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Philippe Li: "Europe has a lot to learn from South Korea"

The English translation of the original Interview published in Le Figaro 

December 20, 2023 | Interview

INTERVIEW - This French-Korean lawyer highlights the efforts made by Asia's fourth-largest economy in new technologies to shine on the international scene.

An experienced French-Korean lawyer based in Seoul, Philippe Li founded KEY (Korea Europe & You), a think tank that stimulates exchanges with this East Asian country that is driven by its influential "soft power" and symbolized by the successes of the “Squid Game” series and the film “Parasite”.

LE FIGARO: South Korea, which has long been a blind spot in Asia, is now at the forefront of the international scene. Why is this?

Philippe LI: The country's strengths have existed for a long time, but are now being highlighted due to two key factors: the emergence of pop culture that resonates with the times and new avenues for disseminating this content. Korea's emphasis on new technologies has made its productions accessible to a global population on an unprecedented scale of propagation. This is what has created this wave and the feeling of an advent in Korea.


Can we talk about the new "soft power"?

Korea’s "soft power" reveals fundamentals that have been at work for a long time. Behind the glitz of K-pop – an abbreviation of "Korean pop" – and the popularity of Korean shows and cuisine among Westerners, lies a strong foundation that originated during the era of industrial development. It all began as an empirical process. There has been no grand strategic design for Korea's cultural expansion. While Korean production may be fragmented in reality, Seoul's strength lies in its ability to interlink all these elements, giving them meaning and creating snowball effects.

Are artists the new export products, after Hyundai cars and Samsung phones?

Here, there is no doubt in believing that culture can be commercial and, above all, that it should be exported. Since the 1960s, after the Korean War, exports have been seen as a lifeline due to the lack of a domestic market. Today we are witnessing a replication of this system applied to the culture, fueled by new technologies.

On the cultural front, South Korea nevertheless ensures its sovereignty. Is there a form of Korean cultural exception?

From the start, Korea adopted a strategy to ensure its sovereignty. Following the country’s reconstruction, for example, it favored recourse to loans rather than capitalistic takeovers by foreign groups. This applies to all sectors, including culture. There are quotas in place to protect Korean cinema.

Can Europe learn from the example set by Korea?

Europe has a lot to learn from Korea. It is a country that has suffered greatly throughout its history, from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War. Having to consistently deal with great powers has strengthened its determination to protect strategic sectors. Many lessons were learned between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was shuffled between the Chinese, Japanese, and Russian giants, as well as Western powers. New technologies are being precisely exploited to acquire sovereign bases.

Is the Sino-American Cold War an opportunity or a risk for Korea?

Both. This is a very uncomfortable situation because America serves as Seoul's life insurance against North Korea. At the same time, China has been Korea's largest economic partner for twenty-five years, accounting for a quarter of its exports. It is a very complex equation but one that the Koreans are striving to solve using their adaptability. Korea has always evolved under a balance of power. As a result, Korea knows how to position itself, adapt to geopolitical shifts, and forge alliances, exemplified by its presence alongside the United States and Japan at the Camp David Summit in August.

Is the Chinese slowdown leading to a strategic reorientation?

We are witnessing an economic repositioning towards the United States under Joe Biden's IRA (Editor’s Note: Inflation Reduction Act is a major investment plan to initiate the energy transition). There is also a desire to conquer new outlets in emerging markets such as Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as Poland. When we see that Korea is designing combat planes for Warsaw and selling tanks for the reconstruction of Ukraine, we recognize the strategic capacity of this country to identify opportunities and "pull out all the stops" in order to make an attractive offer.

Is Europe marginalized?

Europe is not a strategic priority. The lack of knowledge of Europe is striking, especially since Korea is seen as a competitor. This is why I founded KEY with the objective of generating sectors and projects jointly designed by Europeans and Koreans. In the beginning of February, we will organize the first forum dedicated to the Korean "soft power" in Paris.

Is Korea benefiting from China's closure?

The benefit that Korea is receiving due to China's closure is indisputable, especially when we see the record level of foreign investments: $30 billion promised in 2022. There is a redeployment of companies that saw China as a key platform for their strategy and are now expanding their presence in Korea, such as Valeo or Plastic Omnium.

South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world: 0.78 children per woman. Is the country addressing this issue?

Yes, it is like the Sword of Damocles and could potentially be critical: the population could fall to 37 million inhabitants by 2070, a reduction of 27% compared to today, according to projections. Paradoxically, Seoul discerns the future of its economy without addressing that of its population. Problems such as birth rate, gender inequality, or environmental protection are not perceived as critical. Although mass immigration is a potential solution, I find it difficult to envision this country embracing it fully. Incentives alone are not enough to persuade couples to have more children. The underlying issue is the lifestyle. The challenge is to establish a more balanced life for couples and families.

Does North Korea remain a threat to the country's future?

It is like having a mortgage. As long as you avoid a crisis and keep up with your monthly payments, it does not weigh heavily on you. However, should a crisis arise, it could become devastating. Today, North Korea's goal is to ensure its survival through its nuclear arsenal. It harbors no further ambitions, but we cannot dismiss the possibility of an incident in the coming years that could trigger a significant conflict.


About the Author

Philippe Li

Philippe Li (이준) is a citizen of France and Korea. He is a lawyer at the Paris Bar and at Kim&Chang (the premier law firm in Korea), where he leads the European practice. He mainly works in M&A and corporate matters, but also in restructuring and dispute matters in various sectors (aerospace and defense, automotive, chemical, construction and infrastructure…).


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