PSY and Korean Soft Power

Last time I checked PSY’s Gentleman MV had almost 330 million views on youtube and Gangnam style had more than 1.6 billion. That’s a lot of exposure for a song that is sung in Korean, about a neighborhood in Seoul by an artist that pretty much no-one outside of Korea had heard of this time last year.

So what does that mean about the influence of Korean culture, the image of Korea and the popularity of Korean artists worldwide? Are the viral videos of PSY a testament to Korean soft power? Or reflective of the changing landscape of new media in which hundreds of millions of netizens decided to share this humorous music video by a ‘funny Asian guy’ with their friends?

Soft Power is the ability of states to influence others through means of attraction rather than coercion by using their cultural resources, values and institutions. The term was coined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye and since then has become the preoccupation of many countries such as the United States, Japan, China, Britain, France, Germany, and of course Korea.

Many Korean music groups, TV dramas and celebrities enjoyed massive popularity in the early 2000′s especially across Asia in the phenomenon known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. This trend increased interest in learning Korean, visiting Korea and transformed Korea’s image from just a manufacturer of cheaper high-tech products into a cultural powerhouse that challenged the predominance of Japanese pop culture across Asia.

However in contrast to the clean-cut image associated with many K-pop groups and male idols from the Korean Wave PSY emerged as a comic, satirical and less-than handsome figure (who some mistook for a spoof of rotund North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un) who gained a massive fan-following and cult status.

Gangnam Style ridicules the lifestyle and aspirations associated with living in the upper class Gangnam district of Seoul, a reference that most non-Korean viewers did not get.  Instead for the vast majority, the video challenges the stereotype that Koreans (or Asians in general) take themselves too seriously.

Although does PSY’s popularity really result in a better global image and influence of Korea? Has Gangnam style or Gentleman encouraged more people to learn Korean or visit Seoul?

Coverage of the Korean Peninsular in mainstream global media is still dominated by reports on North Korean’s nuclear ambitions and the threat of crisis and less about what’s going on in South Korea.

Many Koreans are proud of PSY, Korean media often report on PSY’s growing popularity and he has even become the the official tourism ambassador for Korea yet is this really the image that Korea wants to promote to the world? Should the Korean government and tourism agencies really be pushing PSY’s videos as a product of Korean culture to boost soft power?

Also how can one man really represent all the desirable aspects of a nation that wants to promote itself internationally? PSY probably represents Korea in the same way that Jackie Chan represents China. Both became famous around the world for culturally neutral, visual humor, the only difference is that Jackie Chan’s Chinese song’s did not become global hits.

I mean if you are American would you really want Zach Galifianakis to be designated an official tourism ambassador, responsible for spreading American soft power?

PSY’s limited impact in Japan reflects the lack of Korean soft power spread through these music videos. For one thing most Japanese regarded the videos as stupid rather than funny and so were less inclined to share it with their friends, the fact that PSY was a relative no-body before the video went viral meant Japanese would not be interested and finally there are enough slap-stick, satirical comedians in Japan everyday on TV for Japanese people to care than much about PSY.

So the fact that PSY was Korean, probably had nothing to do with the limited reception in Japan.

About the Author

Thomas is a pentalingual graduate of the University of Hong Kong, now based in Japan as editor of Shifteast.com and researcher for Mandalah Tokyo.