Squid Game gripped viewers in 94 countries, becoming the most watched Netflix show ever. The Oxford English Dictionary added 26 Korean words. The K-pop band BTS has topped charts internationally and met Joe Biden at the White House this summer. After sweeping through Asia years ago, hallyu – the “Korean wave” of culture – has crashed upon western shores too, as documented in a new exhibition at the V&A in London.
This is a serious business. A recent book, Shrimp to Whale, plays on an old saying portraying Korea as a tiny creature surrounded by leviathans and captures its triumphant postwar ascent from abject poverty and trauma. South Korea still regards itself as a middle power. But in economics, technology and especially culture it is now a powerhouse. One government source jokes that soft power – a country’s ability to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment – is the South’s nuclear weapon.
Joseph Nye, who coined the term soft power in the late 1980s, has suggested that it depends on a nation’s culture, political values and foreign policies. Building it is not as straightforward as amassing the bombs and tanks required for hard power. China has invested heavily in soft-power initiatives, but has yet to produce a Blackpink or Snowpiercer. Its determination to micromanage cultural projects hampers the ability to appeal to foreign audiences. (Prof Nye has suggested that its influence will remain limited for as long as it “fans the flames of nationalism and holds tight the reins of party control”).
In contrast, democratic South Korea has pursued an arm’s-length approach, modelled partly on UK initiatives such as the British Council. Squid Game and the Oscar-winning Parasite hardly shed a flattering light on the nation that produced them: they have triumphed by capturing the monstrous cruelties and inequality of modern capitalism there, in a way that has resonated more widely.
The strategy is a recognition that soft power belongs to nations, not governments. The origins of South Korea’s status as a cultural behemoth are complex. But if the state can take some credit, civil society should take more. There was outrage in 2016 when it emerged that then-president Park Geun-hye’s administration had blacklisted thousands of artists and entertainers – a reversion to the kind of censorship and punishment once seen under authoritarian leaders, including Ms Park’s father. It is the people who have nurtured, promoted and defended media and artistic independence.
Globally, this is an era in which diplomatic platitudes have been stripped away, and force laid bare once more. Nationalist strongmen are in charge around the world. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was the ultimate assertion of hard power. Yet the video addresses by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has so consummately inhabited the role of war leader; the sharing of daily life by citizens; even the defiant humour of postage stamps have all helped to bolster public support for Ukraine in other countries. In doing so, they have helped to maintain the political will to keep supplying it with heavy weaponry in the face of Russian menace. Soft power is hard to define and harder to master. But it counts.