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The Image of Korea as Viewed from Abroad

The image of Korea

The word “Korea” reminds many people of the nation of Hallyu (Korean Wave) which occupies many streets in Northeast and Southeast Asian countries. Korean dramas dealing with schools, love and work life, and the pretty lyrics of Korean songs have spread with the development of mass media, imprinting the colorful image of Korea on the minds of our international friends throughout the world.

The first TV dramas of Hallyu, such as 'Gyeoul Yeonga (Winter Sonata)' and 'Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace)', which appeared in the early 2000s, imprinted the passionate love of Jun-sang and Yoo-jin and the image of Seo Jang-Geum , the first female medical practitioner in the Joseon Dynasty, on the minds of many TV viewers, bringing into relief the image of Korean women who pursue their goals to the end with a strong sense of conviction. In particular, 'Dae Jang Geum' was aired in sixty countries including the U.S., Russia, China and Canada, drawing the attention of global citizens toward the Korean entertainment industry.

As in many other nations, Hallyu has caught the public interest in Vietnam, too. Korean dramas account for 50% of the programs broadcast by Vietnamese stations, affecting Vietnamese people’s lives in many ways. However, it is difficult to get to know a country simply by being familiar with the contents of TV dramas and music. The themes of the dramas broadcast in Vietnam are monotonous – young love and family relationships. The Vietnamese people have been impressed by the handsome men who devote their all to their beloved with impeccable manners, such as Jun-sang in 'Gyeoul Yeonga', Do Min-Joon in 'Byeoleseo On Geudae (My Love from the Stars)' and Captain Yoo Si-jin in the recent 'Taeyangeui Huye (Descendants of the Sun). As for the heroines of these dramas, such as Kang Mo-yeon (Descendants of the Sun), Kim Bok-ju (Yeokdo-yojeong Kim Bok-ju) and Oh Hae-young (Tto! O Hae-yeong)', they make pure-hearted tireless efforts to captivate viewers’ hearts, yet their image soon fades from viewers’ memories once the dramas have ended. Furthermore, sometimes the images of the figures appearing in movies or dramas are different from reality and may create erroneous perceptions of Korea among viewers.

Programs necessary for children

Once, I worked as an assistant for the Korea-Vietnam Teachers Exchange Program supervised by the Ministry of Education of Korea and Vietnam. A Korean teacher communicated with the elementary students of Vietnam wearing hanbok and holding a dish of gimbap in her hand. The teacher asked the students what they called the clothes and the food, and the students answered with a smile and curious eyes that “the clothes are a kimono and the food is sushi.” Along with all the other teachers the auditorium I was very surprised and embarrassed. After that, I was asked many times by the teachers, “How come the children don’t know about hanbok and gimbap but they know about the kimono and sushi?” In fact, the reason is simple. Currently, most of the contents of Korean culture are produced for university students and there are no contents for children. As “old habits die hard,” what is imprinted on the minds of children will last long after they grow up.

How, then, can we publicize Korean culture to Vietnamese children? I would suggest that we “make cartoons using the figures in Korean children’s stories.” Children like cartoons very much. Korean institutes for early childhood education can produce cartoons using the cultural characteristics and famous figures of Korea to attract young viewers. While Japan has the world-famous character Doraemon, Korea has the kind-hearted Simcheong and Heungbu, who grow together with Korean children. As most Vietnamese couples are working hard to make a living just like Koreans, they find it difficult to play and talk with their children after a hard day’s work. So they choose to play cartoons and children’s films as an effective measure that is good for their children and convenient for them. In Vietnam, there are many websites that are followed by thousands of readers such as POP Kids, Bao An Kids, Bao Ngu Kids, and Boomerang. I am sure that Vietnamese children will be able to tell hanbok from kimono and gimbap from sushi if Korean institutes for early childhood education produce cartoons showing the distinctive characters of Korean culture and post them on such websites.

The development process of Korea shown in a book

I majored in Korean language at university and have had many jobs related to Korean language, including positions as a Korean language instructor and a teaching assistant. Whenever I begin my first class, I ask the students whether the Korean language is an ideogram or a phonogram to test their level. Most students answer that the Korean language is an ideogram. As I mentioned earlier, Korean movies or dramas mostly deal with love or family matters. If you ask Vietnamese viewers what they think of Korea, they will answer that they think of romantic dramas, conflicts among family members and famous K-POP idols. However, the image of Korea that Vietnamese people acquire from history books is neither a love story nor a tragic end but one of rapid economic development and a historic leap to an emerging country of Asia, like Singapore and Hong Kong. While dramas, movies and music can affect people’s feelings, the things that Vietnamese people most want to know about are the passion of the Korean people, which has developed the economy of the nation, and the process of such remarkable development beyond mere scenes of love. Personally, I think it can be solved by literature. Literature not only provides invaluable precious knowledge but also tells the development of the culture of a certain nation. No other scale is as precise and sharp as literature. It is possible to reproduce the life of our ancestors and historical development through the works of poets and writers in an accurate and exciting way like the contents of an interesting movie.

Korean literature reached Vietnam much later than Korean movies, dramas, music and fashion. It took slow steps at first before rushing in over the past decade, but the performance was not very successful. While music and movies deal with love stories or family matters, Korean literary works focus on describing the harsh life and the emotions of teenagers. It confounds the expectations of Vietnamese readers, who think of Korea and Japan as symbols of rapid growth and technological development.

In this regard, my second suggestion would be to launch a program of “Investigation into the development process of Korea through modern literature.” If we put Korean literary works on war, national protection and development in a book translated into Vietnamese, it will be much easier to show Vietnamese readers Korea’s development in the modern age as well as the emotions of the Korean people. As far as I know, the most representative modern literary works of Korea include 'Mujeong (written by Yi Kwang-Su)', 'Mansejeon (Yom Sang-seop)', 'Nalgae (Yi Sang)', Before and After the National 'Liberation (Yi Tae-jun)', 'Crane (Hwang Soon-won)', 'Trees Standing on the Slope (Hwang Soon-won)', 'Gwanchon Essay (Lee Mun Ku)' and 'The Age of Heroes (Yi Mun-yeol)'.

Furthermore, it might be a good idea to hold a Korean Literature Exhibition in Vietnam with the aim of introducing and promoting Korean literary works to the wider world, just like the popular Korean Food Fair that’s held every year in Vietnam. Another method of attracting interest in Korean literary works and spreading Korean literature could be to hold a large-scale book review contest for readers of Korean books.


I have mentioned several methods that could be used to promote Korean culture in Vietnam. While studying Korean history at university I learned that Korea was a very poor country sixty years ago. However, Korea has made the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ and is publicizing the nation to the entire world. I respect the Korean people’s efforts to enhance the status of Korea on the global stage as an economic power. Having the same cultural background of Confucianism as Vietnam, Korea is very close to Vietnam in the social and cultural aspects in particular. Korea has become a model of economic growth for Vietnam and is having a positive influence on Vietnam. As a Vietnamese citizen who has majored in Korean language, I hope that the younger generations in Vietnam can make a new ‘Miracle on the Red River’ by working hard without fear of difficulties, just as the Korean people made the ‘Miracle on the Han River.’ Currently, Korea is investing heavily in Vietnam, together with Japan. I believe that cultural exchange and economic cooperation between our two nations will increase much more as a result of the abolition of tariff barriers following the signing of the free trade agreement. I hope that our two nations and their people can develop together by implementing many cooperative programs for the mutual transmission of our cultures among other things.

[Excellence Prize]
Nguyen Thi Nga

(Country of Activity : Vietnam)

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