South Korea clinches 19th place in this year’s SP30 Index, its best overall rank since the index was launched in 2015. South Korea’s improved performance was boosted by its highest polling score to date. It has also continued its year-on-year improvement in the Government sub-index, with high scores relating to government effectiveness and individual freedoms. Coupled with the extensive tourism campaign led by K-pop stars recognised the world over, South Korea is actively inviting visitors to come and experience their unique culture and engage with locals – a real effort to strengthening global ties at the people-to-people level. In a foreign policy context, the historic Trump-Kim Summit and inter-Korean summit that took place last year could have resulted in more favourable views of South Korea’s foreign policy. However, progress now seems to be running out of momentum. Moreover, a diplomatic spat with Japan threatens to harm the soft power and reputation of both countries, which should be a worry going forward.
Digital remains South Korea’s greatest strength as it clings on to the fifth spot in the Digital sub-index thanks to its world-class digital infrastructure. South Korea’s perfect score on the e-participation index shows that the government actively promotes citizen participation by improving access to information and public services in an increasingly digital world. Despite slipping one spot on the Enterprise sub-index, South Korea continues to outperform all other countries in the number of global patents filed relative to the size of its economy, and its expenditure on R&D as a percentage of its GDP.
While Culture is by no means a weakness for South Korea, the entertainment industry suffered greatly in 2019 as it was mired with scandal. This is reflected by South Korea’s drop in the Culture sub-index. The Burning Sun scandal involved numerous high-profile K-pop stars which took the shine off of Korea’s music industry a very high-profile way. To bounce back, South Korea should invest more in others cultural assets that showcase more of the range and diversity of Korea’s cultural offering to the world. This could be done through greater leveraging of the budding Hallyuwood film industry and Korea’s UNESCO world heritage sites, balancing contemporary and historical culture.
Across all categories of the Soft Power 30 index, South Korea’s lowest ranking comes in its combined polling score. We can interpret this as a gap between the soft power assets it holds and perceptions the outside world has of South Korea. As result, Korea should double down on an extensive public diplomacy campaign to better engage global audiences and tell its story. By leveraging on its strong digital assets, South Korea can make itself more accessible to international audiences and better articulate its contribution to the outside world as a reliable partner. It should also leverage its position as a hub global innovation. Not everyone recognises brands such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai as Korean.