “You know, why should South Korea matter to anyone, what is its purpose in the world? And then to pursue that with every sector. And to a great extent, Korea has done this. As I mentioned, the drive towards more sustainable economic growth, that’s something that has been a Korean government policy in the past decade and Korea has done quite a lot about it.”

The preoccupation with “nation brand” is relatively new. Anholt only coined term the 1998, and created his index in 2005. Former President Lee Myung-bak latched onto the trend in 2009 with the establishment of the President Council on Nation Branding.

Up until relatively recently, the challenges of economic development and national security had diverted attention away from promoting the national image, according to University Of Seoul international relations professor Ahn Se-hyun.

“The previous governments have been so preoccupied with the struggle for democracy, handling the North Korean problem, and economic development, in particular, domestic affairs,” said Ahn. “If you see what the Japanese or Chinese have been doing in the past few decades, Koreans and the government have clearly ignored the importance of national brand or improving or advertising the (country’s) cultural uniqueness.”

Ahn said that it was important for people around the world to be aware of Korean culture because of its unique nature.

“This is a very important part of both selling national image and defining national identity for Koreans inside and outside the country, not to mention for other nations’ people to explore Korean culture,” he said.

“The reason is that Korean culture is very unique in the region because it is based upon a mixture of nomad and agrarian cultures and northern and southern Asian cultures, which has been neglected for centuries.”

But could there be such thing as doing too much to promote the country? The Foreign Ministry would appear to recognize the potential danger of being overzealous. When asked if there was a risk that such efforts could come off as too eager or nationalistic, Ma said that the ministry “understands these types of risks” and “that is why we are getting help from soft power.”

“Our goal is to implement programs where people can see, feel, and experience what Korea is really like,” said Ma.

He added that the primary concern of the ministry was not the number of people around the world who knew about Korea, but that perceptions of the country were accurate.

“Certain images come to mind when people think of certain countries. France usually brings the Eiffel Tower to mind. Italy brings to mind Italian cuisine. Egypt brings to mind the Nile River and the Pyramids. In the case of Korea, many foreigners seem to be influenced by the division of the Korean Peninsula, which brings to mind a negative image,” said Ahn.

“We want to help the world understand our situation and let them know we are doing what we can to promote world peace and security.”

By John Power (

Readers’ voice

Boosting national image ...

I think Korea could do a much better job. Sure, when it comes to sports stars and culture then Korea is doing great! However, when it comes to issues regarding transparency and politics it does a horrible job. Sexual harassment, bribes, money laundering, tax evasion, avoiding jail, fighting in parliament are just some things that tarnish any reputation it is trying to build.

― Jonte Hee Soo A, Suwon, via Facebook

Cost of sporting events ...

A large sporting event can be worth the expense if (especially) there is a plan to generate return on investment after the event. Let’s take the Korea-Japan World Cup of 2002 as an example. A lot of money was spent on building stadiums and related infrastructure ($4.7 billion or more) in Korea alone. Did Korea and Japan make a decent ROI from the Cup? And after 10 years, are Korea and Japan still making money from the Cup, or are they losing money due to the stadiums’ maintenance costs? I‘ve been to a few K League games in World Cup stadiums. They are still well maintained but they seem underutilized. There’s a Universiade coming up in Gwangju in a few years. Will it get a decent ROI? City officials say so ...

South Africa made a lot of money and goodwill in hosting the 2010 World Cup, but so far it has barely made a tenth of the ROI it expected to make. Some in South Africa say the nation’s money should have been spent on other priorities, like AIDS treatments, for one example. Others say having the stadiums built means that in the future the country can try for the Olympics.

Some financial journalists say hosting the Olympics is why Greece had its financial collapse. While not completely true, Greece’s bad ROI in 2004 should make nations concerned about the ROI of hosting a big-name event.

― Stephen Alexander, Suncheon