South Korea owes a portion of its robust soft power to the careful cultivation and development of its creative industries, which brought about the worldwide phenomenon Korean Wave or Hallyu. Can ASEAN learn from South Korea’s creative industries to boost its own soft power?


모든 게 궁금해 how’s your day [I’m curious about you, how’s your day]
Oh tell me (oh yeah oh yeah, ah yeh ah yeh)
뭐가 널 행복하게 하는지 [What makes you happy?]
Oh text me (oh yeah oh yeah, ah yeh ah yeh) 

The simplicity of the above lyrics by the boyband BTS belies the extreme popularity that the group enjoys. The video clip of this song, entitled “Boy With Luv”, became the most watched video on YouTube within 24 hours upon release. The song also played heavily in Malaysia’s airwaves and inspired a series of advertisements in Bahasa Indonesia, starring the K-pop idols themselves. BTS recorded over US$500 million in revenue last year, while its members became millionaires after the group’s parent company entered into an initial public offering (IPO) in September 2020. Their secret weapon: a massive ecosystem of loyal fans who not only generate revenue from the purchase of music, concert tickets and merchandise, but also render services to promote the band’s image and a wide array of products. 

As part of the larger Korean Wave or Hallyu scene, BTS and other such phenomena as Crash Landing on You, Parasite and Pengsoo have generated great following in many parts of the world, including Southeast Asia. 

The impact of Hallyu extends beyond the creative industry. The total of Hallyu-related exports amassed to US$12.3 billion in 2019, involving sales of such consumer goods as tour programmes, cosmetics and groceries. In the same year, tourists seeking K-pop or the Hallyu experience accounted for 23.3% of tourists visiting South Korea. 

These prove that Hallyu carries more than just entertainment value. It is a testament of South Korea’s soft power, economic might and confidence to engage the rest of the world. 

Acknowledging the size and success of South Korea’s creative industry, can the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an organisation learn from the former in projecting soft power? 

To answer this question, we need to understand that South Korea’s ability to consolidate the creative industry and national identity is not accidental, but by design of the national government. 

The creative industry was consistently a feature in the policies of multiple administrations. First and foremost, it grew on the back of globalisation under the framework set by Kim Young-sam. The 1994 Presidential Advisory Board on Science and Technology then focused on the impact of the total revenue made by the film Jurassic Park, which was equivalent to 1.5 million Hyundai cars at the time. This spurred the interest to promote the creative industry. 

However, it would be Kim Dae-jung’s pursuit of the self-proclaimed “President of Culture” title that actually set policy objectives in motion. This was further enhanced by the Lee Myung-bak administration’s “Global Korea” campaign on cultural diplomacy, which aimed to promote South Korea’s national brand abroad. The creative industry has since served as the basis of maintaining a strong national identity, tying cultural exports to economic gains and soft power projections. 

This formula appears to be resilient, as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to enhance demand for South Korean content. One projection even estimates a 3.3% increase in export volume by the end of 2020 – if true, the pandemic’s effects appear to be bearable. Nevertheless, the resilience of the creative industry has been evident over the past 13 years, with creative goods recording 7% of growth in the midst of a downturn in global trade. 

The significance of South Korea’s success lies in the amalgamation of national identity and entrepreneurship. The Korean creative industry covers a wide range of sectors, including games, animation, broadcasting and others, aside from just music and movies. In each of these, the promotion of national identity, whether it is traditions, values, language or culture, is inherent in all content. 

For instance, SuperM has released songs in English that also contain Korean words. Moreover, K-drama episodes regularly project an image of a developed, modern, traditional yet technologically advanced South Korea. Additionally, the games industry was promoted from a desire to develop Korea as a high-tech knowledge-based nation. 

Creative industries have also proliferated in ASEAN Member States (AMS). The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, for example, have established frameworks or agencies aimed at promoting their national creative industry, drawing from a number of such cultural products as food, services and music, among others. 

The question, then, is whether there is a foundation for an ASEAN attempt at replicating the South Korean model of creative industries to promote a region-wide identity and support the industries of each AMS. 

Three challenges immediately arise. 

One, South Korea’s approach builds on a nation-identifying and nation-building strategy that is aimed at both a domestic and international audience. This may not be convenient for ASEAN, which comprise 10 multicultural countries. Such a strategy is easier to achieve in a more homogenous environment such as South Korea. 

Furthermore, AMS have also traditionally been nationalistic and the issue of culture often struck sensitive nerves, resulting in tension among them. With the countries potentially becoming more inward-looking and protectionist during and after the pandemic, AMS might have reservations towards opening up their creative industries with each other. 

Two, there are different market types and sizes in ASEAN, which then impact the various levels of development of creative industries in the region. Will a single strategy to boost ASEAN’s creative economy suffice if all AMS have diverse markets and are experiencing various levels of development? 

Therefore, despite there being elements of the South Korean strategy that could assist ASEAN in projecting a region-wide identity and soft power better, whose identity and soft power will it be? Will an ASEAN strategy project soft power according to each individual member state, or will it project a cohesive, regional ASEAN soft power? 

There are ways for ASEAN to navigate around these challenges. 

It is not necessary for ASEAN to decide between homogeneity or multiculturalism. A balance can be struck between the two. On the one hand, the bloc could use a common language as a unifying factor, particularly for gaming and broadcasting products. Given multiple ASEAN languages and the lack of a language policy in the region, English is a natural choice. 

On the other hand, the strategy for an ASEAN creative industry could also celebrate its multiculturalism. Instead of it being a limitation, ASEAN’s diversity could be seen as an asset that can be used to mobilise multi-dimensional cultural content across its multiple audiences. Technology and digitalisation can also support this. For example, the format of the singing competition Asia Bagus could be revived in the digital space during this pandemic, showcasing talents from multiple AMS to anyone plugged to the Internet. 

Moreover, establishing a digital single market in ASEAN could also work in favour of the creative industries. The framework adopted by the European Union in 2015 allows creators to produce, distribute and be recompensed for their content while also resolving arising intellectual property rights issues. ASEAN should consider this option if creative industries were to flourish here. 

Like everything else in ASEAN, perhaps it is easier to focus on available low-hanging fruits in this context. Several specific lessons from South Korea’s creative industries should be considered, especially with the pandemic in the backdrop. 

First, the South Korean example shows that creative industries are resilient in times of crisis, as evidenced by acts or performers moving their concerts online or games providing an escapism outlet. 

There is an opportunity to be harnessed as the “new normal” setting pushes many human activities to the digital space. With 400 million Internet users in the region, the digitalisation of industries has become a new source of economic growth in the ASEAN region, for example, telecommuting, telemedicine and e-commerce among others. 

Officials responsible for the Culture and Arts sector under the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) must wrest this momentum to push AMS’ creative industries further to the digital space, not only in the interest of promoting content, but also to ensure the economic survival of performers, producers and other industry players during this harsh climate. 

Second, South Korea understands the potential of youths, with creative industries constantly producing contents targeting them. 

AMS seem to also understand this as evidenced by developments to include youths in creative industries. In Malaysia, for example, millennials appear to be driving the boom for the eSports industry – at the helm of which was a millennial then-Minister of Youth and Sports who fought for budget allocation to this industry. 

The pandemic should be a wake-up call to further consider the potential of ASEAN youths in creative industries. There are nearly 220 million youths in ASEAN and a recent survey by the World Economic Forum found that they are resilient individuals who are able to adapt to the post-pandemic world. 

Furthermore, 87% of youths recorded an increase in the usage of digital tools during the pandemic. Linked to the previous point, it seems that moving towards digitalisation is a safe bet for creative industries, considering the available talent and pool of demand that the youths can provide. 

The fanfare that Southeast Asians threw when Parasite won the Oscar this year was a clear testament of the potent soft power that South Korea has. Despite it being the sole achievement of South Korea’s creative industry, the people of this region also shared the shock, excitement and incredulity from this momentous achievement. Although it might be difficult for ASEAN to fully replicate the South Korean model of combining national identity and entrepreneurship, there are other lessons that ASEAN could learn to promote its creative industries. The Parasite dream might be distant, but a fellow Asian country demonstrates that it is not impossible.

Farlina Said, Puteri Nor Ariane Yasmin and Muhammad Sinatra are Analysts in Foreign Policy and Security Studies (FPSS), ISIS Malaysia

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