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South Korea's popular culture defines its perception in Southeast Asia

By Elizabeth Shim
South Korea's popular culture defines its perception in Southeast Asia
South Korea has promoted its popular culture, including boy band BTS (pictured), before leaders of ASEAN during a commemorative summit in November. South Korean media has changed opinions of the country in Southeast Asia, analysts say. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- South Korean popular culture is transforming perceptions of the country among its ASEAN partners as Seoul seeks to upgrade ties with Southeast Asia as part of President Moon Jae-in's New Southern Policy.

South Korea's exports of pop music and television shows are also redefining the contours of regional diplomacy, analysts tell UPI.

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During the ASEAN-South Korea Commemorative Summit in Busan in November, Seoul showcased its soft power initiatives. Bang Si-hyuk, founder of Big Hit Entertainment and manager of boy band BTS, delivered a lecture before ASEAN leaders; K-pop star HyunA performed her new single "Flower Shower."

Seksan Anantasirikiat, an analyst with Klangpanya Institute for National Strategies in Bangkok, told UPI Korean pop culture has boosted the country's image in Thailand.

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"K-entertainment plays a very important role in shaping positive perception of Thai people in Korea," he said, citing a recent poll.

According to the Annual Global Hallyu Trends Report, about 80 percent of respondents in Thailand say they have a positive image of Korea as "economically advanced" and "likable" because of media influences -- often referred to as the Korean Wave, or "Hallyu" in Korean.

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"Overall, the positive perception of Hallyu continues to increase and there is a tendency that the influence of Hallyu will become stronger," Seksan said.

The analyst added Moon's New Southern Policy also affords Thai entertainment an opportunity to take its shows to Korea.

"Currently, one of the most famous Thai series 'Love Destiny' has been famous among Korean audiences," he said.

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Seoul soft power

Love and destiny are common themes in hugely successful Korean television dramas in countries like Singapore, where at least one channel regularly airs Korean TV programs, making them a part of daily life.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who helped organize the first U.S.-North Korea summit in 2018, said in November Singaporean tourists flock to Korea to "see the places in the Korean dramas, and...to watch their K-pop idols perform at concerts."

"I was also part of these statistics," Lee told Moon in Seoul.

Chong Ja Ian, a visiting scholar at Harvard-Yenching Institute in Cambridge, and associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, says Korean entertainment media has broad appeal across Singapore's multiracial demographic, which is majority ethnic Chinese but also includes Malay and ethnic Indian populations.

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There's a "universal quality" to Korean shows, Chong told UPI.

"A lot of people do relate to it."

The increased presence of light-skinned Korean celebrities in mainstream Singaporean media has also touched off a debate about beauty standards, however.

When a lighter skin tone is held up as the standard in society, it "translates into a more negative view of people who do not have the Northeast Asian look," according to Chong.

"It's useful to locate that in Singapore, where unlike Korea the issue of race is always not far beneath the surface," the analyst said, referring to a "brownface" incident in Singapore in July.

Similarities and differences between South Korea and ASEAN member states like Singapore and Malaysia present opportunities and challenges for Seoul, as it seeks to strengthen ties for economic and political purposes.

Hoo Chiew-Ping, a senior lecturer on international relations at the National University of Malaysia, says she meets with South Korean diplomats who reach out to her for advice during events in Kuala Lumpur.

When it comes to the New Southern Policy, Hoo says the South Koreans are "not sure how we feel" about the Moon administration's initiative, which, among other things, aims to facilitate engagement with North Korea through third parties.

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Pyongyang recently began restoring relations with the Malaysian government following the assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother Kim Jong Nam at an airport in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian officials have said they could reopen the Malaysian embassy in North Korea as early as the first quarter of 2020.

One of ASEAN's aims was to "socialize North Korea, normalize them into the international system," according to Hoo. North Korea's warnings of a "year-end deadline," and recent statements Kim could pursue a "new path" could mean a return to more serious provocations, and less latitude for third parties like Malaysia to mediate dialogue, however.

"It's unfortunate," the analyst said.

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