Tag Archive | "media"

BBC Begins Broadcasting in Korean: What’s the Significance for Getting Information into North Korea?

By Robert King

On September 25 of this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced it was beginning radio broadcasts in the Korean language. BBC policy and practice aims broadcasts to speakers of a particular language, not to citizens or residents of a particular country. Its Korean language broadcasting, nevertheless, is clearly directed principally to the people of North Korea.

The location of the transmitters being used for Korean language broadcasts, and particularly the hours when the broadcasts are transmitted are tailored for North Korean listeners.

The BBC is daily producing 30 minutes of original Korean language programming, and this material is transmitted and retransmitted for three hours daily on short wave frequencies and for one hour on medium wave frequencies.  (Medium wave transmissions are called AM radio in the United States.)  The three hours of BBC transmissions on shortwave are from 12:00 Midnight to 3:00 AM Pyongyang time, and the one hour medium wave broadcasts is from 1:00 to 2:00 AM.  (These times are 12:30 to 3:30 AM and 1:30 to 2:30 AM in the South Korean time zone.)

These hours are certainly not prime broadcast times for potential listeners in South Korea, but they definitely are for North Korea.  Listening to foreign broadcasts—in fact even having a radio with shortwave reception capability or having a radio that has the capability of being tuned to stations other than the official North Korea frequencies—is illegal and can result in severe penalties.  As a result, prime listening hours for foreign radio broadcasts are 9 PM to 2 AM according to a study for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) released in 2012 and reconfirmed by their more recent study of North Korean access to media released in 2017.

Nat Kretchun, who was the principal person conducting these studies for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, reports that security and intelligence organizations in the North are using extremely sophisticated technologies to identify violations of its media laws and prevent North Koreans from using cell phones and other devices to listen to and/or watch non-North Korean news and entertainment programs.

As a result, the older technology of radio broadcasting and the less sophisticated devices needed to receive such broadcasts makes radio a key source for current news and information in the North.  The most recent study for the Broadcasting Board of Governors concluded:

Shortwave and AM foreign radio broadcasts remain vital features of the North Korean information environment, especially when viewed from an ecosystem perspective, wherein radio functions as a directly accessible source of otherwise unavailable content.  For all the ways in which North Koreans can now acquire, share and consume outside media content, foreign radio broadcasts remain the only source of nationally available, real-time, targeted news content available inside North Korea.

Despite the high risk of severe punishment for having the capability or listening to foreign news and entertainment programs, a significant number of North Koreans inside the country are willing to take that risk to get information from the outside.  Based on studies of North Koreans who have recently left the North or who are temporarily abroad, some 30 percent of North Koreans listen regularly to foreign radio broadcasts.

About one-third of those who listen to foreign broadcasts hear Korean language broadcasts from South Korea aimed at the North; about a third listen to Korean language broadcasts from American funded Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA); and about a third listen to Korean language broadcasts directed to ethnic Korean citizens of China, but transmissions can be heard by North Koreans who live near the North Korea-China border.  It is ironic that official Chinese radio broadcasting, despite strict Chinese government controls, provides information that North Koreans are willing to risk punishment to hear.  Since BBC radio broadcasts began just over a month ago, its transmissions have not been available long enough to be considered in these studies.

Despite the difficulties and risk of watching South Korean television dramas as well as pop music and news programs, there are clear indications that outside information is reaching the DPRK.  According to the most senior North Korean officials to defect recently—Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy chief of mission in the DPRK embassy in London—information from the South is getting through:  “It depends on the class, but there is not one North Korean who hasn’t seen [a] South Korean drama or movie as far as I know.  It’s no longer easy for the regime to cut off Hallyu [the South Korean pop culture wave].”

Also according to Thae, another indication of the reach and influence of “illegal” radio, television, and other media accessed by South Koreans is that unique South Korean terms and phrases used in these broadcasts have become popular and widely adopted in the North:   “They [North Koreans] might say, ‘Viva Kim Jong-Un’ during the day but in the evening, they cover themselves up with blankets and watch South Korean movies and dramas.”

South Korea, the United States, and some other countries have played a major role in seeking to break down the barriers to outside information reaching the North, and that effort is important.  Not only because the North Korean people ought to have a right to freedom of information as a matter of principle, but also because access to external information makes it harder for the North Korean regime to control information and to mobilize and manipulate its population.  Because of the harsh penalties that are imposed on those who seek access to foreign information, it is clear that the regime is very much aware of the implications of freedom of information.

The beginning of radio broadcasts in Korea by the BBC is a welcome addition to the sources of news and information reaching North Korea.  The BBC has a well-earned reputation for independence and impartiality in most parts of the world.  In the North Korea media market, however, BBC is not a recognized quantity.  This is the first time the BBC has broadcast in the Korean language.  North Korea is a difficult market, hard to reach, and risky for those who choose to listen.  But increasing information availability to North Koreans brave enough to seek alternative news is one of the critical steps in weakening the regime’s information monopoly which has allowed it to manipulate and mobilize its people.  The BBC is a helpful voice, and it adds credibility to the efforts of South Korea and the United States.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Jen Morgan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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A British Voice in North Korea: A Threat to the Regime?

By Jeff Zwick

The BBC may have just put the North Korean regime in a jam. As one of its 12 new language services, BBC Korea is now up and running. In addition to the website, the service’s radio transmissions will be accessible to Koreans on both ends of the peninsula. This move by the London-based news network presents the North Korean regime with two bad options: jam the transmissions, as it has already done, or let the programs run uninterrupted. Given the fact that the DPRK has active relations with the UK – the DPRK has an embassy in London and the UK has an embassy in the DPRK – jamming the radio transmissions may result in North Korean citizens questioning the regime’s motives behind blocking a news network from a country with whom relations are active. If the regime chooses the second option, allowing the transmissions to run uninterrupted, the regime allows outside information to enter the reclusive country, something that it has long opposed.

According to the Economist, there are at least 10 foreign radio stations transmitting to North Korea. These include U.S. and South Korea-based radio stations. It may be simple for the North Korean people to understand why their government jams radio transmissions from the U.S. and South Korea-based news networks. The North has long demonized these countries and has no active relations with either of them. It may be more difficult for a North Korean citizen to accept the jamming of foreign radio transmissions from a country with which the DPRK has active relations like the newest foreign radio station on the scene, the London-based BBC.

The relations between the DPRK and the UK have recently become less stable with the North threatening the UK’s “miserable end” if it joins the U.S. and South Korea in military drills. The North Korean government will likely need to continue such rhetoric, placing the UK in the same category as its enemies, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, in order to justify the jamming to the North Korean people. If it jams the BBC transmissions without taking these actions, it would be clearer to North Korean citizens that there is an unknown motive behind the censorship. That level of uncertainty and confusion could build and develop into an unfavorable situation for the regime. On the other hand, if the regime allows the broadcasts to air uninterrupted, the information could influence the thoughts and actions of North Korean people.

Legally, North Koreans can only listen to state-run radio. Radios sold in North Korea are programmed to only receive transmissions from such legal channels. There are ways around this but even for those with access to a radio which can receive foreign broadcasts, the regime makes efforts to jam the transmissions. Despite these censorship efforts, some North Koreans tune into foreign radio programs. After interviewing 350 North Korean refugees, defectors, and travelers a survey by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), cited in a report by Intermedia, discovered that 72% of the interviewees learned of outside information by word of mouth. The second highest source at 11% was foreign radio. Of the 103 foreign radio listeners, 61% stated that they listened to foreign broadcasts to “learn news about the outside world.” When this group was asked how often they listened, 46% stated that they listened weekly.

There seems to be an appetite for outside information amongst some North Koreans and its consumption has led to changes within North Korean Society. One North Korean in the Intermedia study said the viewing of South Korean and Chinese dramas has caused men to confess their feelings to women and rather than arranged marriages, most couples nowadays date before getting married. This specific change may not be threatening to the regime but it does show that outside information has an effect on North Koreans.

If the DPRK’s relations with the UK translate into a base of trust for North Korean citizens, the rate of change in North Korean society that follows could potentially be larger than that of previous years. If there is indeed a base of trust for the BBC in North Korea, jamming the transmissions may yield more dire results for the North Korean government than allowing it to air uninterrupted. The idea of something becoming more interesting after it is restricted or censored is referred to as the Streisand Effect. It is anyone’s guess as to what this effect would look like in North Korea, but with BBC on the air, the chances of such an effect may have just increased.

Jeff Zwick has a Master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Utah and is currently an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Tim@SW2008’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Netflix’s Korean Premiere Met with Controversy

By James Do

With the success of Korean popular culture reaching many countries around the world, especially Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, video streaming service Netflix is trying to capitalize on the success of Korean entertainment. By riding on the popularity of its original content (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black) and incorporating Korean media into their library, Netflix is now in a prime position gain a market share in the entertainment industry in Korea.

Since Netflix expanded its service globally, the company began to offer more Korean movies and television shows onto its streaming library. Many of its programs tend to be more recent releases such as the movie Tunnel or Train to Busan, which both premiered in Korean cinemas in 2016. The company has also picked up several Korean television shows including The Sound of your Heart and My Only Love Song. In addition, many older famous Korean movies and television shows such as Assassination, Old Boy, and Descendants of the Sun are currently available to watch. In fact, Netflix now offers more Korean movies or television shows than Japanese or Chinese content.

We can see this trend continuing with Netflix’s investment into its upcoming film, Okja. Directed by the renowned Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snow-piercer), Okja serves as Netflix’s official entry into the Korean entertainment market. Okja is a movie about a young country girl, Mija, (Ahn Seo-hyun) who stops at nothing to defend her newfound friend, Okja, a pig-like animal genetically created to be used for human consumption. During her adventure to save her beloved friend, she takes on an evil corporation led by a powerful CEO (Tilda Swinton) who seeks nothing but to profit from Okja and her species. Mija befriends animal rights activists (Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins) who assist her in her quest to save Okja.

While the plot of the movie evokes a sense of adventure, the film itself is without controversy. Netflix recently announced that the film would be released both in theaters and online in Korea, a first for the company, which has never pushed to have their own content released through cinema or television broadcasting. After the announcement, major Korean theater chains opposed Netflix’s plan to release the movie simultaneously, as movies there are typically screened in theaters and made available online after a few weeks. CGV, Korea’s largest cinema chain, refused to screen the film, while Megabox and Lotte Cinema are still debating.

Bong Joon-ho, Okja’s director, explained that while trying to cater to its subscription base, Netflix went against the existing norms and systems of the existing Korean film industry. However, although the film remained controversial to big theater outlets, many independent theaters agreed to premier Okja.

In addition to Netflix’s controversial role in the Korean film industry, the film also garnered attention at the Cannes Film Festival. While the film was invited to be premiered at the festival, it was omitted from award consideration, since the movie was not planned for theatrical released in France – a rule that was introduced after the lineup for this year’s festival was settled. Bong stated “[The festival] invited us and then caused a stir, making us embarrassed. They should have put the rules in place and then invited us. How can I as a filmmaker study local French laws while making films?”

With all the controversies over Okja, what will the future of Netflix and the Korean film industry be? The popularity of Korean entertainment globally has influenced Netflix to ride the Korean wave by entering a market that continues to grow immensely not just in Korea but abroad. As Netflix hopes to increase its user base, it’s possible the company will seek to invest in other films and television programs in countries where online streaming remains popular.

 With streaming becoming ubiquitous among younger generations, film industries must change their business model to incorporate more recent trends. The way we watch and engage in film and televisions has already immensely changed from the previous decade. To meet the needs of contemporary times, companies and organizations need to develop an environment where filmmakers are motivated but also given more recent standards of support. With its innovative model of simultaneous physical and online premieres, Netflix is at the forefront of these changing times. Now it is up to the film industry and its community to change their policies to reflect current digital trends.

James Do is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy focusing on International Security Studies and Pacific Asia and an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from TFurban’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korea, Fake News, and getting Clickbaited by Kim Jong-un

By Nathaniel Curran

Fake News has been the hot topic of the past year, following the election of Donald Trump. The term has evolved from a description of false-fact to become something of a general pejorative. When Donald Trump denounced CNN as fake news, the subsequent rhetorical effect was less to question the veracity of CNN’s reporting than to insinuate that the news agency was morally bankrupt (or put differently, “not nice”).

We now live in a post-truth society where elections can be influenced by clickbait, and the topic of North Korea is one that lends itself incredibly well to this new-era of sensationalist headlines and questionable reporting. For one thing, the country is sensational, in the sense that any details that emerge concerning Kim Jong-un do indeed promote intense curiosity. A nuclear-capable rogue nation ruled by a third-generation despot is sure to arouse an interest in anyone with an even passing interest in international affairs.

I can’t count how many times I’ve clicked on an article on Facebook that promised to show me “shocking but true” photos from North Korea, only to find out that the article featured photos from a Pyongyang planned tour, featuring nothing more than a few snapshots of statues of Kim Il-sung. Other times the headline will describe a provocation that I learn, having clicked on the link, is actually several years old. People love to share news, and in the case of North Korea, they seem to have a difficult time separating the wheat from the chaff.

But even beyond the well-known phenomenon of clickbait, North Korea seems persistently plagued by a fake news-esque problem that is perpetuated by even reputable media outlets. Often these articles involve wild speculation that lacks substance yet maximize clickability. Such reports vary from whimsical bits of gossip, with titles like “You’ll never believe which American celebrity is popular in North Korea!” to voyeuristic pieces about the Kim family’s quirks or spending habits.

One explanation for this glut of coverage is that these stories are easy to write; North Korea consistently provides plenty of fodder. What these articles don’t always do, however, is put the North Korean situation in context. For example, when an article mentions that the North Korean state media has said North Korea will drown country X’s city Y in fire, it often fails to mention that such pronouncements are not out of the ordinary. Frequency of the threat is an important distinction to make; North Korean state media demonizing the U.S. is by no means a rare occurrence, whereas, say, Canadian threats of fire-drowning, should they appear, warrant immediate attention.

This is not to say that the situation with North Korea is not both dangerous and evolving; the North Korean situation is without a doubt one of the most vexing problems facing both the U.S. and South Korea. When one factors in China’s support for the Kim regime, along with China’s position as a new superpower, the situation becomes even more pressing and complex.

This is precisely why the American news media needs to do a better job of putting the situation into context. The American public is presented with an image of North Korea that is anachronistic and inaccurate. On the one hand, the situation is made to appear simpler than it is –either they nuke us or they don’t- while on the other hand the constant threat of nuclear annihilation obscures important issues like China and South Korea’s relationship with North Korea, as well as the ongoing humanitarian crisis in North Korea.

Stories on North Korea -at least those that seek to adhere to even the most basic of journalistic standards- need to contextualize their coverage. Simply reporting a news release from Pyongyang isn’t enough; stories need to also include an explanation for how the geopolitical situation has shifted as a result. Otherwise, such stories are probably less the result of a new development and more the result of a slow news day.

However, the onus is also on us as social media users. We must all refrain from clicking “share” just because the title contains the word “nuclear” or features photos of lockstep soldiers and rocket artillery. North Korea is volatile and unstable as it is, and the last thing anyone wants is a Boy-who-cried-wolf situation if things take a turn for the worse on the peninsula.

Nathaniel Curran is a PhD student at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and a 2017 COMPASS Summer Fellow. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from driver Photographer’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Hallyu Sets its Sights on the Middle East

By Jenna Gibson

At the end of May, Korea’s largest media company announced it would be opening a Turkish unit to help create and promote local content for the Turkish market. They already have plans to film Turkish versions of popular Korean movies, and hope to move forward with more Korean-Turkish co-productions in the future.

CJ E&M is a Hallyu powerhouse, owning the music-oriented TV channel Mnet as well as popular cable channel tvN, responsible for several smash-hit dramas including 2016’s “Goblin.” With this move to increase its presence in Turkey, CJ is hoping to make new inroads for the Korean Wave in the Middle East.

Although the main markets for Korean pop culture abroad are still in East and Southeast Asia, the phenomenon has put down roots around the world, including in the Middle East. In Iran, for example, fascination with Korean culture started back in the mid-2000s, when the historical drama “Dae Jang Geum” was broadcast on state TV and garnered 86 percent ratings nationwide. In fact, in a 2017 report of the most popular shows on Netflix around the world, Iran was only one of two non-Asian countries to put a Korean drama (2012’s Love Rain) on the top of their queues.

Meanwhile, last year the United Arab Emirates became the first non-Asian country to host a KCON event after the United States. KCON, a music festival/cultural experience featuring some of the biggest k-pop stars as well as demonstrations of Korean food, beauty products, and more, drew more than 8,000 fans to its Abu Dhabi stop.

Scholars have speculated that one of the reasons Hallyu is so popular in the Middle East is because although some of the specifics are different, Korean dramas tend to focus on values that conservative audiences in the Middle East find relatable. According to one study of female fans of Korean pop culture in Iran, “Reflecting traditional family values, Korean culture is deemed ‘a filter for Western values’ in Iran.” The study dug further into online fan communities across the Middle East, showing that love of Korean pop culture allowed women to share a sense of community with fellow Hallyu fans. “The uni-culture cyberspace community of fandom has given Middle Eastern women confidence and a strong sense of group identity, sometimes for the first time.”

But the Hallyu movement is not just about giving fans a place to enjoy catchy dances or dramatic love stories. For the Korean companies that create Hallyu content and sponsor overseas events like KCON, it’s about getting fans to buy Korean.

“We see that there are a lot of business potential in many areas that are influenced by Korean culture, such as the beauty, IT and SOC markets,” Sul-joon Ahn, President of Music Division at CJ E&M, told Dubai News after the KCON event.

In fact, South Korea has been trying to create a “Second Middle East Boom,” focused on boosting industries like construction, infrastructure and energy. By capitalizing on the popularity of Hallyu, this push for increased Korean presence in the region can expand to include consumer goods and creative content.

CJ E&M’s expansion into the Turkish market could signal a new era of Hallyu, one that focuses on localization and domestic buy-in to boost the continued success of Korean pop culture around the world.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Image from Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Is the Hallyu Crisis with China Over?

By Jenna Gibson

Beijing has approved the broadcast of a new Korean drama that had been co-produced by a Korean and a Chinese company, according to a source in the Chinese entertainment industry, making it the first Korean show to get the green light since before the THAAD spat.

This move is good news for Korean entertainment companies, which have been lamenting the Chinese ban which had slowly pushed Korean stars out of the spotlight throughout last year and culminated in direct retaliation against tourist packages and Lotte Department stores. It also bodes well for drama co-productions, which had seen tremendous success in last year’s standout Descendants of the Sun. At the time, before THAAD derailed things, Korean-Chinese collaboration was seen as the new frontier in Hallyu, and key to the continued success of Korean creative content in the Chinese market.

What’s interesting is the impetus for China’s reversal on allowing Hallyu content. Beijing is likely trying to start off on a good foot with newly elected Korean President Moon Jae-In, himself a skeptic of the THAAD system, in an attempt to give Moon some leeway should he decide to review the deployment.

A recent op-ed in the People’s Daily-affiliated Global Times insisted that “It is likely that Moon will stop THAAD’s deployment,” saying, “The huge economic losses South Korea has suffered are a result of the Chinese public’s anger. South Korea, which relies heavily on China economically, needs to weigh its potential gains and losses carefully” and that “Both Beijing and Seoul should take Moon’s presidency as an opportunity to promote warmer bilateral relations.”

But in reality, Moon has little room to maneuver at this point. THAAD is already in place and operating at some capacity, and recent missile launches from North Korea (the second of which was detected by THAAD) have highlighted its necessity in the public eye.

Although there was a dip in approval last November, the Korean public has largely remained favorable toward the THAAD system, according to polling by the Asan Institute in Seoul.  As of March, 50.6 percent of Koreans approved of THAAD, with 37.9 percent opposed. Perhaps because of this, President Moon has softened his position from outright opposition during the early stages of the campaign to stating that he objects to the way the decision was made, not the system itself.

As Asan Vice President Choi Kang pointed out in a KEI podcast after the election, President Moon may be constrained both by domestic politics and public opinion. Moon’s Minjoo Party only has 120 seats out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, and he failed to breach 50 percent of the vote during his election.

“How he can make a coalition or compromise with opposition parties is going to be a very, very critical issue for him to handle in the early phase of his presidency,” Choi said.

This could be particularly difficult when it comes to China, which has seen a steep decline in popularity among the Korean public since they stepped up their economic pressure over THAAD. Beijing’s economic retaliation has included the ban on selling tourist packages to Korea as well as cancelled concerts and a block on Korean entertainment content being uploaded to streaming sites.

According to a new report from the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET), “China’s ban on South Korean cultural imports will amount to 5.6 trillion won (US$5.02 billion) and 15.2 trillion won (US$13.6 billion) in direct and indirect damage in the consumer goods distribution sector” if it continues for six months. New numbers from the Korea Tourism Organization show a 66 percent year-on-year drop in Chinese visitors in April, driving much of the estimated losses for industries such as clothing and cosmetics.

“It’s quite difficult for South Korea to improve its relations with China because public understanding of China has deteriorated over several months,” Choi said. “So unless there is a positive sign coming from China on this economic pressure, it is very unlikely for the South Korean government to improve drastically its relations with China.”

Now that China seems to be offering an olive branch, public opinion may begin to shift back in Beijing’s favor. But after months of panicked headlines over China’s latest crackdown, it’s unlikely that one fantasy romance drama will be enough to turn things around entirely.

At this point, Beijing may continue to roll back its content and tourism bans in the hopes of wooing President Moon to their point of view, or as a face-saving measure. Either way, though, Chinese leadership would be ill-advised to hold their breath for a THAAD removal.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from LG전자’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Five K-pop Tropes that Need to Go

By Jenna Gibson

I have a confession to make – I love k-pop. Ever since my first few weeks living in Korea, when my k-pop obsessed friends sat me down and made me watch all the great music videos back to back to back, I was hooked. I love the spectacle of a great concert and the pull of a beautiful, cheesy ballad (if you think k-pop is all neon and glitter, you haven’t delved into the wonderful world of k-pop ballads).

As a fan of anything, especially something like k-pop that’s still relatively niche in the United States, it can be very frustrating to read news articles about the genre. While some have done a great job of delving into some of the really cool and interesting aspects of the k-pop world, others have fallen into the trap of tired cliche. After a few particularly frustrating examples recently, I have gathered (with input from my fellow fangirls) five of the k-pop tropes that American media needs to put to rest once and for all.

1. K-pop? Gangnam Style!

I have to give Psy credit. Gangnam Style did a lot of great things for Korean pop culture – I will never forget the shock I felt hearing Korean rap on a top 40s station for the first time. But that was five years ago…it’s time to find a new point of reference. This is not to say that Psy should be banned from news articles point blank – if you’re writing about k-pop’s entry into the American market, of course you have to mention the explosive popularity of the quirky rapper. But if you’re writing about how several big boy bands are facing an uncertain future because of mandatory military service…I’m not sure how a solo rapper and his 2012 hit are relevant to your story.

2. The Korean [fill in American artist here].

It’s understandable to try and describe Korean artists in terms that American readers will understand. However, leaning on comparisons without in-depth reasons why the artists are comparable is not good writing, it’s also condescending to both the Korean artist in question and to the people reading the article.  If you compare Shinee to the Backstreet Boys for no other reason than the fact that they both have five members, you’re not trying hard enough. And no, mega-star Rain is not the Korean Usher. Or the Korean Justin Timberlake. Or, oddly, the Korean Gene Kelly. And can we stop with the Justin Bieber references yet?  Just because they share one or two traits, that doesn’t make them the same.

3. Robots in guyliner

Korea is “cranking out pop stars” and Korean entertainment companies “specialize in manufacturing a steady stream of teenage idols.”  Yes, the k-pop scene moves fast. And yes, the fact that entertainment companies train kids for years before debuting them in well-thought-out groups is perhaps a bit unusual to the American eye. But it’s misleading to liken the idols to robots being spit out like cookie cutter copies of each other. This depiction ignores the autonomy of the boys and girls who work incredibly hard to get into a group and perfect their skills. It implies a uniformity that I certainly don’t see in the kpop scene today (anyone who wants kpop recommendations, I’m happy to provide a wide variety of styles to choose from!) And, finally, this depiction of Korean automatons on stage implies that the artists have no underlying talent beyond what the company has bestowed upon them despite the real talents they have.

4. The K-pop throne

One trope that is oddly common is calling certain groups the “kings,” “queens,” of k-pop. Now, you’re never going to be able to satisfy fans of every group out there, but by singling one out as the peak of the genre, you’re bound to get heated disagreements. At the very least, use statistics to justify including certain groups in an article – did they just sell out a world tour? Did they break a bunch of YouTube records? Did they break album sales records? Set a new record on the charts. Let’s be honest, you’ll still probably get some heated comments by ignoring certain groups. But at least a group’s claim to the k-pop throne will be justified.

5. K-pop is taking over the world!

This is not news. The New York Times reported on this theme as early as 2006. Time to find a new angle. Like the fact that a lot of the super famous 2nd/3rd generation k-pop groups are breaking up all around the same time – that’s an interesting article! (now, the author breaks pretty much all the other no-nos and then some, but that’s another story). Or how about this incredibly well-researched piece about how fans donate thousands of dollars to charity to boost their idol’s reputation? Now that’s an interesting story. Or, maybe why despite their success they haven’t conquered the United States yet. Generic stories about how Korean pop music is popular around the world? That’s so 2006.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Peter Kaminski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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5 Interesting Documentaries about South Korea

By Jenna Gibson

Historically, local documentaries have not been that popular in South Korea – the first commercially successful documentary in the country was 2008’s “Old Partner,” which shattered domestic records just by attracting 100,000 viewers in the first few weeks after its release. Since then, more independent films have begun to crop up, telling real-life stories about different aspects of Korea. The five films below represent some of those stories.

1. Twinsters (2015)

Imagine waking up one day after living 25 years as an only child and finding out that you have an identical twin. This scenario is not just for dramatic soap operas – it really happened to two Korean adoptees. Twinsters follows Samantha Futerman, who grew up in the United States, and Anais Bordier, who grew up in France, as they get to know the twin they never knew they had. While this film is about the two women and their growing relationship, it also touches on broader themes related to international adoption and what culture and heritage means for these adoptees as they get older.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

 2. Reach for the Sky (2015)

The hyper-competitive Korean education system is not a new subject, but Reach for the Sky approaches it from a somewhat new angle – Repeaters. These students choose to spend a full year after their high school graduation focused only on improving their college entrance exam score with the hopes of getting into a better university. The film follows a group of these students throughout their repeating year, telling through them the story of a society where the name of your university can determine the course of your life.

Available for purchase (DVD and streaming) here: http://reachfortheskydoc.com/#

3. My Love, Don’t Cross that River (2014)

 This touching film about an elderly couple and their 76-year marriage was a smash success, becoming the most commercially successful independent film in Korea’s history. Slow-moving but never dull, the film lets the couple’s love speak for itself – like when 98-year-old Jo Byeong-man throws leaves on his wife while raking their yard, her exasperated response indicating that this has happened many times before. In this way, the film successfully portrays themes of love, family, and endurance without any need for narration or explanation.

Available for purchase (DVD and streaming) through Amazon Video.

4. The Battle of Chosin (2016)

This PBS special retells the pivotal Korean War battle of the Chosin Reservoir through the eyes of troops who fought there in 1950. Often known as the “Forgotten War,” the experiences during the Korean War nevertheless played a key role in shaping how Americans approached the world for the next 50 years. This film helps put the Chosin battle, and the experiences of the soldiers who fought there, into this wider perspective.

Available on the PBS website.

5. Even the Rivers (2015)

A brief but helpful introduction into some of the challenges faced by multicultural children in South Korea. Based on interviews with students, parents and teachers, this film touches on the ways Korea has become more multicultural, and what that means for the children who are growing up and going to school in a country that was, until very recently, entirely homogeneous.

Available to watch free on Vimeo – information on the film’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/eventherivers/

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Epping Forest DC’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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South Korea’s Concern with Nation Branding Strategies

By Sungeun (Grace) Chung

Maintaining peaceful and cooperative international relations has become exceptionally important in a global society. There are two means that a nation can use to influence the preferences of international audiences: hard power and soft power. While exercising hard power is associated with the use of military and economic compulsion, soft power is to promote a nation’s influence through appeal, diplomacy, propaganda, and cultural attraction. Among soft power tools, a nation’s image could significantly contribute to advancing its global public image.

South Korea is very well known for its development in hard power over the decades, but many experts and citizens have criticized for the slow development of its national image. A solidified national brand helps a nation receive high respect and acceptance by other political bodies in the world, shaping a strong national brand has risen as an issue in Korea. Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, is the “inventor” of the measurement index of a nation’s image perceived by other countries in 2005. Using three major surveys with a panel of 30,000 individuals in 25 countries annually, the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index (NBI) bases its idea on several dimensions: culture, governance, people, exports, tourism, investment, and immigration).

During his keynote address at the “Nation Brands in the Global Market” conference held in Seoul in May 2006, he stated that according to the poor scores South Korea obtained in the 2005 NBI, it had “a major image problem.” South Korea ranked 25th in 2005, yet it downgraded to 33rd in the 2008 NBI even with “great advances in prosperity, stability, transparency, productivity, education” and the popularity of the Korean Wave in Asia. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF), South Korea’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) has significantly soared from $65.2 billion in 1980 to $1 trillion in 2008, and now it is $1.4 trillion in 2016. Korea has proven that it has become one of the largest economies in the world, but its rank for NBI also proved that South Korea has not been successful in promoting its image to the world.

Anholt mentioned that many people had seemed to confuse North Korea and South Korea. Those who confused the two viewed the South Korean government as “dangerous,” “unpredictable,” and “unstable.” Luke Stanhope, a Seoul-based strategic communications professional and a former South Korea Fulbright Research Fellow, criticizes that Western media paints a negative image about South Korea: the 1950 Korean War, hyper-stressed students, a divided Korea, North Korean missiles, corruption in government and the chaebol companies, video game addiction, the Sewol ferry tragedy, and protests for the President Park Geun-hye’s resignation. Korea needs to address this problem of its lagging international reputation.

Urged to take actions on this “Korea Discount” phenomenon indicating the gap between Korea’s miraculous developments and its poor perception by the international community, Lee Myung-bak, South Korean President from 2008 to 2013, established the Presidential Council on Nation Branding in January 2009. His goal was to bring Korea’s NBI from 33rd to 15th by the end of his appointed term. In an interview with The Korea Times, Euh Yoon-dae, the first chairman of the Council, stated that the Council would focus on improving its global competitiveness through various ways. He proposed to strengthen the brands of Korean firms to attract more foreign direct investments, to increase official development assistance (ODA) for underdeveloped countries, to create a brilliant slogan for Korea, to raise awareness of internationally accepted norms and etiquette among citizens, and to promote positive images as a country with highly valuable IT technologies and the Korean Wave.

Some of these pledges have been successful. Continued efforts have increased foreign direct investments to an all-time high of $7.6 billion. Korea is the first country to go from receiving international development assistance to then joining the prestigious Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Additionally, PyeongChang was selected to host the 23rd Olympic Winter Games in 2018 through a highly competitive selection process. K-Pop, popular music, has contributed to the Korean Wave, increasing Korea’s exports to $80.9 million worth of music in 2010, a 159% increase from 2009, and to $177 million in 2011. South Korea launched the G20 Summit in Seoul in 2010, and according to the Presidential Council, it contributed to a 17% increase in terms of foreigners’ knowledge of Korea and a 3.5% increase in positive international opinion of Korea.

Although the NBI rank for South Korea went up to the 17th place in 2012, there are a few examples that represent recent PR related concerns among the public in Korea. One is a promotional video for the upcoming Pyeong Chang Winter Olympics. The Public Relations Team of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism was responsible for the “Arari,Yo Project” to promote the Olympics. A member of a famous girl singer group, Hyorin, and a few other famous celebrities were featured in the video, using Korea’s traditional song, Arirang. Many critics and the public commented about the bizarre video, saying that they do not understand the purpose of the video and why they spent 275 million won ($235,000) on the video production. They believe that the target audience, foreigners, would not understand the video’s concept.

Another example is Korea’s capital, Seoul’s new logo, “I. Seoul. U.” Implying that Seoul is a city where two individuals can co-exist, this slogan has been selected to replace the current famous slogan of Seoul, “Hi, Seoul.” This slogan has received major backlash, not only because it does not clearly convey its meaning, but also because the city government invested an excessive amount of money for something that the international community criticizes, approximately 500 million won ($425,500) was spent on promoting the slogan and another 300 million won ($255,000) for the launching ceremony.

Korea has attempted to improve its lack of an international image for a long time, but it has not been too successful. Some experts including Simon Anholt and Fiona Bae, deputy PR manager at Hyundai Capital & Hyundai Card, criticize that it may be because Korea has focused on marketing and tourism while ignoring the opinions of their target audience, the international community. As Cho Hyun-jin from the former president’s foreign media team says, South Korea must understand that the national image should come first, then tourism and marketing. The government should be more strategic in order to be a leader for their international agenda. As Korea puts much efforts into their PR strategies, they should plan ahead to promote their image, using opportunities such as international meetings and the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics.

Sungeun (Grace) Chung is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in Economics and Applied Mathematics as well as a minor in East Asian Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Eugene Lim’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Why Do We Believe Everything We Hear About North Korea?

By Jenna Gibson and Chris Hurst

The discovery of a unicorn lair, the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle by a pack of rabid dogs, and a decree that all North Korean men must copy Kim Jong Un’s haircut. All of these were stories that were widely covered in mainstream Western news outlets. And all of them are false.

These stories spread like wildfire around the internet, prompting North Korea watchers to push back. “Other than North Korean executions, what other news stories routinely get circulated as fact despite unknown and unreliable sources?” asked Alastair Gale, the Wall Street Journal’s Seoul correspondent, on Twitter.

We’ve been down this road before. After the dog execution story, the Washington Post wrote an article discussing this phenomenon. “This seems to be a problem particular to stories out of North Korea, about which almost any story is treated as broadly credible, no matter how outlandish or thinly sourced. There’s no other country to which we bring such a high degree of gullibility… We know so little about what really happens inside the country, and especially inside the leader’s head, that very little is disprovable. But the things we do know are often so bizarre that just about anything can seem possible.”

In journalism school, students are taught the five factors of newsworthiness: timing, significance, proximity, prominence, and human interest. Other professors added a final, key marker of newsworthiness – novelty. Is it odd? Unexpected? Maybe a little ridiculous? That can also be worth a story.

That’s exactly where these crazy stories about North Korea fit – and exactly what makes them so dangerous.

Take this week’s big story, for example. For the last few days, headlines have been proclaiming that Kim Jong Un executed two high-level officials using an anti-aircraft gun. Their supposed crime? Sleeping and slouching during meetings.

This story was picked up in dozens of major news outlets, all running similar astonished headlines. It’s not until the second or third paragraph, however, that the reporter mentions the fact that this news has not been confirmed. In fact, the South Korean newspaper who first reported the story relied on a single, anonymous source.

At least they were upfront about the possibility that this didn’t actually happen, right? Unfortunately, that’s just not good enough. According to a recent study from Columbia University, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never been clicked – meaning most people share stories without actually reading past the headline.

So what? What does it matter if people mistakenly think that Kim Jong Un is running around executing his generals with an anti-aircraft gun?

Well, besides the obvious implications for the stability of the country and the state of mind of a dangerous dictator, it creates a vicious cycle of confirmation bias that can become extremely difficult to break.

Confirmation bias is an important force in psychology – in essence, it means that people tend to see only evidence that confirms what they already think about a topic and ignore contradictory information. In this case, once people see several headlines about Kim Jong Un’s crazy antics, that is the paradigm that becomes set in people’s minds. And that paradigm makes it incredibly difficult to take North Korea seriously as a dangerous threat to global security and as a proven offender of countless gross human rights violations.

There is an easy way to stop this confirmation bias – by fact checking these reports before putting them to press. However, for journalist this can be a difficult task. The North Korean government can be an information black hole, as noted by Reporters Without Borders. North Korea has ranked near the bottom of their press freedom index since its creation. Few visa are granted for foreign press by the government, and those that are granted are closely watched by minders that restrict what they can report. Even depending on eye witness reporting, which has become popular in the age of Twitter and Facebook live streaming, is impossible because there is no internet for the public.

The lack of information from the North Korean government and its people leads reporters to rely on foreign governments to verify reports. But this creates its own issues, as those sources may use information to their advantage. Adding an additional layer of confusion is North Korea itself, which routinely sends out hyperbolic announcements about their miracle cures for cancer and the like. In the end, journalists end up filling this information vacuum with unsubstantiated news stories that are more viral than factual.

In addition, some may be wary of not reporting a big story just because it can’t be confirmed. During WWII, the public famously ignored reports about concentration camps because they sounded too unbelievable – but of course we know now that those reports turned out to be true.

All of this is not meant to say that journalists should not cover North Korea, in fact quite the opposite. They should just be aware of the power of sensational headlines and unconfirmed information. When it comes to North Korea, confirmation is particularly difficult, but also particularly important. Because it is so closed off, media reports are often the only way for people to learn about North Korea at all. Let’s make sure what they learn is actually true.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications and Chris Hurst is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from stephan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.