Psy, a portly 34-year-old rapper with a penchant for silly dances, brought central Seoul to a standstill last week as he gave a free concert for 80,000 adoring fans, including two renditions of his global hit “Gangnam Style.”
The municipal authorities willingly allowed the concert to take place outside the city hall, and blocked traffic in the surrounding streets: an unusual gesture that reflects the delight of South Korean public officials at the international success of the musician, whose real name is Park Jae-sang.
“Gangnam Style” has become South Korea’s biggest musical export: it stands at number two in both the U.S. and U.K. charts, and it has been watched on YouTube more than 406 million times.
The phenomenon is particularly welcome for an outgoing government that has paid enormous attention to boosting South Korea’s standing in the eyes of the world. Since assuming the presidency in 2008, Lee Myung-bak has stressed the importance of developing the country’s “soft power” to a level befitting its economic heft. He established a permanent presidential council to “establish a national brand,” has increased spending on foreign aid and hosted a series of high-profile events including a G20 summit in 2010.
A viral pop hit was not part of the nation branding plan, but it is “very useful, very important,” says Ma Young-sam, ambassador for public diplomacy at the foreign ministry.
Psy’s hit is just the latest triumph for what has become known as the Hallyu, or “Korean wave.” Girls’ Generation, a nine-member “K-pop” group, has made inroads in the U.S. with appearances at Madison Square Garden and on David Letterman’s “Late Show.” Last month, Pieta became the first Korean film to win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, while Shin Kyung-sook’s novel “Please Look After Mother” became a global bestseller this year.
“As foreigners pay more attention to the singers, slowly they develop a liking for Korea ... and if they like Korea, they will buy more Korean things. This is what we’re trying to promote,” Mr. Ma says.
Big manufacturers are strongly represented on the presidential council on nation branding and many have a deep interest in its goal. Once known principally for such prosaic products as steel and cargo ships, South Korean companies are focusing increasingly on areas where a glamorous image is critical.
Samsung Electronics is in a two-way battle with Apple at the top end of the smartphone market, and sold up to 20 million units of its Galaxy SIII phone in the past three months, analysts estimate. Hyundai is slowly working its way up the automotive value chain; one company insider says it is beginning to see its premium models as direct competitors for Audi and BMW.
For some companies the benefits are even more obvious. Amore Pacific, South Korea’s biggest cosmetics producer, is enjoying double-digit growth in China, where the “Made in Korea” brand commands premium prices. Kim Bong-hwan, executive director of the company, says that this is largely to do with the huge Chinese following for Korean music and television stars.
Jang Te-you, a producer of some of the most popular TV shows, attributes their popularity in other Asian countries to their mixing of conservative family values with depictions of sophisticated fashion and urban living — a blend well suited to new markets like Russia and South America, he says.
But some argue that broader social and economic problems are holding back the country’s creative industries. In a society where academic success is highly prized, around 80 percent of young people go to university: A “waste of time” for creative talents who miss an opportunity to develop their skills, according to Kim Ki-duk, director of Pieta.
Like many other sectors in South Korea, the film industry is dominated by the vast chaebol conglomerates, making it difficult for independent film-makers to obtain funding or convince cinemas to screen their films, Mr. Kim adds. “The whole film-making process, from production through distribution to sales, is dominated by the chaebol, which discourages fair competition.”
But Korea's turbulent history has given its arts a “dynamic power” that explain their growing popularity, says Ms. Shin, the author of “Please Look After Mother,” which tells of an elderly rural woman who goes missing in 1970s Seoul, then at the height of its industrial boom.
“Korea doesn’t have abundant natural resources to use to grow the economy,” she said. “If you look into Korea closely, it has nothing to be proud of but Korean people.”
—Additional reporting by Laeticia Ock