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Korea-Europe Soft Power Forum: How is South Korea reinventing the concept of Soft Power?

by Louna Balanche, Maria Drissi Habti, Emma Lombard and Zachary Petit



On the evening of February 1, 2024, the prestigious Cinema l'Arlequin in Paris played host to KEY’s thought-provoking forum centered around the theme of Soft Power. It was the first forum on this subject to be held in France. This symposium, attended by 400 participants including influential figures, experts in soft power, and notable witnesses, sought to unravel the intricate narrative of South Korea's ascent as a global cultural powerhouse and its profound impact on international dynamics. The forum was hosted by Mignon Yu, Executive Director at AGC Equity Partners. The evening unfolded in three acts: 


  • First, keynote speeches from the three distinguished guests of the event

  • Two round-table discussions on the various issues at the heart of the topics of soft power and Korean cinema

  • Finally an exclusive preview of the Korean series produced by Netflix: A Killer Paradox.

 

Korean cultural influences extend globally, from the rise of K-pop and the burgeoning musical scene, to the cinematic brilliance of Korean films. Beyond artistic expressions, everyday products such as Samsung smartphones, Korean beauty essentials, and culinary delights like bibimbap and ramyeon have found a place in the hearts of global consumers. Korean culture has become, in a word, ubiquitous. This ubiquity signifies more than just a cultural trend; it reflects a profound shift in global perceptions of Korea, positioning it as a source of both inspiration and aspiration. Looking at this evolution, it's impossible to dissociate the Korean film industry from the country's expansion. Whether in cinemas or on Netflix, Korean productions have managed to distinguish themselves and become popular with the general public. Cinema thus plays a major role in South Korea's soft power.​


Opening Remarks: Strong ties between Europe and Korea



The forum started with illuminating opening speeches from three distinguished guests: Catherine Dumas, President of the France-Korea Senate Friendship Group, Eva Nguyen Binh, President of the Institut Français, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Former Prime Minister of France.

 

Catherine Dumas highlighted the richness of Korean soft power, encompassing a wide array of disciplines such as cinema, gastronomy, and music. She emphasized that soft power serves as a crucial vector for understanding a country's values.

 

Eva Nguyen Binh commented the Hallyu phenomenon as a case study in nation branding, noting that France has much to learn from Korea in terms of soft power. She outlined three characteristics of Korean Industries Culturelles et Créatives (ICC), emphasizing their export-oriented mindset, business-like operations, and the foundational role of public-private partnerships. Eva Nguyen Binh also touched upon the Korean tendency to exhaust cultural possibilities across various platforms and highlighted the distinctive Korean way of doing things, referencing the "ppalli-ppalli" culture and a distinct spirit of competition.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin highlighted the importance of a strong cooperation with South-Korea: “Our place is right next to Korea”. He debunked criticisms regarding Korea being "too small, too far, too dangerous," reaffirming the imperative of cooperation and closer ties between France and Korea. Raffarin stressed that Korea, facing similar concerns as France, has rapidly developed and is a leader in various sectors. He emphasized the significance of the "fraternal relationship," highlighting Korea as an accessible and increasingly popular destination for the French expatriate community. Jean-Pierre Raffarin lauded Korea's democratic model in the region and underscored the need for increased solidarity among democracies in a global context marked by the resurgence of conflicts, calling for the strengthening of the "very strategic relationship" between France and Korea.


“Our place is right next to Korea” - Jean-Pierre Raffarin



Finally, KEY President Philippe Li took the floor to emphasize the importance of soft power in relations between Europe and Korea. He also presented KEY's soft power initiative as well as the organization's characteristics and plans to the audience.

 

These opening remarks laid the foundation for a comprehensive exploration of how South Korea, through its dynamic culture, has become a pivotal player in shaping global perceptions and relationships.


First roundtable: The land of cultural modernitcy

The first roundtable of the forum was focused on explaining the historical depth of Korean culture as well as its special features that explain its worldwide success. The following are four key takeaways from the discussion.


First roundtable: How is Korea renewing the concept of culture by combining art, innovation, aesthetics and marketing?

Moderator:  Justine Laguerre, Senior Brand Strategist and KEY NextGen

 

Panelists:


  • Fiona Bae, Communications Consultant and Author of Make Break Remix: The Rise of K-style

  • Arnaud Bertrand, Curator of Korean and Chinese collections at the Musée Guimet and Professor at the École du Louvre

  • Jin Woo Park, CEO of TMONET, company specialized in mobile payment, secure environment and unique arts and culture projects

  • Christophe Pradère, CEO of BETC Design, a consultancy firm for creative industries

  • Hae Shin Lim, Senior Consultant at Hyphen Consulting

The Historical Heritage of Korean Culture is Often Misunderstood

Korean cultural heritage is still often misunderstood today. Indeed, the general public does not know much about Korean history and often struggles to identify what constitutes Korean art. The hybridity and complexity of Korean art - blending Shamanistic, Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, and regional influences - partly explain this struggle. Museums - and in particular the Guimet Museum, National Museum of Asian Arts in Paris - have a role to play in helping the general public learn about and understand Korean art. 


Korea’s Cultural Approach is Largely Non-Conformist

Korea's non-conformist cultural approach distinguishes it from other countries. Korean artists are not afraid of breaking rules and going against the norms: this free spirit enables them to absorb and blend diverse influences and to create from them something unique. Furthermore, the use of universal values in a non-dogmatic fashion helps Korean culture resonate with Western audiences.

“Make, break, mix [...] Korean culture is no way dogmatic” - Fiona Bae

 

Korean Culture Reconciles and Balances Tradition and Modernity

Korea adeptly balances tradition and modernity. Its current influence results from a focus on quality, emotion, and the unexpected, as well as on a culture of continuous improvement, competition, and perfectionism, all the while preserving universal values of teamwork and collaboration. These sometimes opposing forces in dynamic relation are what make Korean soft-power so compelling.

 

“To survive, you have to be better than the others” - Hae Shin Lim

 

Korean Soft Power Has a Global Impact

The constant pursuit of improvement and perfection constitutes the main pillar of Korean soft power, allowing it to surprise and captivate global audiences. Korean soft power also heavily relies on rich and emotional multisensory experiences, which help to strengthen the bond between brands and consumers.

In summary, Korean culture - rooted in human energy and built on paradoxes - reconciles opposites to create something singular. Korean culture continues to astonish and fascinate through its ability to innovate while preserving its historical heritage and fundamental values.


Second roundtable: Korea on screen


The second roundtable session explored the global appeal of South Korean films and series, and the following key factors behind their international success.

Second roundtable: What lies beneath the widespread global appeal of Korean films and series?

Moderators: Émilie Luthringer, Project Manager Asia Society Switzerland and KEY NextGen and Daniel Lacabane, Partner and Associate Director BCG
 
Panelists:




The ability of South Korean cinema to cross cultural boundaries

Korean film and TV works transcend linguistic and cultural barriers, captivating audiences across the globe, and particularly in Europe. Productions such as Parasite, Squid Game, Old Boy and Descendants of the Sun have enjoyed spectacular international success. The richness and originality of the themes explored, combined with dynamic editing and meticulous visual aesthetics, are among the factors behind the success of these cinematic productions. Furthermore, K-dramas are characterized by their certain duality. On the one hand, K-dramas are based on traditional values such as family and work. Yet they often present a deep and nuanced social critique, echoing the universal concerns of a globalized society, such as socio-economic inequalities and corruption.

"This cocktail is its recipe of success" - Pierre Giacometti

The role of technological innovation in the distribution of South Korean cinema

Despite modest success in European cinemas, mainly due to high distribution costs and associated risks, South Korean cinema is enjoying increased international distribution thanks to the convergence of cutting-edge technologies and cultural content. The growing investment in South Korean cultural content by streaming platforms such as Netflix is enabling a wide range of productions, including TV series, to reach a global audience.


Exclusive Netflix preview of a Korean production


The forum ended with an exclusive preview screening of a Korean series produced by Netflix: A Killer Paradox. Adapted from the eponymous Webtoon, this new drama from Lee Chang Hee, who previously directed Stranger From Hell, stars Choi Woo Sik and Son Suk Ku. Choi Woo Sik plays Lee Tang, a young university student who dreams of moving to Canada and works in a convenience store while studying. Through a combination of circumstances, he comes under suspicion of murder. The police investigate, and detective Jang Nan Gam, played by Son Suk Ku, is put in charge of the case. And so begins a chase between the two characters.


Conclusion and perspectives


The Forum explored the theme of Soft Power, shedding light on South Korea's ascent as a global cultural powerhouse. The Keynote speeches, roundtable discussions, and the exclusive preview of Netflix's "A Killer Paradox" highlighted the country's influence across cinema and other domains. Distinguished guests Catherine Dumas, Eva Nguyen Binh, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin set the stage by drawing attention towards the significance of Korea's soft power and called for closer cooperation between France and Korea.

 

The first roundtable delved into the historical depth and unique features of Korean culture, emphasizing its non-conformist approach, the balance between tradition and modernity, and the second one focused on the global appeal of South Korean films and series, discussing their ability to transcend cultural boundaries. Overall, the event served as a platform for exploring collaborations between Europe and Korea, featuring insightful discussions and laying the foundation for future engagements in the realm of soft power. Many participants have also expressed their satisfaction as they were able to make meaningful contacts during the networking sessions.

 

The role of soft power in politics and international business continues to develop. South Korea shows how important a lever it is for exporting its culture and products around the world. More and more universities are opening Korean studies departments, and their attractivity keeps growing among people, in particular in Europe.

 

Thanks to its transnational nature and its partners, KEY is a leader in this field, and intends to continue supporting this trend by organizing other events across Europe to foster initiatives from companies, academics and students interested in this subject. We are completely immersed in the European and Korean environments and thus we are able to align these two ecosystems to reflect, define, and develop a mutual understanding. The multifaceted approach of combining the invaluable experience of our founding members in both Korea and Europe, the innovative ideas and input of next-generation collaborators and our myriad network of contacts to tackling problems and coming up with solutions.

Building on these strengths, KEY contributes by taking the following initiatives:

  • Organizing forums in collaboration with different bodies and players (professionals, companies, brands, etc.) to form a "common understanding" between Korea and Europe in a sustainable way.

  • Assisting different organizations seeking our help to benefit from the Korean Wave and to develop new ways of collaboration.

  • Assisting different organizations in capturing the Korean essence into their products, their services, their organization, their company, and their vision.

  • Helping European players to attract interest in Korea, knowing that the country is also seeking inspiration from European role models.



 






Louna Balanche

Louna Balanche is a member of KEY's Soft Power Working Group. She holds a Master's degree in International Governance from Sciences Po Toulouse, and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in International Affairs at Université Paris Dauphine-PSL. As part of her Master, she spent a year studying at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

Maria Drissi Habti

Emma Lombard

Zachary Petit


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