Fostering Digitalization in Korean Image Improvement Strategy :
Turning Liabilities into Assets
In the 1950s Republic of Korea (ROK) had a notorious reputation of an underdeveloped autocratic regime that depended heavily on foreign aid. Today the same country enjoys the fame of one of the most economically developed nations and is seen by many as a model with its thriving democratic system. The story of Korea's rapid rise from 'third world to first' has become an aspiring example for many developing countries including my homeland, Kazakhstan. Since the end of the 1980s all the democratically elected Korean governments put a lot effort and money in promoting the country's international image.
One has to admit that this self-promotion strategy, especially the part involving cultural diplomacy tools and the Hallyu phenomenon, had a significantly positive effect on the ROK's reputation worldwide. In 2018 more than 15 million tourists visited Seoul, making it one of the most popular travel destinations in Asia. Korea has also advanced in nation branding ranking, having surpassed the OECD average in 2013.
Nevertheless, there are still some challenges that ROK faces in solidifying its image improvement efforts. Therefore, this essay will identify these challenges and suggest innovative solutions that could help Korea to improve its international image. To do so, it will first categorize the challenges and briefly outline their nature. Then the essay will put forward four image improvement strategies that can counter these challenges most efficiently.
To understand the nature of any problem one should look into its root causes and try to classify it in a broader context. In the case of the image improvement challenges that ROK faces today, one could categorize them into three types – information obscurity, information inaccuracy, and challenges in national branding coordination.
Information obscurity occurs on different occasions when people lack basic knowledge about the country. That is why ROK often gets confused with China, Japan or even with its Northern neighbor. Sometimes information obscurity results in ridiculous accidents when native Seoulites travelling abroad have to tolerate bamboozling questions like 'Which part of Korea are you from – North or South?'
The second phenomenon, information inaccuracy, speaks for itself. It refers to the cases when information about Korea presented in textbooks or internet and mass-media is inaccurate. It is not as common, but can still be rather problematic since information inaccuracy often leads to creation of negative stereotypes that are very hard to get rid of. One of the most notorious examples is the stereotype about omnipresent dog consumption in Korea.
The last challenge is poor coordination in the field of national brand building that has been a long-standing issue. Many people around the world can build up a quick association list when it comes to most of the economically developed countries such as Japan (sushi, sakura, and manga), France (baguette, croissant, and Eiffel tower) or United States (burgers, Hollywood). When it comes to ROK, the association game becomes much harder. Even though some people are likely to mention K-Pop or Korean dramas, the responses are not as automatic as in the aforementioned cases and quite seldom people would say kimchi or gayageum.
So what is the inherent nature of each of these problems? In case of information inaccuracy, it is pretty straightforward – we are talking about factual mistakes or fake-news. Producing an overwhelming stream of accurate information that counters the inaccurate narrative with proper arguments is oftentimes the right answer. The information obscurity problem is more complicated. It is often not the lack of information per se that is the core of the problem, but rather the means of how this information is being transmitted to the international audience and what obstacles come in its way. Therefore, one needs to concentrate not on the quantity of material being produced, but at its quality and at the way it is systematized. Finally, the poor coordination of the national brand building has a political element to it – every time the ROK government changes, the approach to this topic tends to change as well, leaving not that much place for consistency.
Having understood the nature of the problems, one should ponder about what could be done on this account. The vision outlined in this essay is a comprehensive innovation-based four-dimensional strategy that targets not only enhancement of the existing self-promotion mechanisms and public awareness raising but also attempts to boost coordination and systemize the existing information sources.
First and foremost, ROK as a know-how technology nation should implement innovative approaches and utilize digitalization benefits in its image improvement efforts more actively. Today, most of the people get information they need by using advanced search engines, seeking to access it as quickly as possible. Thus, one of the most obvious recommendations is to increase the number of electronically available materials about Korea and support online producers of the high-quality content, preferably in different languages. One of the examples that I personally like is the Korean Culture Series of the Korea University. But governmental support programs could target various people ranging from bloggers to academics. It might seem to be a bit too obvious, but quite often it is hard to find free high-quality online content about Korean history, society, and culture, if you want to go even a tiny bit deeper. There is a lack of free comprehensive video-series on YouTube, podcasts, and especially e-books. It is, thus, essential to support both Korean and international content producers, who are willing to conduct long-term projects on Korea-related topics. This support should not be provided only in form of direct subsidies, but also in more creative ways – for example by organizing government-supported contests/tenders or using online network-marketing promotion strategies.
Secondly, translation, translation, and even more translation! A large part of the official publications such as textbooks and readers on Korean culture, videos, films, and even posts on official websites (such as Korea.net) are often translated only into English and, in some cases, Chinese. This, however, seriously limits the outreach of these publications and decreases their efficiency. Distributing these materials in such major languages as Spanish, Russian, French, and Arabic would be of enormous advantage, covering enormous regions with the population of more than 1.5 billion people. Of course, this measure does not imply the translation of every single tiny article published by the NIIED or one of the Korean Culture Centers. It will be too costly and unnecessary. One should, however, take model examples like the Visit Korea project (including its website) and learn from it. It is not advisable to focus only on tourism-related information, but rather to identify a set list of basic culture, society, language, and history-related publications and multi-media about Korea to be translated. All of these publications must be electronically accessible in six major UN languages (the total outreach will sum up to 3-4 billion people) to make sure that this basic information is freely available and easy to share. A strong and systemized attempt in translating such materials can be undertaken in co-ordination with the world net of the Korean Culture Centers as well as local educational institutions, NGOs, businesses and other interested stakeholders in respective countries.
Thirdly, it is necessary to make the information system targeting the international audience more centralized and organized. Although there is a plethora of publications by different governmental institutions, ranging from Korean culture magazines to blog posts and film screenings, they are not systemized due to an apparent lack of coordination between these institutions. When information bits and pieces are all over the place, people's willingness to keep searching dies out quickly. An accessible solution would be to create a centralized info-website monitored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or Ministry of Education, where all of these contents (such as books, videos, podcasts, etc.) could be stored and easily downloaded for free. Germany and United States have implemented similar systems – Korea could use this experience to make it even better. A systemized online storage of educational and self-promotional materials with a comfortable logical interface targeting a wide range of audience in multiple languages will become a flagman of the national image-improvement strategy. Ensuring that a link to this website is mentioned in every government-supported publication (such as posters, flyers, journals, and books) will significantly boost public awareness of the people that read them. This measure will not only help in accessing reliable information about ROK quickly, but also prevent incorrect information from being spread.
Fourthly, when it comes to the issue of poor coordination in national brand creation, it interconnects with the issues of information obscurity on the side of the ROK governmental agencies. Even though there were numerous government-supported attempts to identify national brands and establish a fixed promotion strategy, things have been rocky so far due to political changes (for example, the South Korean Presidential Council of Nation Branding was introduced in 2009 and then abolished in 2013). The first step, therefore, should be depoliticization of the issue – major Korean parties should agree on a unified approach to this question. Moreover, the most effective way to enhance the government's efforts in this sphere is to let the target audience decide what their vision of Korea is. Foreigners visiting and living in Korea are, in theory, the main transmitters of the country's image abroad. Therefore, it would be logical to perform a number of comprehensive social studies and polls among them in order to identify the Korea brand perception from their point of view. It will help the ROK government to make the targeting of its international marketing campaigns even more accurate and precise.
In conclusion, it is undeniable that Korea has gone a long way in improving its international image starting from the 1990s. People all over the world watch Korean dramas, know Ban Ki-moon, eat kimchi, and listen to K-Pop bands. But since Korea finds itself in the consolidation phase of its image-improvement strategy, it is of utmost importance to work harder than ever. The consolidation phase is essential for the long-term success of this policy line. Not only is it important to find creative IT-based solutions to the image-improvement challenges it faces, but also ensure that the information about Korea is systemized effectively and accessible in a great multitude of most widespread languages. This can be achieved in partnership with Korean and international stakeholders interested in the topic. The world of modern technologies makes implementing such strategies easier than before, so with hard effort Korean policymakers stand a good chance of giving their nation's image a powerful reputational boost.
(Country of Activity : Kazakhstan)