Understanding South Korea’s Public Diplomacy strategies

By Iylia Marsya Iskandar

If you ask anyone in the streets, I bet that at least 8 out of 10 of them have heard of the Korean Group, BTS.

In recent years, the “Hallyu” or Korean wave has seen an increase of popularity in Southeast Asian countries. The wave that is currently taking the world by storm started brewing back in the early 2000s with popular Korean dramas such as “Jewel in The Palace”, “Winter Sonata” and “Autumn in My Heart”. Korean dramas are deemed attractive for its relatable themes such as dramas on family life and romance. 

In Indonesia particularly, this phenomenon is not only recognised as a market for the rapidly growing wave, instead it can be seen as part of the Korean cultural phenomenon. The Korean wave is part of South Korea’s effort in familiarising its culture to the world through public diplomacy. In short, public diplomacy is a means of international relations by creating a positive perception of a country towards citizens of other foreign countries. 

In addition to its success in other sectors, the successful public diplomacy has elevated South Korea from a less-known country into one of the most powerful and influential countries.

Korean dramas experienced a tremendous reception in the first Korean wave in the early 2000s. Due to its high viewership and influence, Indonesian dramas started to imitate Korean dramas such as the drama “Kejora dan Bintang” which is a remake inspired by the South Korean drama, “Brilliant Legacy”. 

However, as Korean dramas grew complacent after its surge of popularity in the early years, Korean dramas saw a decline in viewership from 2007 until 2008 for its mundane, cliché endings and its storytelling are viewed to be exaggerated for entertainment purposes without reflecting reality. With the theme that they are currently revolving in, they only attracted middle-aged women audience.

Following the decline, Indonesia started experiencing a second Hallyu wave in 2019 with famous singers and groups namely, “Wonder Girls”, “Super Junior”, “Girls Generation,” “Big Bang” and others. At that time, the fanbase was much more significant as compared to the last wave. The surge of popularity that emerged in the Indonesians’ line of view has increased their interest in Korea.

Due to the popularity and the influence of the Korean wave, Indonesia started imitating the Korean entertainment industry by debuting artists under an agency as in South Korea. Groups such as Smash (2010) as Cherrybelle (2011) are a result of the Korean wave. These groups were not just influenced by the music but by their fashion sense as well.

To reflect on recent events, the launch of a BTS-themed McDonald’s meal has sparked a surge in McDonald’s outlets in at least 13 outlets in Jakarta. BTS is currently the top South Korean boyband with a massive international fandom, including in Indonesia. The crowd of food orders flooded McDonald’s outlets in Jakarta due to the high demand for their BTS-themed products.

Despite a month of availability, the crowd could not resist gaining their favourite themed meals that the outlets had to close earlier due to the tremendous number of orders. The enthusiasm for the BTS meals illustrates the powerful Indonesian fandom towards one of South Korea’s means of public diplomacy from the entertainment industry.

The fandom fever has also successfully grown Indonesians’ interests to be more associated with the Korean lifestyle, including fashion, traditional foods, and travel destinations. More and more Indonesians visit South Korea for its tourist attractions and furthering education. 

From then on, the wave kept having an impact on Indonesia. Before this, not many people know of South Korea and only had negative stereotypes of Korea due to the Korean war, hunger, and political instability. However, due to Korean media being part of Pop-culture, lost are the images of old times. Due to globalisation and diplomacy, the image of South Korea has been restored to the Indonesians with them viewing the country as a modern and beautiful nation with high level of education.

Researchers even argued that this phenomenon would greatly influence Indonesia’s political affairs, economy, and culture, which is a positive impact given that the mutual collaboration between South Korea and Indonesia is well preserved. For instance, due to their positive international relations, South Korea has sent aid to Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite the popularity of the Pop-culture, there are many other means of public diplomacy employed by the South Korean government in Indonesia. 

Firstly, the establishment of the King Sejong Institute Centre Indonesia (KSIC). KSIC is an institute that provides language teaching and learning, and its objective is to establish the information gap about South Korea by providing scholarship, training, conferences, student exchange, and other media access. It has a responsibility to promote the culture of South Korea not only for Jakarta, as it is established in the capital of Indonesia, but for the whole of Indonesia.

The establishment of many institutions, whether public or private, reflects the public diplomacy effects of South Korea toward Indonesia. Its existence, which can attract some Indonesians who are attracted to learn, accentuates the interest of Indonesians in learning South Korean culture.

Secondly, the International Association of Korean Studies (INAKOS) in Indonesia involves academic and non-academic parties to ensure and contributes to the positive effects within the relationship between Indonesia and South Korea in the present and future. It consists of graduate students from South Korean universities who wish to apply their expertise in enhancing the relationship between the two countries. INAKOS also conducts various research, diplomacy programmes, and seminars. 

South Korea possesses one of the most influential public diplomacy strategies and implementations in Indonesia. The penetration of the Korean wave, especially the entertainment industry such as K-pop, K-drama series, and K-movies, has become the primary factor penetrating the global markets, including Indonesia. 

Not only that more Indonesians will come to recognise BTS as a reflection of Korean culture, this means of public diplomacy has also sustained South Korea’s and Indonesia’s international relations.***

(This article is written with extractions from “Analyzing the practice of South Korea’s public diplomacy in Indonesia: An approach with communication pyramid of public diplomacy” in the Journal of Social Studies written by Vita Fitria, Haekal Adha Al Giffari, Daffa Al Falah and Muhammad Zul Razin as part of the Diplomatic Communication course of the Department of Communication, KIRKHS)

Link to the full article can be found here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *