Korea is a fascinating part of East Asia, brimming with cultural and historic significance in relation to how a region communicates and represents itself on a global scale. No region has transformed its global perception quite as drastically as Korea in recent history. From the depictions as a poor, war-torn country during the 1960s to being one of the biggest cultural influencers of the 2010s, Korea has re-established itself as a cultural juggernaut of the 21st Century.
Koreas Cultural History
Its no secret the rise of Koreas tech empire in the 1990s combined with the rise of the phenomenon of K Pop and its culture have transformed Koreas reputation, but the real questions are how did this happen so quickly and what factor does Koreas history play in relation to its public relations and status as a global force today?
Even since the Stone Age and Neolithic Period in 3000 BC Korea has been shaping the world with innovations. From comb pottery to bronze daggers, there is historical evidence that Korea and its early tribes were leading the way in design and culture
Fast forward a few thousand years, Korea was being split in half due to international power struggles and ideologies. Following WWII and the Russian-American split creating the divide of North and South Korea, duel ideologies were installed. The pro-capitalist ideals of the American influence in South Korea was a direct contrast to the pro-communist ideology of the Russian affiliated government in control of North Korea.
This duality of belief systems has impacted Koreas cultural stance as a global influencer. As South Korea has begun to flourish into a cultural influencer over the past 50 years, its success is highlighted in the western media as a direct comparison to the negative light shone on its northern communist counterparts.
It can be argued that as South Korea grows from strength to strength, so does the western ideal of capitalism and therefor Koreas history is the key to its successful PR as a global influence today. The stronger Korea look, the stronger America looks. Much like a proud older brother boasting about their siblings’ success acts as a humble brag about the role they played, America can use Korea as a shining example of what can be achieved when you conform to there ideology.
The speed of which Korea was able to grow as a leading hub of innovation can be credited to its PR relationship with international business. “The real change in Korean public relations started with the globalization of the country under the era of the ‘88 Olympics and the entry of multinationals with their demands for marketing, advertising and public relations.” Following the Olympics, Korea had established itself as a home for business looking for global expansion, ready for the next decade and to become a global force once more.
A New Age
By the 1990s technological advancements and huge corporations had found a new home. “Korea was ranked 11th among all global economies and gained entry into the OECD in 1997. Brand Korea, led by the successful cohesion between corporates and government, was just starting to find its feet until the IMF crash in 1997.” This crash caused a restructure in how PR was handled and how brands and in turn, Korea was presented on a global scale.
Following this crash, all companies were forced with complete transparency regarding strategies and partnerships, resulting in international third-party firms being taken on board. Since this repositioning with PR and Korean business, many brands focus on the history of Korean brands like tech superstars Samsung and their global success and elegance with western brands such as Chelsea Football Club. This partnership and narrative once again presents Korea as a global brand and the home of tech innovation, therefore, bleeds into the culture and modern history of Korea.
The Birth of K Pop
Whilst Kora was developing into the home of tech giants and marketing itself as the worlds hub of innovation once more, the western business model of pop groups was beginning to bubble under at the turn of the 21st century. K Pops first wave began in 1992 with Seo Taiji and Boys who’s fashion, musical style and dance move directly mimicked the trends of America at the time.
As Korea was undergoing a liberalization of its media from the late 1980s onwards and in turn came the popularity of TV talent shows. Contemporary American music was also bringing to feature and in turn with the Olympics, the zeitgeist was changing in Korea.
Whilst Seo Taiji and Boys may have gotten the lowest score on the show, their popularity exploded overnight. There debut single “I Know” went on to top South Korea’s singles charts for a record-smashing 17 weeks, which would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No. 1 streak in the country’s history.” This marked the first time that Korean culture and American culture were fused together into a money making hybrid. The band were able to mimic western pop music traits whilst making them applicable to their market of Korean youths. Sing topics, fashion, musical genres, censorship were all challenged making them the corporate bad boys of the Korean mainstream and therefore
The Next Generation
Once this fire was lit, there was no going back. Koreas culture was changed and much like tech manufacturing, music manufacturing had begun to boom. In 2000 BoA made her debut at 13 and became one of Koreas biggest Pop Stars due to international branding centred around multicultural positivity and talent. Pop music had quickly become a commodity and product, a fresh way to globalize Korea through the PR tool of pretty young starts, singing, dancing and selling the brand of their homeland.
K Pop group Girls Generation embodies the system with there hit single “Gee” as they display every chart chareristics known to the genre. “The combination of cheeky, colourful concept, clever choreography, cute girls, and catchy signwriting makes “Gee” the quintessential K-pop song: It’s fun, infectious, and memorable — and it was all but algorithmically produced by a studio machine responsible for delivering perfect singing, perfect dancing, perfect videos, and perfect entertainment.” During the turn of the 21st century, K Pop was another commodity used to brand give Korea a fun identity. It was becoming a global force at manufacturing and fun, light-hearted entertainment along with visual media was the perfect next step in the global rebrand of a nation.
However, whilst K Pop appears to be sweet and innocent entertainment, the horror stories of the treatment of its stars are notorious. From exploitative contracts to accusations of child abuse and predatory behaviour, the soulless nature and rapid consumer attitude that surrounds the art form carries its own problems that affect Korea in a negative PR light.
Much like any PR scandal, K Pop studios has managed to negate the negative reports surrounding the genre by controlling the narrative. By portraying their stars in individual and varied roles/personas based on their lyrical themes, K Pop can redeem itself whenever it needs too; an inbuilt failsafe. As K Pop groups are often in single genre bands, girl groups may start their careers as giggling schoolgirls singing about there crushes, but they can develop into empowered women alluding to female empowerment by the next album cycle. By controlling not only the narrative but the people both on screen and off, K Pop has the ability to achieve positive PR results like no product ever before.
“Gangnam Style” needs little explanation. PSY’s viral sensation that brought K Pop to the front of the world. This was when Hallyu, the Korean wave became undeniable, penetrating western culture and solidifying K Pop as a household term. Blending satire, comedy and the absurd, the music video reached 3 billion views within 5 years along with a dance craze that swept pop culture around the world.
Technology once again feeds back into this section of Koreas cultural branding as their tech developments feed directly into their pop culture success. Korea has the fastest internet in the world and has reached more than 95% of the country, the highest rate for any Asian country outside the Middle East. As the home of electronics giants Samsung and LG, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that the country is number one in the world for ore, the new faces of Korean culture. smartphone ownership. The success of “Gangnam Style” can be credited to its viral sensibility. It was so bizarre and entertaining, its audience just had to show their friends and tag, comment and share the video around. Before long the track had received global chart success whilst the video dominated YouTube and Korea became the colourful, crazy home of PSY and the wonderland of K Pop.
This movement marked not only the expansion of Korea into the global entertainment market but it legitimized Korea as a global brand. Peter Kim, the brand manager for the Seoul government admitted that there was a lack of international brand identity in 2012. “We’re among the world’s 13 largest economies,” he said. “But we still don’t have our own unique brand. Partly, he said, that is because for the past 50 years, South Korea has been focused on building the country, not marketing it.” With the mainstream sensation of PSY, K Pop and its viral content, Korea was now establishing its brand not only as a technological mega power, but as a cultural hub and a key player on the worlds stage.
K Pop & its Global Impact
K Pop boy band BTS are one of Koreas biggest cultural exports. They are the most successful group to come from the genre and have been able to successfully become a house hold name in the western market landing two Billboard top 200 albums in America and evoking pandemonium within a hysterical fan base worldwide.
Yet it’s not just foreign markets that are being impacted by the BTS phenomenon, Korea are witnessing a positive industrial impact caused by the group’s success. “The American toy maker Mattel has announced the signing of a licensing agreement to produce dolls of the band’s members, upon which the company’s share value shot up by 7.7 percent. According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the band is estimated to bring more than $3.6 billion into the South Korean economy annually.” This is “soft culture” directly impacting industry in both Korea and America.
This once again highlights how Koreas manifesting of both tech and entertainment has created a recipe for success. BTS have 10 million followers on Twitter alone. Their rabid fan base are addicted to any content that has even the mildest link to the members of the group. Their online community are dedicated to the brand of BTS and in turn Korea. If that feels like a stretch, a recap of Koreas current global status reinforces this notion. Fans of BTS or K Pop in general are likely using Korean Products (as Samsung and LG are ranked second and third as the most popular smart phones) to interact with Korean products (K Pop Stars) or by purchasing alternative products that directly relegate to Korea (merchandise, tour tickets, music, films featuring K Pop stars.)
Aside from all of the products associated with the K Pop groups and their influence worldwide, South Korea are capitalising on the current cultural boom by relating K Pop directly back to tourism. 2017 saw over 800,00 tourists visit South Korea and 7% of the visitors were reported to be influenced by BTS and their global reach. Even the Pop Stars themselves have been honoured by the nations capital by becoming Seoul’s Honorary Tourism Ambassadors.
Viral content has been at the hart of the country’s PR campaign once again as the Live Seoul Like I Do” initiative encourages tourists to visit the favourite places of the BTS band members, once again drawing a direct comparison between the city and its finest export. The government website “Imagine Your Korea” provides a list of locations of BTS music videos and album covers, encouraging tourists to visit the sites to “recreate the scenes yourself. BTS are a global brand and Korea has managed to successfully intertwine its national identity within the machine that is K Pop.
Overall, Korea has been able to undergo one of the most successful rebrands in history. Through innovation, manifesting and the two intertwining, Korea has become a global superpower in complete control of its PR and communications. It is a country that is very much holding all the cards and the game has never been more interesting.