Promoting Korea via cultural exchange

2015-02-24 : 18:43

A young visitor in Taekwondo uniform engages in “jegi,” a traditional game, at the Korea Cultural Center in Nigeria on Feb. 19 during a New Year cultural event.
/ Courtesy of Korea Cultural Center in Nigeria

Kim Jae-won
Korean Culture and
Information Service Director
/ Courtesy of Korean Culture and Information Service

By Kwon Mee-yoo

One of the most important cultural policy priorities for the Park Geun-hye administration as it enters its third year is national branding.

In a New Year report to Cheong Wa Dae last month, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism underlined national branding as a crucial task. The Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) is at the forefront of implementing the mission to publicize Korea around the world.

“The state-run agency has two major missions — enhancing the national image of Korea and giving wider publicity for Korean culture,” KOCIS director Kim Jae-won said in an interview with The Korea Times on Feb. 12.

Korea has had several slogans to promote its global image and tourism, including “Korea Sparkling.” Branding Korea to the world is a long-term project. “It is impossible for a single event to change Korea’s image at once. Diplomatic relations as well as public attitudes regarding a country cannot be reversed overnight,” the director said. “Establishing a national brand is like writing a cover letter for Korea. We can promote Korea through this self-introduction. More importantly, we should match our life to the slogan and brand to prevent mistrust that stems from the gap.”

“The National image of Korea means Korea as seen by foreigners. Korea is usually recognized as a rare country that overcame Japanese colonization (1910-1945), the Korean War (1950-53) and dire poverty and accomplished modernization, industrialization and democratization. However, not all foreigners acknowledge Korea’s development and North Korea issues undermine the image of Seoul.”

Kim sees balancing uniqueness and universalism as the key in proper national branding efforts. “It is about cultural reciprocity. Promoting the Korean national brand does not come from imposing its culture, but can be completed by understanding and accepting other countries. It is more about sharing and exchanges than promotions or marketing” he said.

An affiliate of the culture ministry, KOCIS promotes Korea through cultural exchanges. It operates 28 Korean Cultural Centers in 24 countries and supervises 13 Culture and Information Officers in 11 countries as hubs for spreading Korean art and culture.

Under the Park administration, the KOCIS aims to expand the number of branches of the Korean Cultural Center up to 40. The KOCIS works closely with Korean Cultural Centers around the world to take Korean culture to local communities.

“We are on a budget and just increasing the number of the centers is not everything,” Kim said. “It takes time to establish a Korean Cultural Center. There are increasing needs for Korean culture and we have to research to find the right place to build the center.”

“The largest market for hallyu is East Asia including China and Japan, while Europe and America have come to develop an interest in Korean culture. The KOCIS and affiliated overseas cultural centers could cooperate with Korean companies to widen the horizon of hallyu both geographically and content-wise.”

A key responsibility for KOCIS is letting the world know about Korea the right way. During his tenure at the Los Angeles Korea Cultural Center, Kim monitored what aspects of Korea drew attention from Americans.

“In October 2010, the LA Times featured the life of Korean ’haenyeo,’ or female divers. I was surprised that such ordinary people, who are taken for granted here, could inspire foreigners to take interest in Korea,” Kim said.

The 28 Korean Cultural Centers across the globe screen Korean films, teach the Korean language, exhibit Korean artist’s works and present traditional and modern performing arts to promote Korean culture aboard.

As an avid supporter of “hallyu,” or Korean wave, Kim believes the centers play a key role in promoting hallyu. “Many of Korean Cultural Centers’ programs are centered on traditional culture, but they should shed more light on contemporary culture such as K-pop, animation and webtoon (web cartoon) to boost cultural industry. The content could differ based on characteristics of country they are based in,” the KOCIS director said.

Inaugurated as the KOCIS director in October 2014, Kim has diverse international experience. The longtime culture ministry official was seconded to the World Trade Organization from 1996 to 1998 and attended Nebrija University in Spain from 2002 to 2004, studying tourism marketing. He served as a director for the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles from 2009 to 2012, successfully organizing the center’s 30th anniversary projects in 2010. Kim also is an expert in the contents industry, leading the ministry’s Contents Policy Office before arriving at KOCIS.

“My international background helped me to have a global vision. I have studied and worked in both Europe and the United States, learning their cultural trends and seeing how they perceive Korea,” Kim said.

“I hope KOCIS becomes a window to Korea and its culture. To be a prism reflecting multiple facets of Korea, we work closely with related organizations to gather a wide range of facts about Korea and use them in our national publicity efforts,” Kim added.