SEOUL – A breakthrough year for “brand Korea” – led by the rapper Psy and electronics giant Samsung— has boosted efforts to promote a country that still feels overshadowed, under-appreciated and misunderstood.
While some may question the benefit of a chubby thirty-something and his horse-riding dance becoming your best-known cultural export, the phenomenal success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” undoubtedly raised the national profile.
Name-checked and imitated by everyone from US President Barack Obama, to Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and pop icon Madonna, Psy bestrode his invisible horse and the music world like a colossus in 2012.
The hit video is already the most popular of all time on YouTube, having racked up more than 922 million views, and could well break through the one-billion mark before the end of the year.
A one-hit wonder maybe, but one with such staying power that the main sufferer of “Gangnam Style” fatigue was Psy himself.
“Sometimes, honestly, yes I get tired or I get sick of it,” the rapper said in Singapore, during one of his endless overseas promotional stops.
In South Korea, they gave him a medal in November for, as one foreign ministry official put it, “increasing the world’s interest in Korea”.
But the scrutinizing spotlight of fame brought its problems, digging up a 2004 concert held to oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq when Psy rapped lyrics calling for American soldiers to be killed “slowly and painfully”.
On Saturday, the singer felt obliged to apologize, regretting any “pain” he might have caused.
Despite achieving extraordinary things in an extraordinarily short space of time, South Korea remains a frustrated understudy on the global stage compared to leading players like neighbours China and Japan.
The narrative of its rapid transformation from dictatorship to vibrant democracy and war-torn, impoverished backwater to Asia’s fourth-largest economy is a source of immense national pride.
But outside views of the country are all too often dominated by glib stereotypes about dog restaurants or filtered from spurious sources like the long-running US television series M*A*S*H.
Even its obvious export success stories went unrecognised until recently, with many believing companies such as Samsung Electronics and LG to be Japanese or Taiwanese.
For Samsung, 2012 was a watershed year that saw it take a giant bite out of Apple Inc as it carved out a dominant position in the global mobile computing market.
Having ended Nokia’s 14-year rule as the world’s top cell phone manufacturer, Samsung saw its share of the lucrative smartphone market surge to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2012, up from just 3.3 percent in late 2009.
Apple smartphone sales in the July-September period were half those of Samsung’s for a total market share of 15 percent.
The South Korean government has spent a substantial amount of time and money in recent years on raising the country’s international profile — notably through its support of the “Korean wave” of TV dramas and pop music that have become enormously popular in Asia and beyond.
For nation branding expert Simon Anholt, the success of someone like Psy is proof that state-sponsored or state-controlled cultural output is never as potent or attractive as individual self-expression.
“Countries are judged by what they do and what they make, not by what they say about themselves,” Anholt told AFP.
“If a country wants to be admired, it has to be admirable, and in a way which catches people’s imaginations: it’s as simple as that,” he said.
Samuel Koo, the new head of South Korea’s Presidential Council on Nation Branding, is all too aware of the pitfalls of behaving like a “PR politburo” that simply trumpets the country’s achievements.
“What is successful in, by and from Korea is already there and too big for us to do anything about. What can you possibly add to Psy?” Koo told AFP in an interview.
The presidential stamp gives the council genuine clout, which Koo is using to push for, among other things, greater recognition of overseas development assistance (ODA) and “green” policies as crucial tools for raising South Korea’s standing in the international community.
But rather than throwing all its efforts behind a specific campaign, Koo sees the council’s role as one of “joining dots” and presenting a mosaic that reflects Korea’s diversity.
“Yes, it is the country of Samsung, but it’s also a country of empathy, a country of ODA, the country of Psy, the country of Olympic medals.
“It cannot be too systematically orchestrated, but there are easy connections one can make,” he said.
South Korea’s film industry scored a major success in 2012 when director Kim Ki-Duk’s anti-capitalist movie “Pieta” won the coveted Golden Lion prize at the Venice film festival.
South Korea has struggled to build a reputation for creativity and genuine innovation, with even Samsung’s success tainted by accusations of copycat piracy and lawsuits with Apple over alleged patent infringements.
But Koo sees a generational change – nurtured by economic growth – that affords young Koreans the financial freedom to pursue creative avenues that were closed to their parents and grandparents.
“That’s why we have the Psys. In my generation, if someone’s son or daughter wanted to become a pop star, they would have been shot. Well, perhaps not shot, but at least had their arms twisted until they recanted.
“There’s a paradigm shift there, and it’s all to the good. Koreans would not be Koreans unless they were individualistic,” Koo said.