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[Kim Seong-kon] The image of South Korea overseas

July 3, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

I recently came across an intriguing article on by Ron Winkler, entitled, “AI shows what people actually look like in these 30 countries.” The writer asked an artificial intelligence system what the average person would look like in the 30 included countries, and the article features 30 images of people presented by AI for each country, followed by the writer’s brief comments on them.

AI personifies South Korea as a charming K-pop girl with the background of “the famous neon streets of South Korea.” Winkler writes, “She looks beautiful bathed in the lights of the bustling downtown area, where tourists and locals alike flock.” South Korea has become conspicuous everywhere lately, especially thanks to the worldwide popularity of K-pop and K-drama.

When I traveled to Japan in the mid-'80s, the fabulous neon lights of Ginza fascinated me greatly. On my way back to Korea, I was disappointed by the relatively dim night scene of Seoul that I looked down upon from the plane. Today, things have changed and “the famous neon streets of South Korea” are attracting foreign tourists.

According to the AI, the image of Japan is a geisha, “a female Japanese performing artist and entertainer," who is "able to sing, dance and play the traditional instrument known as the samisen.” The geisha is merely one of many cultural icons of Japan, such as the samurai, ninja or sushi, and yet in the AI’s eyes, the image of a geisha with an intricate parasol and floral headpiece represents Japan.

Not all countries have female images. For example, the AI version of an American was a cowboy embodying the spirit of America, such as the frontier spirit, independence and freedom. The writer says, “He looks like he isn't afraid to step outside his comfort zone or stand apart from a crowd.” Then he continues, “Sometimes being a leader means you have to go against the grain, and this guy? He's definitely a leader, one his peers are happy to follow into battle.”

AI presents China’s image as a fierce ancient warrior wearing a stern facial expression and dragonlike armor. It may reflect China’s authoritarian rule and recent aggressive attempts to expand its influence overseas. For Russia, AI presented a tyrannical czarlike ruler who is a mixture of “Vladimir Lenin, Nicholas II and even some of Ivan the Terrible.” Perhaps Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and standoff with NATO have contributed to this hostile image.

The North Korean image was a scary army general who may symbolize the repressive government of the country. The writer points out that the fierce general exudes the scariest demeanor, which fits the image of people living in a totalitarian country. North Korea’s frequent ballistic missile launches and threatening remarks, too, might have led AI to draw the chilling image.

I also found South Korea in Dennis Michael’s recent article, “16 must-visit countries for every American,” which appeared on MSN. In the informative article, the writer provides the reason Americans must visit Korea: “More than a million Americans visited South Korea in 2023, thanks to its stunning palaces, mouthwatering street cuisine, rocky mountains and old culture.”

The writer continued, “Wandering through the renovated hanok homes of traditional Bukchon Village during the day and being mesmerized by neon-filled nightscapes that are recognizable to fans of K-drama after dark, Seoul is a true melting pot of the old and the new.” Then, he added, “try the vibrant fish market in Busan, a city on the south coast, or visit Jeju-do Island to see the island’s breathtaking mountain scenery if you have time.”

Lately, Business Insider carried the article, “These are the best airlines in the world, according to a survey of travelers.” Of course, the list includes Korean Air, which has impressed international passengers with its excellent inflight service, comfort and courtesy. Many foreigners have praised Korean Air’s excellence.

I also found South Korea in “These 7 countries are nicest to American tourists,” an article that appeared in The Travel. Unfortunately, however, South Korea could not make it in “The friendliest countries in the world ranked” in StarsInsider. That means we are not nice and friendly enough to all foreigners. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the image of South Korea is very favorable among the international community these days.

The only thing that downgrades and damages the image of South Korea is its never-ending political skirmishes that are ruining the otherwise good reputation of the country.

Most Koreans find their politicians a sheer disappointment because they seriously lack qualifications and are devoid of decency and integrity. They do not have any vision for the future of the country and are loyal to only their party bosses, not to the people they ostensibly serve. Instead, they play low and dirty in their factional scuffles.

If only we find a way to overhaul our political arena, we can be truly proud of our country.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.