Proposals on how to Improve the Image of Korea in Australia and Abroad
Korea remains to be a largely unfamiliar country to the majority of Australians. Despite recent efforts, understandings of Korean culture have not permeated larger society to the same degree as those of other foreign countries. To address why this is, and why recent efforts are not as effective as could be, this essay proposes that the direction of current efforts is funded in the entirely wrong area. Suggestions on improving Korea’s image in Australia and more generally abroad should instead focus on the unique cultural offerings Korea possesses. Korean culture has the potential to be as recognizable as that of its other Asian neighbours, if a more thought-out approach is enacted.
First, it is important to address why the current efforts for promoting Korean culture have been not as successful in Australia. Of course it should premised that there are nowadays many Australians with Asian heritage, however this essays usage of “Australian” refers to those without Asian backgrounds, as most young Australian’s who have Asian lineage tend to be familiar enough with Korea already. In general, it appears that Australian’s have a hard time separating Korean culture from that of China or Japan. This is largely due to the limited interaction Australian’s have had with Korea historically. In comparison, other countries in East Asia have had far longer exposure to the West from centuries ago, thus the cultures of these countries are more familiar and distinguished to Westerners than the culture of Korea. Korea as a country really only entered the public mind during and following the conflict on the Korean peninsula. Indeed to this day, the political activities of North Korea remain to be a topical curiosity in the media. South Korea, standalone from the North, does not receive the same attention in any aspect. Furthermore, the only contact Australian’s have with South Korea in everyday life is through Korean technology: cars, consumer electronics, homewares, etc. It should be said that Japan has had a long headstart in this regard, and despite the impressive offerings from Korea, there remains a portion of Australian society who are hesitant in purchasing South Korean brands. Although contact through familiarity with Korean brands is good for the image of South Korea, it says nothing of the culture from which these products came.
The main problem with recent efforts for Korean culture is that the allocation of resources is incredibly unbalanced, with a large bias towards the “Hallyu”. This is detrimental to long-term recognition and understanding of Korean culture internationally for many reasons. Most importantly, the South Korean government needs to understand that Korean popular culture is a trend, and trends die out over time. K-pop itself is a particularly nuanced entity, and ultimately says nothing of Korean culture itself, because the beginnings of K-pop were produced and inspired by American pop music culture in the first place… Not to mention that the popular music industry in Korea shares all the same institutionalized abuse also found in the American and Japanese music industries. For an early example, listen to Seo Taiji’s 1995 track “Come Back Home” and one is immediately reminded of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain”. More recently, Girls Generation’s 2013 hit “I Got a Boy” was praised by music critics for being “forward-thinking” and “game-changing”, however, it should be mentioned that track was originally recorded by British artist Katy Tiz in 2012 under the title “Shiner on Ya”. Furthermore, the track was produced by three Europeans, and one European; Girls Generation members themselves had no direct individual input on the composition or production of the song aside from the later vocals and dance performance. This isn’t to discredit all K-pop, but more to highlight the complicated international production process behind the industry which does nothing for the long term cultural understanding of Korea. On a smaller scale, groups can lose popularity just as soon as they gain it—often leading to undesirable disagreements between music companies and artists over contract lengths, terms, etc. This highlights how ephemeral and often unethical the Korean popular music industry is, and it should be strongly advised to lessen the amount of funding and promotion it receives as it does not contribute to international recognition of Korea.
It’s inevitable that Australian’s will compare Korea to her neighbours. However, Korea may learn some valuable lessons in how to promote their own culture by looking how Japan has promoted theirs. When Australian’s think of Japanese culture, we think of Samurai, Geisha, cherry blossoms, and the traditional culture of Japan. Despite a trouble history between the two nations, most Australian’s won’t be familiar or aware of the conflict in the past—nor will they particularly care, for example, who did what, or what belongs to who. These are issues that Korea and Japan must solve by themselves. International awareness, and therefore, international interjections on these issues should be avoided. Korea has a wonderful native culture. Yes, food is one aspect of this. But Korean food is not all there is to Korean culture. In particular, the traditional arts provide a very good starting point for showing the world historically and culturally important parts of the Korean identity. For example, Korean celadon was said to have rivaled even the best Chinese Ru-ware. Joseon Dynasty portraits of Kings and court officials were so detailed in their execution, some have even said they took the phrase “get every hair right” too literally. Yet not a single object of Korean art is on display at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. This is a great shame, and it offers no way for the Australian public to see and interact with Korean art. Of course, this extends to other state galleries and institutions across the country. The same can be said for Korean traditional performances like P’ungmul and Samulnori. Korean instruments are relatively easy to learn, and provide a fun and hands on experience that lends itself very well to younger audiences. Preservation and dissemination of traditional Korean culture at home in Korea is another area which should continue to be improved upon. It goes without saying, that ongoing support for international researchers of Korea is a key component in the promotion of Korean culture also.
On another level, many young Koreans and those who have migrated overseas tend to not be very familiar with their own culture. When meeting Koreans for the first time, one of the initial questions that are inevitably asked is “Why are you interested in Korea?” This question would never be asked by a Japanese person when a non-Japanese shows interest in Japan. There appears to be a sort of apathy amongst the younger generation of Koreans, who have vested interests in the modern, global cosmopolitan culture coming out of the United States & Europe, and less so for their own culture. I remember once going to an international fair here in Australia and the Korean girl who was operating the stand on Korea had nearly nothing on show. When approached, she was unable to answer in depth any questions on how one could familiarise themselves with Korean culture more. No immediate suggestions come to mind on how to alleviate this, as this appears to be a domestic, generational issue for Korea to face. But it is one part of the puzzle that attributes to the international unfamiliarity with Korea, as younger Koreans are unlikely to share anymore of their culture outside of Korean BBQ, for example.
Whilst there is an argument in favour for short-term capitalization on popular culture trends, the cultural integrity of Korea does not come from the Hallyu, and efforts should instead be focused on long-term understanding of Korea from a more solid basis—and not that of periodical trends. Instead, funding and efforts should focus on promoting traditional Korean culture and that which is unique to Korea—ultimately this should be the main goal for the future.
(Country of Activity : Australia)