By Lee Hyo-won
Korea has risen from being among the world's poorest countries in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53) to assume such leadership as chairing the G20 summit. But the country's growing influence is, moreover, reflected by the dissemination of local "soft power" — in an age where cultural exchange is fast and fluid, fan clubs for Korean TV soap stars are mushrooming even in Mexico and LG mobile phones are becoming a coveted fashion item in the Middle East and beyond.
"Compared to the past, when national defense and economic growth were valued, there is more emphasis on the importance of 'soft power' — namely science and technology, cultural exchanges and international solidarity", Seo Kang-soo, director of the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), said in an interview with The Korea Times last week in Seoul.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched the organization in 1971 to support and facilitate such exchange processes. It is now active in 34 locations in 29 countries around the world, to promote cultural content, both traditional and contemporary, from TV soaps and b-boy performances to taekwondo and kimchi.
"The core of soft power is culture. KOCIS has introduced Korea to the world and plays an increasingly crucial role in consolidating ties with neighboring countries and using cultural exchange as an intermediary".
The driving force behind the rise of Korea's soft power, he believes, is "red-hot dynamism" inherent to Koreans.
"This is shown in the instances of hallyu (the Korean wave), and the red devils, the football fans that create a World Cup atmosphere like no other. Such dynamism, passion and 'heung' (party spirit) were behind Korea's economic and democratic development, and are now trickling down to the arts and culture sectors".
The organization has been at the forefront of promoting the local culture, and has eyed the G20 Summit, which opens Thursday and Friday here, as a ripe opportunity to show what dynamic Korea is all about.
"All eyes and ears of the international media will be upon Korea during the G20 summit, and we have been doing our best to uplift the national image", he said, explaining how KOCIS has taken the initiative to host and support various international forums and symposia. Renowned political, economic and cultural leaders from around the world were invited to take part of events such as the Culture-20 (C20) Seoul, where respected chefs from G20 countries explored the local culinary scene.
It also produced an advertisement campaign themed "Korea, a good neighbor", which was broadcast on BBC, CNN, Euronews and Aljazeera. A user-friendly website (g20.korean.net) was also created to provide the latest news and tips about the global gathering such as the conference agenda, schedule of events and facts about the host city.
"We also plan to continue promoting the Seoul summit even after its conclusion Friday, by publishing a book featuring G20-related news clips and stories by contributing writers", said Seo.
While promoting Korean culture overseas may be important, KOCIS' outreach is also focused inward, given the growing size of the local foreign community.
"Our country is home to some 1.2 million residents with multicultural backgrounds, and many are having difficulty adjusting to life here due to cultural differences and language barriers. It is KOCIS' top priority to help them adapt to local life". The organization thus offers various publications, exhibitions, performances and events. "Through such projects, we can learn about other's cultures and the exchange can become a bilateral one".
The center is also looking to expand its horizons, to better represent Korea in remote regions such as Africa and Central Asia.
To learn more about KOCIS, visit Open the link
(Korean and English).
Seo Kang-soo, director of the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), speaks to The Korea Times in Seoul, Nov. 2./ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul