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[Hwang’s China and the World] We need public diplomacy that fully contains the scent of Korea

Discourse with public diplomacy experts

March 2, 2022 - 15:42 By Choi He-suk
From left: public diplomacy experts, Hwang Jae-ho, Kim Dae-sik, Lee Jong-kook, Han Dong-man (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Korea’s public diplomacy so far has been characterized as a state-centered one that focuses on popularizing itself. However, it is a fact that Korea is now facing needs and expectations to play a role that goes beyond it from home and abroad. Given that Korea’s status and capabilities have developed considerably in the international community, its way of lending a hand should also be tailored to what the other desires and needs. Now, giving off the messages that Korea has in its own principles, values, and norms is truly meaningful. The transition of consciousness from the idea of “helping the other” to “helping each other” is paramount. In the future, Korea’s public diplomacy should move toward the direction that can draw forth the sharing and understanding of mutual awareness through communication with others. Therefore, the value that Korea should advocate to the international community must first build the internal consensus on what the international community can accept. I guess it would be a Korean version of public diplomacy that fully contains the essence of Korea.

Based on this as the foundation, this week’s discourse invited three distinguished experts from public diplomacy. The former Ambassador of Korea to the Philippines Han Dong-man, who is currently serving as the Executive Advisor at Pyeongtaek International Exchange Foundation, the former Ambassador of Korea to Kazakhstan Kim Dae-sik, who is also the Deputy Secretary General of the Governors Association of Korea, and the former Ambassador of Korea to Libya Lee Jong-kook, the current Executive Vice-President at The Korea Foundation. The three came together to discuss Korean public diplomacy’s process of development, current status, and further directions.

Hwang: When is the first time that Korean public diplomacy began? Also, please tell us what development process it went through.

Han: Korea’s public diplomacy started in earnest since 2010, when the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officially set public diplomacy as a major diplomatic goal along with governmental affairs and economic diplomacy. For a successful outcome, the Korea Public Diplomacy Forum was launched as a 1.5 track semi-governmental consultative mechanism to enhance mutual understanding and reinforce the foundations of further cooperation with people from other countries. The first Korean Ambassador for Public Diplomacy was nominated in 2011, and the Public Diplomacy Act and Enforcement Decree went into effect in 2016. Later in 2017, Korea’s First Basic Plan on Public Diplomacy (2017-2021) was implemented under a five-year project. Also, since the Moon Jae-in administration came in, the concept of “people diplomacy” was added on the original definition of public diplomacy. It was to aim for public diplomacy that the people can run together. As a result, the People Diplomacy Center was established in 2018. For now, a number of Korean universities are hosting lectures that are related to public diplomacy, and people’s interest and attention toward public diplomacy is increasing day by day.

Hwang: What could be the strong point or competitive edge for Korean public diplomacy?

Lee: Since World War Ⅱ, Korea has had its unique specialty among countries in the world in the sense that it has successfully achieved both economic growth and democracy. Additionally, Korean people have their own national traits. These traits show their diligence as well as their peace-loving attitudes, although they are living in a divided country. These traits are what could be a magnificent asset in Korea’s public diplomacy and it is actually contributing to building up Korea’s new national brand. Furthermore, Korea’s various modern cultural contents, along with its traditional culture, are based on our historical dynamics, creativeness, and universality. These are sweeping all over the world. Ever since the COVID-19 crisis broke out, Korea is now being judged highly as an exemplar country that handled quarantine well from the international community. Korea has proven its remarkable distinction in the aspect of crisis management and stability that goes beyond its quarantine restoration capabilities. Lastly, I would say Korea’s proficiency in IT technology development and related infrastructure is already well known worldwide.

Hwang: Then what is the challenge that Korean public diplomacy must overcome on the other hand?

Kim: First of all, current Korean public diplomacy is very focused on central government-oriented policies. While respective local areas’ cultural capabilities are growing sustainably, most public diplomacy-related projects are concentrated in the central government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Due to this structure, there are certain limits in supporting local governments and furthering their activities.

Han: I see six “T”s as critical when we talk about public diplomacy. The first T stands for Theme. The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set the theme “Connecting Koreans with the World, Charming Korea” and is putting efforts to actualize it. The second T stands for Target. The target of public diplomacy embraces not only foreign citizens and the public, but also extends to foreigners who are currently living in Korea. This also includes the 7.5 million overseas Koreans. The third T is Timing. On top of Korea’s existing basic plan for public diplomacy, which was set to a five-year timeline, I see the necessity of making a more detailed approach, as in short-term, mid-term, and long-term. The fourth T is Tailor-made. The target and practice subjects are quite broad, so it must be implemented on a case-by-case basis. For instance, as K-food would be more suitable for African countries rather than K-pop, a customized strategy should be settled for sure. The fifth T is for Together. When it comes to implementing public diplomacy, we are dealing with a variety of actors and targets. In this sense, for example, the US forces in Korea can be the major target for the city of Pyeongtaek’s public diplomacy. Lastly, the sixth T stands for Tool. Local governments’ role matters significantly. To share one example, Pyeongtaek is hosting World Culture Week, which cooperates well with Embassies in Korea.

Hwang: As seen from the controversy surrounding Hanfu at the recent Beijing Winter Olympics, it might be a cause of conflict in Korea’s public diplomacy.

Kim: Of course, I would say it is a regret that such a controversy arose at an international festival like Olympics, where countries are supposed to represent and symbolize themselves. However, regardless of what happened this time, I think it is unnecessary to confront other countries by emphasizing one country’s own creativity and originality in terms of their culture. The flow of the times is that the entire world is being integrated into a global village and cultural differences are united. Culture is the area where inclusivity and understanding must come first. Escalating people’s emotions and politicizing them should not be the most pursued attitude.

Hwang: How do you draw the direction of public diplomacy in this era of COVID-19 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Han: Under the digital era, media is stretching its influence farther and farther. We can actually see the world leaders propagating foreign policies through social media networks like Twitter and Instagram, and not only through traditional press media anymore. Going one step further, in recent days, the virtual metaverse world has appeared throughout the world on a full scale, and its influence is skyrocketing. It’s to the point that even Facebook has set itself on a goal to bring the metaverse to our lives as its mission. As it is shown, under a circumstance where the metaverse is stretching its influence to the real world, the traditional digital media world is transforming into a totally new one. Accordingly, we need public diplomacy that can follow this trend. For public diplomacy to effectively discover or make these new types of content, we must move on from a government-oriented and unilateral information providing approach. Sincere and meaningful public diplomacy or digital public diplomacy will only be possible when various actors from local governments, academia, NGOs, markets, the press, and others could come up together.

Lee: Under COVID-19, we moved on from face-to-face meetings and now are running seminars through webinars, and the education field is expanding e-learning. In the context of public diplomacy, projects are focusing on spreading Korean culture through YouTube or other social media networks. Also, there are projects promoting Korean language classes through e-learning actively under implementation. For another example, a project named “Learn Korean with BTS” is winning great popularity in educating people about the Korean language overseas. This system combines digital technology with Korean textbooks and adds BTS members’ readings. I can tell this is one of the most successful cases of public diplomacy in the new digital era.

Hwang: What could be youths’ roles in public diplomacy?

Lee: Watching today’s trend, the utmost consumer of Korean cultural diplomacy and the Korean wave are youth, from both domestic and abroad. The thing is that they are consumers but also spreaders at the same time. In other words, they are superior assets we have in our public diplomacy today. It is quite thought-provoking from the aspect that young peoples’ use of social media and their digitalization leads their boundary of activity to become transnational. Additionally, I would like to emphasize that it is the youth who are the consumers and the spreaders once again for the “knowledge public diplomacy,” which goes beyond cultural public diplomacy including K-pop and dramas. Government, its agencies, and other institutes such as the Korea Foundation which deal with public diplomacy should work more on attracting potentiality from young people.

Kim: Continuing on, once the new government takes over, we might need to provide opportunities to youth by institutionally managing an internship system in which they can spend about six months to a year at official institutes abroad and experience life overseas. Since the youth are critical consumers and spreaders of public diplomacy in the new digital era, it must be an efficient option to let them do public diplomatic duties, rather than others.

Han: I also think that the contributions and roles of youth are very important within the flow of grassroots public diplomacy. In this sense, as far as I know, we have a wide spectrum of support. They range from the Public Diplomacy Youth Camp under the Korea Foundation to the Digital Library of Korean Literature, the Digital Diplomacy Ambassador for Dokdo program, and the Honorary Ambassador on Cultural Heritage under the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea. Also, with COVID-19 and the oncoming Fourth Industrial Revolution, some are saying it is time to nurture more than 100,000 digital youth ambassadors for public diplomacy. Today we have 178 diplomatic missions, and we are required to institutionalize public diplomacy-related internships and expand resources. Moreover, it would be best if we can provide them with incentives when they come back and seek jobs.

Hwang: I understand that there are several institutions in charge of public diplomacy in Korea. In your view, do you think it would be more efficient if there is a certain control tower within the government or at the Blue House?

Kim: When we look into cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism, and the Ministry of Education -- the major actors of the Public Diplomacy Committee -- I would say there are some areas that can be improved greatly. Nevertheless, if a control tower is established in the Blue House and managed formulaically, I assume the sincere traits and effect of public diplomacy would decrease

Han: It would be better if the Blue House can manage and support the operation of public diplomacy in a more interactive and bottom-up approach. Then its role could be elaborating its public diplomacy message, which is currently scattered all over. It can also concretely build consistency. For the Blue House to begin with its role, the president as the head of the country must clearly be aware of the significance of public diplomacy.

Lee: Korean public diplomacy surely has to be improved, considering its segmentation and redundancy. For one instance, the assignments on Korean (language) education both domestic and abroad are dispersed into three institutions. Therefore, problematic issues were continuously raised. Within the process of segmentation, the absence of a certain institution that manages, supervises, and coordinates cooperation as a whole downgrades the efficiency of work. In this regard, there is a need to improve at a governmental level in terms of distributing and arranging resources, tasks, and manpower.

Hwang: Would you introduce any countries that Korea could learn from? Also, please share with us what aspects made you think so.

Han: I would recommend Germany. It has reached a fruitful outcome in a hybrid structure, where the government level presents guidelines while sub-institutions and private organizations conduct the projects. Particularly, it has achieved successful results in culture and language with the Goethe Institute and Academic Exchange Office at the center. France has also obtained considerable results in public diplomacy through an integrated approach in the cultural public diplomacy field. In addition, Israel is traditionally the most active country in public diplomacy, and has established the world’s first public diplomacy ministerial position.

Lee: In the case of Japan, what the Japan Foundation is doing gives us significant suggestions that the Korea Foundation can adopt. Sweden is also well-known as a welfare country, along with gender equality and democracy. It is recently putting great capabilities in science and technology.

Kim: Watching Denmark, there are aspects that we can look up to in terms of their value-oriented concepts such as peace, gender equality, democracy, and so on. Also, New Zealand is another example that we can learn a lot from, since it is pursuing eco-friendly values and implementing them well.

Hwang: What could be the portion that public diplomacy takes in current Korean diplomacy? How much do you expect it to take up? What direction should the new government set for further public diplomacy? What should be stressed in particular?

Lee: When it comes to Korea, it is necessary to expand capabilities in the field of values and policies in relation to soft power in a cultural aspect. What I mean by the field of values is that issues such as climate change, human rights, refugees, and peace should be on the agenda and applied to public diplomacy. Furthermore, from the perspective of technology, we must try to enhance the development of new technologies that are suitable for the digital era such as the metaverse, as well as taking advantage of using social media and new media. By doing so, we need to strengthen networking cooperation in the international community. Finally, it seems necessary to supplement institutional infrastructure. For example, expanding offices in major overseas bases to further Korean public diplomacy.

Kim: Propagating Korea’s traditional values, such as the humanitarianism of “Hongikinkan” (benefiting mankind) or “Innaecheon” (human beings and the heaven are the same) can be one way. Based on these values, we must progressively put our efforts into strengthening Korean public diplomacy’s capacity and infrastructure.

Han: Firstly, considering Korea’s current economic scale and its status in the international community, I would like to stress the necessity to expand public diplomacy budgets, manpower, and infrastructure. Secondly, education on the importance of public diplomacy must be conducted at the national level. Thirdly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently strengthening its foundation for digital diplomacy based on “DNA” technology. Here, D stands for data, N stands for network, and A for artificial intelligence. Also, as part of science and technological public diplomacy, it is necessary to continuously increase the capacity of digital public diplomacy.


In the end, what must be involved in the process of implementing public diplomacy is that its goal should not only be the realization of the national interest through enhancing the national image. The goal of public diplomacy is to contribute to the international community through the creation of global norms and values. Once these goals are achieved, the rise of national image and realization of national interests will naturally follow as a result. In carrying out public diplomacy, it should not just fully depend on the government’s lead. It should be in a cooperative direction where various actors including local governments, businesses, media, civil society, and youth are involved and communicate with each other. Even if some level of inefficiency takes place, it is still important to develop a wide spectrum of cooperation in complex and multiple ways based on diversification and decentralization.

By Hwang Jae-ho

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a current member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.