Tag Archive | "soft power"

China’s One-Two Punch: Beijing Targets Korean Tourism and Soaps to Protest THAAD Deployment

By Jenna Gibson

After nearly nine months of suspicion and speculation about Chinese economic retaliation for South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD, it seems Beijing has finally taken its gloves off.

First, major Chinese streaming sites announced they would no longer add popular Korean content to their pages. Then, just a few days after Korean conglomerate Lotte finalized a land-swap deal to provide one of its golf courses to host the missile defense system, Lotte’s Chinese website was hackedNow, authorities have told Chinese travel agencies to stop selling trips to South Korea.

Nearly half of tourists to Korea are from China – meaning that with its latest move Beijing is really hitting Seoul where it hurts.

A record number of Chinese tourists entered South Korea in 2016, even in the months following the original THAAD announcement last July — according to the Financial Times, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Korea increased by 27 percent year-on-year in the four months after the announcement.

But the effects of this new block from Beijing can already be seen – a spring reward trip for 4,000 employees of a Chinese company was cancelled suddenly after the announcement, according to the Incheon Tourism Organization.

Tour packages, especially large-scale trips offered by Chinese companies as a reward for successful employees, have become very popular in recent years, and have directly contributed to the boost in Chinese tourism to Korea.

Under this ban, however, all Chinese tour agencies, even those selling individual tickets, would be prohibited from selling trips to Korea.

If carried out, this could be a huge blow not only to companies directly related to the hospitality industry, but also to retail. According to the Korea Herald, 70 percent of sales at Korean duty-free shops last year came from Chinese tourists – a remarkable 8.6 trillion won ($7.4 billion). Data from the Korea Tourism Organization indicates that Chinese tourists spent an average of $2,391 per person while visiting Korea – meaning the 8 million Chinese tourists who visited Korea in 2016 brought nearly $20 billion into the local economy.

Chinese Tourism Graph

This comes at a particularly tough time for the restaurant industry, which has seen declining sales after the new Kim Young-ran anti-corruption law capped the amount someone could spend on a gift meal for government workers, teachers, and journalists at 30,000 won ($27). According to restaurateurs, the law, which went into effect in September 2016, caused a 25 percent drop in sales.

Stocks of tourism-related companies fell following Beijing’s announcement, with cosmetics companies, retailers, automakers and airlines bearing the brunt of the drop. According to VOA, Hyundai Motor stock finished down 4.4 percent after photos of a vandalized Hyundai car went viral on Chinese social media.

But Chinese opposition to THAAD may not tell the whole story. It’s clear that THAAD influenced the decision to restrict travel to Korea, block streaming of k-dramas, and attack Lotte, coming as it does on the back of the land-swap agreement. But China may also be trying to kill two birds with one stone here.

It’s no secret that Beijing has been frustrated about the explosive popularity of Korean dramas in China. In 2014, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, decried the popularity of smash hit drama “My Love from the Star,” with one member saying “It is more than just a Korean soap opera. It hurts our cultural dignity.”

And in March 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security posted a warning on Weibo saying that “watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and may even lead to legal troubles,” including domestic violence, divorce, and plastic surgery.

In addition, Korean tourism has recently been under fire in China for reasons unrelated to politics. In early 2016, news reports revealed that because of intense competition, many Korean travel agencies catering to Chinese visitors were cutting corners, providing cheap accommodations and cutting deals with shop owners to get a cut of whatever their customers bought. This resulted in tour packages that included up to six shopping mall visits in just two days.

At the time, a Chinese paper published a story titled “Korean tourism Ends up Being Pathetic,” saying in one case that a Korean travel guide wouldn’t let the tour bus leave a shopping center because the passengers didn’t spend enough money. And, according to the Financial Times, “The Chinese government last year [2016] informed South Korean tour agencies of plans to cut tourism from China by 20 per cent and limit shopping days on tours, diplomats briefed on the matter have said.”

The Korean government has since cracked down on these companies, revoking dozens of licenses and investigating complaints from tourists. But the experience, and Beijing’s response to it, may have driven Chinese travelers more toward domestic tour companies – which are now prohibited from selling trips to Korea.

With the THAAD spat, Beijing may be taking advantage of an opportunity they have long waited for – the chance to finally remove that pesky Hallyu from the picture. Whether Chinese fans of Korean shows and products go along with the plan remains to be seen.

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 InterContinental Hong Kong’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Korean Oscar Nomination that Could Have Been

By Jenna Gibson

Among the big Korean films of 2016, two of the biggest explored the colonial Japanese period, but they couldn’t be more different.

Age of Shadows, a box office success, is a spy thriller that follows a Korean police captain-turned double agent who reluctantly works with the Korean resistance. The other, The Handmaiden, twists and turns through the lives of two women, a Japanese noble and the handmaiden who was hired to con her. One is a more or less straightforward action movie with admittedly deep character building. The other is a subtle masterpiece of code-switching, sexuality, and empowerment.

One was put forward by Korea as their chance at the foreign language Oscar. The other was not.

The first thing I did when I saw the notification pop up on the bottom of my screen that the 2017 nominations were out was ctrl + f for my favorite two movies of the year. First, Moonlight – several well-deserved nominations, although I expected more. Then The Handmaiden…nothing. I was stunned.

After some frantic googling, I learned that others were shocked as well. And that the reason for this snub was not that it didn’t deserve a nomination (it certainly does), but that Korea had made a different choice for its one entry into the pool – Age of Shadows.

Korea has put forward films for consideration since 1962, and has done so regularly since the mid-1980s. It has never had a film chosen for nomination. After seeing this year’s choice, it’s not that Korea doesn’t have quality films (it does), but it may not be nominating the types of films the Academy is looking for.

Take, for example, Old Boy – probably the best-known Korean movie outside of the peninsula. It was widely acclaimed and won more than 30 awards from around the world, including the Grand Prix at Cannes. But Old Boy, which ironically was also directed by The Handmaiden’s Park Chan-wook, was not the film Korea put forward to the Academy in 2004*. Instead, they chose a movie called Tae Guk Gi, which, while a great war movie, only one a single award outside of Korea, from the U.S.-based Political Film Society. This doesn’t indicate the kind of broad, international appeal that Old Boy had, which may have hooked the members of the Academy.

This year’s gap is even more stark – The Handmaiden won 44 awards from all around the world, plus an additional 53 nominations. Age of Shadows, in contrast, won five awards, four of which were from domestic Korean organizations. Of course, having a laundry list of awards does not guarantee a film will do well at the Oscars. But it certainly indicates that The Handmaiden fits better into what film critics may be looking for.

Don’t get me wrong, Age of Shadows was a good movie. So were Rogue One and Dr. Strange. But none of them would ever be in real contention for an Oscar win (excluding, of course, well-deserved nods for visual/sound effects).

Perhaps the main problem goes back to how the two films handle a similar time period in drastically different ways. While The Handmaiden spins a tale of intrigue and romance that weaves implications of colonialism and oppression throughout, Age of Shadows takes a less subtle route.  The very first line of the film’s plot summary on Wikipedia says it is about “A Korean police captain named Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) whose cruel Japanese overlords have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance movement,” setting the scene for a very black-and-white action drama. In fact, as one critic wrote, “In short, mainstream audiences should get a kick out of this polished, often exciting patriotist drama. But those looking for a deeper, mightier resonance would be well advised to keep their expectations in check.”

In contrast, The Handmaiden is a layer of complexities, from its Shyamalan-worthy plot twists to its well-developed LGBT storyline to its portrayal of Korean identity and language under Japanese rule. In the words of Atlantic critic David Sims, “More than anything, The Handmaiden is just pure cinema, a dizzying, disturbing fable of love and betrayal that piles on luxurious imagery, while never losing track of its story’s human core.”

That human core, is key to Oscar success, as is taking universal themes like violence or loneliness and telling them in creative ways, had pervaded many of the Academy’s choices, particularly in the Foreign Language category. And while The Handmaiden lacks the gravitas of many previous winners, it certainly hits the mark on innovation.

Awards aren’t everything, and certainly neither are the Oscars. But it is frustrating to see such an innovative, unique, and genuinely entertaining film lose out on the chance to present itself in front of a huge audience of potential viewers from around the world. The Handmaiden and, frankly, Korean film in general, deserve better.  

*Because of special Academy Award eligibility rules for the foreign film category, Old Boy would have been submitted for the 2004 Oscars despite having been released at the end of 2003.

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 lincolnblues’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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U.S.-Korea Relations: The Obama Years

By Troy Stangarone

Summing up a presidential legacy is a complex endeavor. There are countless details that are either unknown or just too difficult to fit into the flow of a single piece. There are choice that in the immediate term may seem wise, but in the hindsight of years less so. While mistakes today may come to be viewed as prudent years on. This is even more the case when it deals with only a single aspect of one part of the presidency, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea. A relationship that while vibrant and strong, is also inevitably tied to both countries’ relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For the last eight years, we’ve seen a relationship that has grown beyond the Cold War confines of the threat from North Korea and that has begun to evolve into more of a partnership that works together both in the region and on the global stage. This shift was possible in large thanks to the relationship that the Obama administration inherited and the partners they had to work with in South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

When President George W. Bush handed U.S.-Korea relations over to President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, he handed over an alliance that was in good shape. While the relationship between the United States and South Korea had been rocky at times during the early years of the Bush administration, even during those difficult times progress was made on the alliance. As a result President Obama inherited an alliance that was already growing and changing as Bush administration left a legacy of a completed but unratified free trade agreement with South Korea (KORUS FTA), and agreements to move U.S. Forces Korea from Seoul to Camp Humphreys near Pyongtaek and to transfer wartime control of South Korean forces back to the South Korean government.

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has built on the foundations of the alliance it inherited. While the alliance remains rooted in the United States’ commitment to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, the Obama administration has worked with South Korea to move the alliance beyond deterring North Korea. Perhaps most critically in this was the administration’s support for Lee Myung-bak administration’s efforts to see South Korea contribute more to the global community. As part of these efforts, the Obama administration supported Seoul’s efforts to host the G-20 leaders summit in 2010 and asked South Korea to host the second Nuclear Security Summit as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to enhance global nuclear security.

Beyond summits, the Obama administration has sought to increase cooperation with South Korea in a wide range of areas that are now referred to as the New Frontier issues and include areas such as cyber security, climate change and global health. As an example, in the area of global heath South Korea worked with the United States and other nations to deal with the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.

In the economic relationship, the Obama administration engaged South Korea in additional negotiations to address concerns related to trade in autos with the KORUS FTA. After reaching an agreement, the KORUS FTA went into effect on  March 15, 2012. The administration also negotiated a new 123 agreement to continue civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea.

At the core of the alliance, defense cooperation, the administration has proceeded and largely concluded the efforts begun by the Bush administration to move U.S. troops from Seoul to Camp Humphreys. It also updated the decision to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea by moving the agreement from a deadline based transition to a conditions based agreement that would implement the transition only once South Korea has developed the intelligence and command infrastructure necessary to undertake operational control of forces.

If the relationship with South Korea has been a boon for Obama, than it is the relationship with North Korea where the long eye of history may have more to say in the years to come. While he inherited a North Korea that had already tested a nuclear weapon, North Korea has gone on to conduct four additional nuclear tests during his time in office and he will pass along to the Trump administration a much more dangerous North Korea than he inherited.  Many have criticized the Obama Administration’s “strategic patience” approach, but alternatives are limited if the goal is a denuclearized North Korea within a short time span.  There may have been other tools that the Obama Administration used over the past eight years that are not in the public domain to prod change in North Korea that only time and change in North Korea may tell.

Much as in the case of South Korea, leadership has likely played a role in the deteriorating situation with North Korea. If President Obama was fortunate to have willing partners in South Korea, the death of Kim Jong-il left a much more aggressive Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea. While Kim Jong-il famously slapped away Obama’s inaugural offer of talks, it is unclear if diplomacy could have played much of a role in convincing Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

Shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, the Obama administration negotiated a moratorium on missile launches that North Korea would soon violate and despite efforts by the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea to build relations with North Korea Kim Jong-un instead chose to greet her administration with confrontation through an ICBM test, a nuclear test, and the withdrawal of North Korean workers from the joint North-South industrial complex in Kaesong. It is perhaps telling that a U.S. administration that, despite domestic opposition, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and reopened relations with Myanmar and Cuba found North Korea an unwilling partner for improving relations.

With the path to negotiations closed the administration instead pursued a course of increasing pressure on North Korea. It’s perhaps most significant achievement on this end was the development of increased cooperation with China on sanctions in the United Nations. While the robust sanctions negotiated after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January of 2016 were found to have been flawed, those sanctions were revised after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test to close loopholes and being to bring real pressure on North Korea.

In addition to international sanctions, the administration took advantage of new sanctions authorities granted to it by Congress, though perhaps reluctantly and not to the degree critics of the administration might have hoped. Perhaps most significantly on this front, the administration has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their roles in human rights violations in North Korea.

Perhaps the last legacy item for the Obama administration in regards to North Korea has been its efforts to increase the deterrent capabilities of the alliance. It reached an agreement with South Korea to expand the range of South Korean missiles to allow Seoul to be able to target any area of North Korea and to help facilitate its “kill chain” concept of being out to take out North Korean nuclear facilities prior to an imminent attack. On the more controversial side, it also worked with Japan to develop new defense guidelines that would allow Japan to play a more active role if the U.S. were to come under attack and which would also aid in a contingency on the Korean peninsula and for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect parts of South Korea against North Korean missile attacks.

For President Obama it will be a strong legacy he leaves with South Korea, a nation that he visited more often than all but France, the UK, Germany, and Mexico and developed close personal relationships. It is North Korea where time may judge him more harshly, or depending on the actions taken by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration come to view him as prudent. By his own standards, President Obama has done well.  He once described his foreign policy philosophy as looking for singles and doubles, and “don’t do stupid s@#%.” By that standard, President Obama has managed U.S.-Korea relations well. He’s made progress on a range of issues and avoided serious mistakes, and despite challenges presented by North Korea, he stands to hand the alliance over to his successor, Donald Trump, much as President George W. Bush did to him, in good shape.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2017

By Mark Tokola, Phil Eskeland, Troy Stangarone, Jenna Gibson, Kyle Ferrier, and Juni Kim

The Korean peninsula was dominated by unexpected events in 2016. North Korea began the year with a nuclear test that merely foreshadowed a year of significant advancements in its nuclear program rather than its traditional pattern of using tests to provoke a cycle of crisis and negotiations. In response, the Park Geun-hye administration closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex in what would become the first of a series of significant moves to tighten sanctions on North Korea bilaterally by a series of nations and through the United Nations.

On the political front, 2016 saw the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States on a platform that may remake parts of U.S.-Korea relations while redefining the role of the United States in East Asia. Closer to home in Seoul, South Korea was rocked by a political crisis that led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.

As 2017 begins the consequences of those events and others from 2016 will begin to play out on the Korean peninsula and Kim Jong-un has again begun the year with a shock announcing that North Korea is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). With that in mind, here are 10 issues to follow that will have an impact on the Korean peninsula in the year to come:

Political Dynamics and the Presidential Election in South Korea

Perhaps no issue will have more impact on the Korean peninsula this year and in the years to come than the resolution of the current political crisis in South Korea. Depending on when and how the Constitutional Court rules on the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, South Korea could have a new president as early as this spring or enter into a period of extended political uncertainty with President Park remaining in power until February 25 of 2018.

These political dynamics have implications for South Korea and the peninsula beyond whether Park Geun-hye leaves office early or serves the remainder of her term. The political uncertainty around the impeachment means that needed economic reforms will likely be delayed and that policies enacted by the interim administration or late in the Park administration could be subject to quick reversal after the question of impeachment is resolved. The current environment could also lead to a move towards constitutional reform, an issue that had already been gaining steam prior to the move towards impeachment.

If President Park’s impeachment is upheld a snap 60 day campaign could change the dynamics of the election and favor a candidate who might not ordinarily have performed as well under an ordinary campaign. It may also aid a move towards more populist positions, as is becoming an increasing trend around the world, but in the case of South Korea may come from left rather than the right as we have seen in Europe and the United States.

The election also holds the potential to see a significant shift in policy related to North Korea and Japan, among other issues to watch in 2017.

The Trump Administration’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia

For the first time since the end of the Korean War, there is significant uncertainty on how U.S. foreign and security policy will develop in East Asia. After decades of bipartisan understanding of both the benefits of the region to the United States and the basic policies that should be put in place to promote U.S. interests, the Trump administration will come into office having campaigned for significant change in U.S. policy and with an air of uncertainty in the region on the shape of U.S. policy to come.

In the campaign, President-elect Trump seemed to place a greater emphasis on international economic issues and question the utility of U.S. alliances and whether countries such as South Korea were contributing enough financially to the deployment of U.S. troops. He also suggested a willingness to withdraw U.S. troops and allow South Korea and Japan to defend themselves with nuclear weapons.

Since the election, we have seen President-elect Trump reaffirm the United States commitment to defend South Korea, but also a willingness to change the nature of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, potentially increasing tensions with China. For the Korean peninsula, the priorities the administration sets in the region, including whether China or North Korea will be a priority, as well as whether it chooses to purse those policies through negotiation or confrontation will have significant impact on events on the Korean peninsula, including how willing China is to cooperate in pressuring North Korea to denuclearize.

As the Trump administration sets out its new policies, we should expect there to be significant changes that could unsettle the region early in the administration. However, as events and structural challenges in the region necessitate, there will likely be a shift towards a more traditional U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Trump Administration Asia Economic Policy

During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump castigated U.S. trade policy, including the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).  While the KORUS FTA was cited as an example of a “disastrous” trade deal, candidate Trump did not threatened to withdraw or renegotiate the agreement, as he did with other FTAs.  His first 100 days agenda only reiterated his pledge to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

While the KORUS agreement may be out of the limelight, there are indicators to watch for to see the future of U.S. trade policy.  First, his senior appointees for various posts will determine the extent of Trump’s economic nationalism.  He has nominated Wilbur Ross, a private equity billionaire who specializes in restructuring failed companies, particularly several in “Rust Belt” industries, as Secretary of Commerce, and noted “fair” trade attorney Robert Lightizer, to serve as the U.S. Trade Representative.  In addition, Trump has appointed two individuals to fill newly created positions within the White House – noted trade skeptic and economist, Peter Navarro, as the Director of the National Trade Council, and Jason Greenblatt, who currently is Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization, as the Special Representative for International Negotiations.  It is unclear how all these four individuals, along with free trade advocate Rex Tillerson, who was nominated by Trump to serve as his Secretary of State, will interact to shape a unified trade policy, and how much real power and authority each one of these individuals will possess.

Second, in early February, the annual trade statistics will be released by the U.S. government.  The Year to Date (YTD) trade deficit between the U.S. and the ROK in goods is slightly outpacing last year’s level ($24.07 billion for 2016 vs. $23.997 billion for 2015).  If this trend continues, there could be a renewed attention on KORUS.

Third, even if there is not a direct confrontation of KORUS in the near-term, the Trump plan to focus most of their attention on fixing agreements with Mexico and enforcing trade laws before negotiating any new bilateral deals could have ancillary spillover effects on Korea.  China is Korea’s top trading partner and Mexico is Korea’s ninth largest export market.  Mexico is also becoming a major destination for Korean foreign direct investment.  Thus, while KORUS maybe out of the cross-hairs, actions by the Trump Administration affecting other trading partners could have negative effects for the Korean economy.

North Korean Behavior in Response to a New Political Environment

With a new administration in the United States and the prospects for a new administration in South Korea this year, there is an expectation that North Korea may test the alliance and Kim Jong-un has already suggested that he will conduct an ICBM test.  Observers have tried for years to explain the timing of North Korean nuclear tests, missile tests, and other provocative acts on the basis of North Korean political anniversaries, foreign elections, and other external events such as international summits or Olympic Games. The historic correlations are weak.  It may simply be that North Koreans test their weaponry when it is time to do so on an engineering schedule.  When they are ready to test, they test.  They might wait a matter of days or weeks if tests would interfere with a major political event such as a bilateral meeting, as we would do, but that would nudge the schedule, not drive it.

The tempo of testing has picked up since Kim Jong-un came to power.  Nuclear and missile test are happening much more often than they did during the time of Kim Jong-il.  This might be occurring because Kim Jong-un is still trying to cement his power and has tied his personal prestige to weapons testing.  It may be because North Korea wants to get as far as it can, as fast as it can, before the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China take stronger steps to try to put an end to its quest for a nuclear arsenal.  It might also reflect Kim Jong-un’s personal impatience.

Will North Korea be a Trump Administration Priority?

U.S. Administrations have limited ability to set foreign policy priorities.  It is a useful exercise to try to set priorities on the grounds that unless you know where you want to go, you are unlikely to get there.  But, foreign policy is unavoidably reactive because decisions by foreign leaders and non-state actors, natural disasters, accidents, and miscalculations require responses.  British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was quoted as answering a journalist’s question of what Prime Ministers fear most by saying, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Discounting events, North Korea should be a high foreign policy priority for the Trump Administration.  North Korea has threatened military action against the United States, South Korea and Japan and is getting closer to having a nuclear weapon that could strike the U.S. west coast.  That in itself should not be considered a watershed moment, North Korea can already threaten South Korea, Japan, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, military and civilian, living within the range of North Korean military strikes.  North Korea’s belligerency, possible instability, and grotesque human rights abuses should be of great concern to countries in the region, the U.S., and the international community.  A concerted, coordinated policy towards North Korea is necessary.

Are Sanctions Working?

The sanctions enacted this year on North Korea constitute the toughest and most comprehensive framework to date. New information in 2017 will help to gauge whether these measures are working as intended and how they can be strengthened, with China’s enforcement of new sanctions playing a key role. The effectiveness of improvements made to UN sanctions in resolution 2321 and U.S. secondary sanctions targeting financial institutions facilitating Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of hard currency greatly depends on Beijing’s willingness to cooperate with Washington. However, President-elect Donald Trump’s initial approach towards China suggests heightened tensions in the relationship over other issues may pose significant challenges for cooperation on sanctions in 2017.

Nevertheless, the continued use of sanctions as a tool on North Korea may be in question. Several candidates in South Korea’s presidential elections next year favor economic engagement with North Korea. South Korea’s return to engagement would greatly undermine the cohesion of UN sanctions, likely precipitating Russia and China—the most reluctant supporters of sanctions and North Korea’s most influential economic partners—to abandon their support. Even if these candidates are unsuccessful in their presidential bids, should the new sanctions have a limited impact in the first half of 2017 transitioning leaders in the U.S. and South Korea may consider other policy alternatives.

Special Measures Agreement/Burden Sharing 

Ever since 1991, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has provided some financial support to offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula.  During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump questioned on several occasions the alleged low reimbursement for stationing U.S. troops abroad.

Later this year, Korea and the United States will begin negotiations on renewing the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which is set to expire in 2018, that lays out the terms of the burden sharing arrangement.  Last April, General Vincent Brooks testified before the U.S. Senate that Korea pays approximately 50 percent of the total non-personnel costs of the U.S. troop presence on the peninsula.  Under the current SMA, Korea’s annual payment (in won) increases by the rate of inflation.

Just as in all negotiations, one side offers its most parsimonious offer and the other side counters with its proposal to bolster its own self-interest.  Over time, the two sides come together to reach an agreement.  Marine Corps General James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, earlier criticized President Barack Obama for “saying that our allies are freeloaders.”  Not only does the ROK already share half of the burden of the stationing costs of the U.S. military on the peninsula, but this staunch U.S. ally also has a military draft with 625,000 active duty military personnel confronting North Korea; spends 2.6 percent of its GDP on its own defense (highest among any major European or Asian ally of the U.S); and 80 percent of South Korea’s imports of military equipment over the past five years have come from the United States.  South Korea is leagues above European members of NATO in terms of alleviating the defense burden of the United States.

SMA negotiations will be tough with the Trump administration, as they have been at times in the past.  However, these talks will not undermine the alliance.  The U.S. national interest will continue to inform policymakers that no U.S. troops should be withdrawn from the ROK until the threat from North Korea is resolved.

Will RCEP Be Finalized in 2017?

The failure of TPP has turned attention to the remaining mega free trade agreement in Asia: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Negotiations were due to have finished by the end of 2015, but have been bogged down by disagreements over a range of issues. However, the breakdown of TPP may prove to be the necessary push to conclude negotiations in 2017. China, the largest member economy and key driver of the deal, has vowed to accelerate talks and is already looking ahead to lead the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), the next progression in the regional architecture.

RCEP members and even non-signatories, such as the U.S., stand to benefit from an Asia with fewer barriers to trade. Still, the deal’s avoidance of non-tariff barriers, while making consensus easier among sixteen diverse economies including Korea, offers limited gains from liberalization. If RCEP is concluded it may provide the foundation for slower and less ambitious regional integration

With RCEP in place, an emboldened Beijing could seek to displace Washington from its leadership role in the region on economic issues. However, the longer RCEP talks continue to drag on, the greater the opportunity for the U.S. to bolster its standing in Asia through bilateral agreements preferred by President-elect Donald Trump.

Will the Korean Wave Continue?

Last year was nothing if not a roller coaster for Korean cultural exports. The bombshell soap opera “Descendants of the Sun” broke records at home and abroad, raking in billions in direct and indirect profits. However, the second half of the year was marred by reports of a Chinese ban on Korean entertainment content because of Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD.

While there have been some instances that could raise suspicion, other events have proceeded as planned, indicating that this is not a blanket ban. It’s far more likely that some local organizers, skittish about the Chinese government’s harsh language on THAAD, decided not to risk a controversy. With THAAD set to be deployed later this year, this will deserve further attention as the deployment takes place.

Yet, interest in everything Korea continues to grow, and shows no sign of stopping. Cosmetics giant Amore Pacific saw a 26.7% year-on-year jump in overseas sales in Q3. And Korea already broke tourism records as of mid-November, with more than 15 million people visiting the country by that point.

It’s worth remembering that the word “hallyu” itself was originally a derogatory term created in China in the 1990s to push back against the influx of Korean media content. People have been predicting the downfall of the Korean Wave since then, yet it is stronger than ever. Expect this to continue in 2017.

Relations Between South Korea and Japan

Relations between South Korea and Japan remain as complicated as ever and 2017 could see uncertainty in the relationship. Despite the implementation of the 2015 Seoul-Tokyo agreement regarding the compensation of comfort women earlier this year, controversy and protests in South Korea have continued to overshadow the deal. In light of President Park Geun-hye’s recent impeachment, leading members of the South Korean opposition parties have increased calls for the government to reconsider the agreement. Potential presidential candidates Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo have criticized the deal and may try to restructure the deal or scrap it entirely if elected.

Despite controversy over the comfort women agreement, South Korea and Japan have continued to strengthen their defense ties. Both countries participated in regular joint military exercises with the U.S. this year and started implementation of an intelligence sharing deal earlier this month. The deal allows for intelligence sharing between the two countries regarding North Korea’s nuclear and weapons programs. Controversy over historical issues between the two countries is unlikely to subside in the near future, but the shared North Korean threat provides avenues for greater security cooperation for South Korea and Japan. Needless to say, the next South Korean president will play an instrumental role in determining the future of the relationship.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America, Phil Eskeland is the Executive Director of Operations and Policy,  Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade, Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications, Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research, and Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image designed by Jenna Gibson of the Korea Economic Institute of America with photos from the photostreams of Gage Skidmore, Stefan Krasowski, Herman Van Rompuy, Byoung Wook, and Korea.net 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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Korean Language Continues to Gain Popularity Worldwide

By Jenna Gibson

In Thailand, students applying to college will soon have the option of using Korean as their foreign language.

Beginning in 2018, Korean will become the seventh foreign language available on the test, along with Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, French, German, and Pali. English communication is also a required part of the exam.

This move comes amid growing demand for Korean language learning in Thailand, where Korean pop culture products are wild successes.

“Thailand has been swept by Hallyu for the past couple of years, and many Korean celebrities and singers are quickly gaining popularity. Not just second and third generation overseas Koreans, but also native Thais are wanting to learn Korean,” said Yoon So-young, director of the Korean Language Institute in Thailand, in response to the announcement. “The government’s decision to adopt Korean on the college entrance exam is taking a big step toward meeting the growing demand.”

Thailand is not the only country where the popularity of Korean pop culture, or Hallyu, has brought increased demand for Korean language classes. The King Sejong Institute Foundation, a Korean government initiative that has established 130 language institutes in 50 countries, was established in 2012 in part because of “Rapid increase in the Korean language education thanks to the spread of Hallyu.”


But celebrity crushes are not the only reason more people around the world are interested in learning Korean. As a recent article in The Phnom Penh Post noted, thousands of Cambodians are diligently studying the language in the hopes of getting a coveted work permit to move to South Korea or to get a job with a Korean company in Cambodia. Nearly 55,000 Cambodians have applied to take the official Korean proficiency exam (TOPIK) so far in 2016.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, American institutions continue to increase the availability of Korean language courses. Famous for its language instruction, Middlebury College opened its School of Korean in 2015. And MIT recently announced that they will begin offering their own Korean courses in the fall of 2016. The school had been offering four Korean classes in partnership with Wellesley College since 2014, but after two years of excess demand MIT decided to create their own courses.

“There’s been a lot of interest in MIT-Korea on campus,” Matt Burt, managing director of MIT-Korea, told The Tech, MIT’s campus newspaper. “People are interested in Korean popular culture, but also want to explore Korea’s growing technological scene, which appeals to the MIT community.”

“MIT-Korea launched in 2012. The first year, we only had five interns. This year, so far, we had 16 students travel to Korea over IAP and at least 20 interns will be working there in the summer,” Burt added. “I suspect that there would have been more students going had there been the option to take MIT-taught Korean classes, so hopefully, the number of participants in MIT-Korea will only rise with this change.”

These new courses are part of a wider trend in the United States, as American students grow increasingly interested in learning Korean. In fact, Korean was the only language to experience significant growth in the United States over the last few years, with the number of students studying Korean increasing 44.7 percent even as overall language enrollment decreased 6.7 percent.

 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 Hyunwoo Sun’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Five Surprising Ways South Korea and the United States are Working Together

By Jenna Gibson

This week, South Korea became the first Asian country to sign a space cooperation pact with the United States, the first step for the two countries to collaborate on projects like Mars exploration, launching a moon lander, and expanding possible uses of the International Space Station. This announcement strengthens what is already a robust relationship between South Korea’s space program and NASA, which KEI has discussed extensively through our podcast and other research projects.

This announcement may come as a surprise to those who see the U.S.-Korea relationship mostly in terms of security cooperation. However, there are many arenas where the United States and South Korea work together outside of the military alliance. Here are five surprising places where these two countries collaborate.

 1.      Improving maternal and child health

The United States and South Korea have a long history of cooperation on development assistance, beginning with American help in the wake of the Korean War to South Korea’s entry into the donor community in the 1990. South Korea’s development assistance agency, which celebrated its 25th birthday recently, has close ties with USAID. A joint project launched in 2013 focuses on combatting maternal, newborn and child health concerns across sub-Saharan Africa. Another new project will look into ways to promote sustainable development in Southeast Asia through science and technology.

2.      Developing wireless charging technology for electric cars

A grant from the US Department of Energy is helping fund a project to develop wireless charging capabilities for electric vehicles. The Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan) and American company Mojo Mobility are collaborating on the project, which aims to improve the speed and convenience of charging for electric vehicles.

3.      Curing cancer

In 2015, the Korean National Cancer Center signed an agreement with the U.S. National Institutes of Health to share information and work together on cancer treatment and prevention. According to the Korea Herald, “The NCC seeks to set up a database of medical records of its 1.2 million patients who have suffered or survived cancer. Once the database is complete, the NCC plans to analyze the ‘big data on cancer’ for preventive measures and post-recovery treatment of the disease.”

4.      Stopping wildlife traffickers

South Korea and the United States have been working on a range of environmental issues, from climate change to sustainable fishing. But one interesting area of collaboration is on wildlife preservation. According to a Work Program adopted by the two governments in 2013, they are working to “Improve collaboration and communication among judicial, law enforcement, customs, and border security personnel in seizing illegal shipments of wildlife products, investigating wildlife crime, prosecuting wildlife traffickers, and dismantling transnational organized criminal networks.” In a related field, the Work Plan also includes a provision to engage in information exchange and dialogue with the goal of fulfilling wildlife management responsibilities, with an emphasis on the preservation of waterbirds and their habitats, and the restoration of habitat. This includes birds that migrate between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and threatened and endangered species of birds.”

5.      Cooperating on nuclear energy technology

In 2015 the United States and South Korea signed a new nuclear cooperation agreement, or 123 Agreement to replace the original agreement that had been in place since 1984. The two countries have already began to cooperate on “shared objectives such as spent fuel management, assured fuel supply, promotion of cooperation between our nuclear industries, and nuclear security.” An extensive KEI report written last year by former Department of Energy and Department of State official Dr. Fred McGoldrick delves into the details of this new agreement.

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 K putt’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Is K-Beauty the Next Hallyu Superstar?

By Jenna Gibson

Amid plunging exports, Korean cosmetics brands are defying the odds. According to new numbers released by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, exports of beauty products are up 53 percent in the first nine months of 2015 even though exports as a whole are down an average of 6.6 percent.

“Experts say the business strategy of product differentiation was the key to success,” writes the Korea Joongang Daily. “Korean cosmetics makers have mainly been focusing their export business on facial makeup and skincare products – such as Cushion foundation, BB cream and facial mask packs – instead of color cosmetics products, where European companies are dominant in the global market.”

Cosmetics giant AmorePacific is leading the pack. The company’s revenue jumped 20 percent in 2014, making it the world’s 14th largest cosmetics company. Meanwhile, Forbes listed AmorePacific at No. 28 on its annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies. Investors cited “AmorePacific’s innovations and booming Chinese business as some of the key drivers behind its success.”

But K-Beauty has gone far beyond China. After opening its first European store in Berlin this February, cosmetics store Missha opened three flagship stores in Spain last month. According to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), Spanish imports of Korean cosmetics have skyrocketed from 250,000 euros in 2010 to 2.61 million euros in 2014.


K-Beauty and Hallyu

Fans of Hallyu know that many of Korea’s cosmetics companies rely heavily on celebrity endorsements – many stores in Seoul’s shopping district of Myeongdong plaster gigantic posters of the hottest actors and K-pop groups across their walls, and fans can earn special merchandise featuring their favorite celebrity for spending a certain amount of money.

In fact, a recent survey of foreigners in Myeongdong and Apgujeong shopping areas found more than two thirds of them said they became interested in Korean cosmetics products after “getting to know Korean dramas or K-pop stars.” According to the study’s author, a professor at Hanyang University, “Interest and affection for Korean culture, or hallyu, has a direct correlation to growth in the cosmetics industry.”

Visit Seoul, the official travel guide for the city, is capitalizing on this trend –cosmetics are second on the site’s list of Top 10 Items to Buy in Seoul. As part of the Hallyu section of their website they have a recommended “Hallyu Star Beauty Course,” that introduces a hair and nail salon as well as clothing stores that are frequented by popular Korean celebrities. Clearly, Seoul knows its audience.

And across the Pacific, this year the United States’ Hallyu mecca, KCon, featured workshops including “Korean Celebrity Skincare Secrets,” and “K-Pop Idol Makeover” as well as booths from many of Korea’s top brands, hoping to capitalize on Hallyu fans’ interest in all things Korea.

Breaking into the American Market

Despite their success at Kcon, many of the big Hallyu trends that have caught on in Asia, the Middle East, and South America have been unable to break into the mainstream in the United States. K-pop acts like the Wondergirls and BoA have tried to break into the American music market to no avail, and while Dramafever has more viewers than ever, we’re never going to see My Love from the Star on during primetime.

K-Beauty, however, may have managed to break out of niche popularity. Sephora, a Paris-based cosmetics retailer with stores across the United States, began carrying Korean cosmetics brand Dr. Jart in 2011 and has since stepped up its offerings. Sephora’s American website has an entire section dedicated to K-Beauty, urging customers to “Get the latest from Korea: the coveted dewy look.”

Perhaps more telling, this year Amazon added a Korean Beauty subcategory within its beauty department, giving American consumers access to all their favorite cleansers, foundations and lotions without the international shipping costs. Even Target has hopped on the bandwagon, adding AmorePacific’s Laneige line to its premium skincare product aisle in 2014. Clearly K-Beauty is on the rise in the United States.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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Happy Halloween: Korea Shows a Growing Interest in the Spooky Holiday

By Jenna Gibson

Halloween as we know it in the United States is still not widely celebrated in South Korea. Trick or treating is limited to kindergarten parties and English hagwons, and you’re unlikely to see many jack-o-lanterns or skeletons decorating peoples’ homes.

But in recent years some parts of the holiday have been gaining momentum. In fact, according to a poll by online retail store Gmarket, 72 percent of Koreans are interested in attending a Halloween party – with 82 percent of those in their 20s saying they were interested in participating in festivities.

The problem? Despite the interest, 69 percent of respondents admitted that they had never actually celebrated Halloween.

Things may be looking up for the spooky holiday, though. This year, many stores, including Seoul’s Coex Mall are holding special events and sales for the holiday. Dunkin Donuts is releasing a special “Party Pack” featuring bat- and mummy-shaped donuts, and Holly’s Coffee has included a Halloween theme for its annual “friends and family sale.” For the first time, amusement park Lotte World will be turning its folk museum into a haunted house and holding a special “Halloween Hip-Hop Night Party” on October 30 that will run until 5:00am on the 31st.

The Seoul city government is even getting in on the fun, hosting a Halloween dance party along the Han River where guests are encouraged to dress in traditional Korean outfits (hanbok). According to a city official, this party is a way to “interpret Halloween – a Western festivity – in a Korean way.”

Online, the Halloween spirit continues. “해피 할로윈” (“Happy Halloween”) was a global trending topic on Twitter throughout the day, thanks in part to SM Entertainment, which held its annual Halloween party this week featuring many of the biggest names in K-pop decked out elaborate costumes.




Clearly there is plenty of interest in Halloween among Koreans, but there are certainly some obstacles that remain. One scary part of Halloween in Korea has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins – it has to do with the outrageous prices for kids’ costumes. A JTBC News video shows outfits online going for upwards of $500. A store-bought Elsa costume for Frozen fans will run close to $100. One concerned mother explained that she felt pressure to buy these expensive costumes for her child because other mothers would be doing so.

One other interesting obstacle could be cultural difference. In Korea, summer is the season for horror. Most horror movies plan their releases for July and August with the idea that scary stories can give people a chill to help cool them down during the hot summer months. On the other hand, because of pagan and Christian religious traditions of honoring the dead in late October and early November, most Westerners consider fall to be the time to celebrate all things haunted.

Clearly there is a lot of interest among Koreans in learning more about Halloween and celebrating the holiday. But with more and more outlets embracing the spooky theme, perhaps we will see Halloween become mainstream in Korea in the near future.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. KEI intern Juni Kim contributed to the infographic in this post.

Photo from tracy ducasse’s photostream on Flickr Creative Commons.

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T-ara, Titanic, and Taeyeon: Pop Culture and North Korea

By Lilka Marino

Recent tensions along the Demilitarized Zone have been notable for one reason: North Korea launched rockets at loudspeakers that broadcasted an array of propaganda from regional and international news, weather reports, and economic updates from both sides of the border. Curiously enough, the program also included certain K-pop songs chosen for their uplifting and inspirational lyrics. The contents of this broadcasts were enough for Pyongyang to threaten “strong military action” should they continue. While the rest of the contents of each program seem like a logical irritant to a regime that depends on maintaining factual silence from the outside world, the innocence of K-pop seems like an unlikely candidate to cause the recent “quasi-state of war”.

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick reports the official party line towards foreign media and contraband, by a defector who received this lecture at work:

Our enemies are using these specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism and to spread their utterly rotten, bourgeoisie lifestyles. If we allow ourselves to be affected by these unusual materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal [Kim Il-sung] will disappear.[1]

While a government such as the Kim regime does rely on its self imposed isolation, and keeping its people from outside influences[2], the reality does not reflect the regime’s expectations. In August, three North Koreans were executed for watching South Korean television programs on their mobile phones.  This execution, along with the threat to destroy the loudspeakers is indicative of the growing fascination with the outside world and pop culture, along with the recent demand for designer handbags and high heeled shoes, trends in East Asia that North Korean women began to emulate when Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-eun, adopted them for herself. Foreign culture has settled into the isolated nation, and will not dissipate anytime soon.

While most foreign media and culture was discouraged in North Korea, the interest in foreign culture started with legal translations of Western classics in the mid-1980s. Kim Il-sung ordered these translations in limited quantities for writers to improve their ability; translations included Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A decade later, these books were made available for the general public to purchase.

Quite possibly the most popular work to be translated, and possibly the most famous example of Pyongyang’s fascination with foreign culture was Gone With the Wind, first translated in a three volume series and released along with other American novels from the 1900s-1960s. The novel permeates North Korean society. When teaching English at PUST, Suki Kim reported that the only American book her college students were aware of was Margaret Mitchell’s work. The typically restricted film adaptation is shown to upper class North Koreans to teach English; one defector reported that the film was a favorite of the elite. Consequently, when the Samjiyon tablet made its infamous debut in 2013, it came preloaded with not only a ported version of Angry Birds, but also Gone With the Wind.

The biggest indication of national fascination is shown by the people’s love of the novel. Gone With the Wind has even made an appearance in talks between North Korean envoys and the United States, with the former apparently quoting “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” during negotiations. One defector reported that for a time, one could not go into Pyongyang and not avoid discussing the work, and that everyone had an opinion about strong Scarlett O’Hara, swashbuckling Rhett Butler, and the destruction of the Confederacy by the Union’s hands. It is the latter that experts speculate that holds the most appeal to North Koreans, along with the plucky heroine, who manages to rebuild and prosper after losing everything to war.

Regardless of what message North Koreans heard from Mitchell’s work, it was clear that the average North Korean is hungry for information from the outside world. This hunger would not always be fed through legal means. In the jammadang open-air markets, one student bought and read a translated book from Russia regarding how capitalism had evolved since Marx wrote his Manifesto, and realized he was being kept in the dark on purpose. How could South Korea and China be worse off than North Korea if Chinese and South Korean goods were pouring into the jammadang?[3]  Another defector reported seeing pirated DVDs and portable DVD players. These DVDs were both Hollywood movies and episodes of South Korean dramas, which sold quickly.[4] A market grew from the demand for media in particular; by 2013, brokers would wait in markets for buyers, who would ask them for the next episodes, waiting only a few weeks after their initial airing in South Korea.

These brokers, usually working with a group known as the North Korea Strategy Center (which focuses on smuggling foreign media into North Korea), feed the demand for drams, movies, eBooks, and music. They are responsible for bringing 3,000 thumb drives into the nation annually. Founder Kang Chol-hwan likened this media to the infamous “red pill” from the Matrix franchise. One broker, a defector by the name of Jung Kwang-il, is another smuggler who deals exclusively with delivering foreign media to the jammadang. He has documented his practice of delivering laptops, radios, thumb drives, and DVDs to North Korean sellers on PBS Frontline. When asked why he risked his life to do this, Jung said:

[North Koreans are] sharing thumb drives a lot. Even officials have one or two. North Korea is trying to hunt them down because the thing that changes people’s mindsets is popular culture. It probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in North Korea.

It’s been reported that almost half of the North Koreans who defect had watched foreign television, even though it’s illegal. Countless defectors cite foreign pop culture as the spark that made them start doubting North Korea. Park Yeon-mi credited the popular film Titanic as starting a “moral crisis”, as both the idea of a man sacrificing his life for a woman as well as the economic development of the early twentieth century being far more advanced than what she had in the twentieth-first century in North Korea would aid her family’s decision to leave.

Surveys of defectors suggest that more than a million North Koreans listen to illegal foreign radio. A fisherman accidentally picked up a South Korean radio program with two women arguing over a parking spot, which was an inconceivable notion to him, as he could not imagine a scenario where there were so many cars that anyone would have to fight over parking.[5] While mp3 and mp4 players are legal in North Korea, downloading foreign media to them is definitely not. Yet one defector theorized that if you “cracked down” on high school and university students who owned the devices in North Korea, all of them would have South Korean music on them.

South Korean dramas were especially powerful to defectors; the sheer beauty in the clothing of the actors and the bustling streets with healthy looking actors and flashy billboards advertising all sorts of goods made watching more addictive; it was fun to picture living in a trendy Seoul apartment until one realized that the reality reflected in Pyongyang’s propaganda did not match up to what they were watching on their portable DVD players. Expert Andrei Lankov has described the fascination with South Korean pop culture within North Korea as, possibly, “the single most important development of the last ten years”.

Seoul has even created media targeted at North Koreans in order to take advantage of this growing interest. One such example is Open Radio for North Korea, a radio station staffed by defectors that broadcast news and personal messages towards Pyongyang. Another is the television program known as Now On My Way to Meet You, which stars North Korean women who now live in Seoul. Part news, part variety show, and part beauty contest, the show aims to show North Koreans the truth about life in the outside world and to especially empower other female defectors. One star even said that she believed that her friends “back home” watch it, fantasize about life south of the DMZ, and even want to defect, too.

Despite the growing demand for foreign media, Kim Jong Un has reportedly sent his security forces house to house, searching for illegal DVDs, and in November 2013 ordered the execution of as many as 80 people, some for watching foreign television. Authorities punished thirty college students with hard labor for watching “Until the Azalea Blooms” on their cell phones last June. Despite the death toll attributed to consuming foreign pop culture, North Koreans still are willing to risk their lives distributing and owning music videos, DVDs, clothes, books, and so much more from the outside world. With this forbidden fruit comes knowledge, and with knowledge, agency.

A young defector summed the allure of pop culture to North Koreans best: “No matter how many people die, the sensational popularity doesn’t die…that is the power of culture.”

Lilka Marino received her Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University with a double concentration in leadership theory and social sciences. Her interests include North Korean politics, Korean history, and traditional Korean culture. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Darrell Miller’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York. Spiegel and Grau, 2009. Print.  p 255.

[2] Myers, B. R. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2010. Print. p 55-75

[3] Demick, pg. 260.

[4] Demick, pg. 255.

[5] Demick, pg. 260

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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.