Dressed in crisp black suits, BTS or the ‘Bangtan Boys’ entered the James S. Brady Room of the White House where they spoke about the continuous rise of hate crimes against the Asian community in America, minutes before they met the US President, Joe Biden. Global pop sensation BTS, who are known for their sharp choreographies and foot-tapping songs, also made an appearance at the UN headquarters in New York ahead of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

These public stints are not sporadic occurrences, but rather the result of meticulous policy making which aims to thrust South Korea into the limelight as an international epicenter for cultural activity and entertainment.

Coined by political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power is the use of persuasion “to get others to want the outcomes that you want”. As opposed to hard power which involves coercion or payment, soft power is the method by which a country appeals to other countries by highlighting its culture, policies and political values. The deployment of soft power is the equivalent of a person divesting themselves of carrots and sticks. For instance, in the post Cold War era, after the dust had settled down, USA emerged as the victor in a unipolar world, a world where Marlboro cigarettes, Levi’s jeans and McDonald’s were hailed. This surge of popularity was not the product of economic sanctions or military might. Over the years, America had been successful in influencing the world with its culture and ‘The American Dream’, attracting them into increasing America’s cultural exports.

Popular culture exists in many forms –– shows, books, movies, albums –– and with the advent of the internet, consumption of pop culture has seen an upward trajectory. These people are also involved, even if at the grass roots level, in the political system of their respective countries, especially so if they live in democratic republics. These are the same people who are acting on the world political stage, whether explicitly or implicitly, by consuming popular culture with every CD that is imported and with every new Netflix subscription.

One of the most popular examples of a country utilizing pop culture as a soft power resource is that of South Korea. Former President Kim Dae-Jung, the self-proclaimed “President of Culture”, in 1999, enacted the Basic Law for Cultural Industry Promotion which deemed the promotion of cultural industries a responsibility of the state, alloting $148.5 million for the same.

It was in 2001, when President Kim Dae-jung termed Hallyu a “chimney-less industry” and regarded it as an engine of economic development that created high added value with relatively little investment of resources when compared to industrial development. His successor, President Roh Moo-hyun, declared the primary national objective of his administration to make Korea “the world’s top five content powers in 2010”. Subsequently, the Korea Creative Content Agency was founded in 2009 with the aim of promoting and supporting the production of Korean popular culture content.

Hallyu, a Chinese term which literally means ‘the Korean Wave’, bolstered the South Korean economy after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Hallyu refers to the burgeoning demand for Korean shows, music, clothes and cosmetics. ‘The Korean Wave’ established the east Asian country as a major popular culture exporter and it is estimated by The Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE) that the export value from Hallyu reached $6.4 billion in 2019.

Another benefactor of the South Korean economy has been BTS, accounting for $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP in 2019. The single ‘Dynamite’ generated $1.43 billion and according to a study conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, revenue collected from the song would be able to provide 7,930 jobs. At least 800,000 tourists who visited South Korea in 2017, which was 8 per cent of the total percentage of tourists, had done so because of BTS. Big Hit Entertainment and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies collaborated to create a series of textbooks which showcased BTS in an attempt to lure fans into learning Korean. These textbooks were later featured in language classes, sponsored by the government-affiliated Korea Foundation, at six universities in four countries around the world.

The intensity of this wave only kept increasing because of Korean Dramas or K-Dramas. K-Dramas gained traction in other parts of Asia, partly because of the strategic deals struck by the Korean government with broadcasters in countries like Iraq and Egypt. For example, the 2002 drama ‘Winter Sonata’ hypnotised the entire globe. These TV programmes have garnered a massive following, eliciting a response from OTT platforms like Netflix which invested $500 million in Korean content in 2021.

“…the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigator.” To maintain this momentum, the risks accompanying the application of soft power must be acknowledged. Treading into new waters can bring into the light even newer vulnerabilities. As retribution for the deployment of Terminal High-Altitude Defense (THAAD) system by South Korea, China halted South Korean cultural exports and tourism in 2016, a policy move which left deep cracks in its wake.

A South Korean novelist, Sohn Ah-ram also criticised the increased focus on already-established facets of pop culture which he said was like “fertilizing the fruit, instead of the root. If everyone made the same content, diversification of culture takes a hit. You never know which underground artists may grow to create a multi-billion dollar market,” he said.

Thus, pop culture is a soft power resource with immense power, which, in the right hands and with the right approach, can expand to establish a resistant and resilient economy.

-Vasudha Sharma

Amity International School, Noida



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