NK Damages South Korea’s Global Image
As awareness of Korea spreads around the world with the country's growing importance, so too do negative perceptions.
When asked why, it's very easy for both expatriates and Koreans to get over-zealous. After the 2002 World Cup some leading figures were gathered in a national image committee under the Prime Minister's office.
Instead of figuring broad strategic matters, their first meeting dived straight into the mire of minor tactics. There was discussion, for example, of how to order restaurants to stop using toilet rolls as napkins. I similarly recall one expatriate discussion on improving Korea's PR be distracted by cheese, specifically its availability and excessive price.
Just as it is important to avoid irrelevant complaints and the urge to correct public behavior as if citizens were naughty schoolboys, so we must resist whining about what can't be changed.
One of my pet peeves is that Korea's political leaders don't communicate well. They can be helped by speechwriters and communications specialists, but the fact remains that articulate discourse plays a small role in political persuasion here.
People do not express themselves clearly. In fact, those who do are often viewed with suspicion. How many times have we seen a powerful figure clear his throat noisily in the microphone and go ``erm" and ``uh" as if consciously dumbing down to make himself appear more trustworthy? That won't change until the education system does.
There are many ugly things about Korea, from the apartment blocks that wreck the countryside to bullying in schools. But the exercise of national branding does not require us to clean up everything with the sole motive of improving out image.
The problem arises when the negative associations outweigh the good. Think of a country which has a good brand like, say, France, and you will find plenty of ugly things. But, what actually comes to mind? Yes, wine, good food, beautiful countryside and topless beaches.
How can we perform the same magic trick with Korea?
The positive, of course, cannot be forced. It must be naturally pointed out and it must be there and be real in the first place to be pointed out. Branding is a nudging exercise, nudging people to focus on a few good things over the bad.
Having said that, if there's a real overriding issue in your country, and you can't distract attention from it, the key issue then becomes your response to it.
Rather than guess at all this, we need to start by looking at what people say about Korea. Surveys show that the best known fact about Korea is that there are two of them.
The ball and chain for South Korea is its association with the other one. North Korea may well be the bottom of the pile in terms of national image.
This is bad news for the nice people in North Korea. But their country only makes the news when their atrocious leadership behaves badly. It is a failed state, run by people whose noteworthy skill is their willingness to be uncompromisingly ruthless in the suppression of any challenge to their power.
Many folk in far off lands who we would like to think well of us get North and South Korea mixed up, mainly, I'm sure, because in English they both call themselves ``Korea." Their Korean names are distinct. We might think their ignorance is unimportant, but we're trying to attract tourists and investors and both make decisions based on false impressions.
More knowledgeable investors and visitors who do know the difference between the Koreas also consider the two far more connected than we residents do. We know the plan here is to do whatever we can to avoid unification, but the world seems to think that it is bound to happen sooner or later.
When you live in Seoul, you can completely ignore North Korea and be confident of going to Jeju for a holiday or investing in a local start-up without preparing a sudden exit strategy.
But when outsiders think of visiting or investing, North Korea looms along with labor unions and anti-foreign ``public sentiment," as a potential threat. And, let's ask, which group is the more ignorant?
Let me put that question another way: What is the likelihood of warfare, and how many will die violently, before this is all over?
This overriding perception of South Korea as being surgically connected to its psychotic brother cannot be denied, at least not without a constitutional change. The South Korean Constitution considers the entire peninsula to be our territory and requires the government to seek re-unification with the rebel-held sector to the north, although fortunately it doesn't stop us from putting this off for 100 years.
Given that reality, we have to work with the association of North Korea.
As simplistic as it sounds, South Korea must clearly demonstrate with words and action that it is different from North Korea. I'm not suggesting a brand slogan of ``Not North Korea."
Rather, South Korea should more actively seek to demonstrate that it is worlds apart in terms of values and lifestyle. The President, as the country's brand manager, must without diluting the serious security elements of the issue, position the country as safe, confident, reasonable, democratic and open for business, rather than assume the world knows it is.
Michael Breen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.