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Proposals how to improve images of Korea

Perceptions of modern Korea

I love Korea, it's the country of my grandparents. They couldn't return to Korea after the WWII but told me a lot of stories about it when I was little, until one day the world changed to the better and I was able to visit it. My perception of Korea is that it is a very dynamic forward-looking country which is increasingly visible to the world. Visitor numbers are increasing – shopping, business, studies, tourism – I was surprised to learn that in part it is influenced by K-pop and K-dramas! South Korea has gone from a poor country devastated by the WWII and Korean War, to a phase when it was a military dictatorship, subsequently transforming into a democracy with a strong economy. In my view, the Olympic Games in 1988 became the first step to boost the image of the country, put it on the map for many people around the world, and then it burst into the world stage. In the past thirty years, it's become a country with modern infrastructure, urbanisation, industrial development, and it has moved to a democratically elected government. Its success is recognised and celebrated in Asia, and it continues to make right steps increasing the country's profile globally.

In preparation for this essay, I asked my colleagues in my team what they knew about Korea and what associations they had. Most of my colleagues are British, with Americans and other nationalities being also represented, and we are based in London. Things that came as answers – Samsung phones, shipyards, technology, K-pop, plastic surgery, kimchi, Korean barbeque, tensions with North Korea, and a couple of colleagues remembered a Korean Air heiress 'nut rage incident'. I asked, do you know that Daewoo, LG, Hyundai are Korean companies? Some did, some didn't. Do you know that Korean shipyards are the biggest in the world, and that in fact, a number of vessels that are operated by our company were built in Korea? No. Do you know why there are two Koreas? Some knowledge. Would Korea be on your 'next five countries to visit' list? They didn't know enough about the country or its culture to be compelled to travel so far. From that survey, I concluded that in general, there is a positive feeling about Korea amongst my colleagues, but there may be not enough of knowledge, and at times even confusion occurs. We cannot be passionate about something that we don't know well, and I think that increasing knowledge will increase liking Korea.

I live in Europe and recognising differences in ways of thinking, I believe that something else than just K-pop would work for a broader appeal. It also has to be an appeal to all generations, not only young people who follow K-pop, because it's often a middle age group that make decisions on policies and have the means to travel and spend money. It gives me a good feeling when people know Samsung is a Korean company (surprisingly I also discover that not all people know). Although a minority, but some people are still confused between South Korea and North Korea, or in terms of economy, South Korean and Japanese brands are a blur to some. It's not just an average Joe Blog, but educated people I work with, so I think there is still a way to go to promote the country's identity.

Like every person, every country has an image. A good image helps make friends.

I travel a lot, having a passion to learn cultures and languages, in attempt to broaden my views. I can say that my motivation to visit one country or another is most of the time based on my perception of the country, perception of what there may be of interest for me to experience, to see, to learn. To immerse myself in the culture and everyday life of a new country is like getting to know a distant acquaintance that you want to become your friend. I have always thought that countries are like people – each country has its appearance, character, soul. In the world of almost 200 countries, it's like meeting 200 people. How to attract new friends who would want to spend time getting to know you?

My personal images of the countries are based on books I read, previous studies, films I saw, news about the country that were broadcast, and people I met from that country. Sometimes the pre-conceived ideas are rather accurate, but sometimes I am up for a surprise, either more positive or less positive than my expectation. The mental image of the country and emotions it evokes are the factors that would motivate someone to invest their time in learning the language, studying history and culture, buying a ticket and travelling to spend time to get to know the country. Hence, the importance of the country's image cannot be under-estimated. It's like the first impression of a person, sometimes not quite right but always very powerful, that would motivate to get to know someone on a more personal level in a room of 200 people.

Building image of the country is similar to building a brand of a company.

How to improve images of any specific country, how to improve images of Korea? I have background in business studies, and in my view improving an image of any specific country is similar to improving image of a company, and raising a profile of the country is similar to raising a profile of a company. The key concept is branding. Every company has a brand, every person has a brand, every country should have a brand.

For example, at work, I'm known as someone who works hard and gets solutions to problems. I'm also known as a multi-lingual, a traveller, a bookworm, and someone who is friendly and they can have a good laugh with. The positives that people know about me help me in some situations, they make me recognisable and people seem to seek my professional opinion at work. On the opposite side, there are shortcomings in my character that are also part of my image. I can be direct in my feedback and I can be impatient. At times my directness costs me support of some people, and it's something I need to work on to improve. Collectively, positives and negatives form my brand, and I recognise the importance of my personal brand at work.

In my view, the first step to build a positive brand is to increase self-awareness (an honest self-reflection of strengths and shortcomings, same as if I were to do a self-reflection and a SWOT analysis of my brand at work), and then to have a desire to be the best version of oneself, to build on those strengths and work on those shortcomings. In a sense of a country, there may be a need of some government or a cultural body getting 'an audit' of all strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT), identifying positive aspects and areas of development, writing them all down so it's clear where the baseline starts, perhaps through an independent survey.

The second step is to ensure quality of the brand, that what is desired is authentic (opposed to superficial), relatable, attractive, and positive. Every person, company, or a country can build an appealing brand.

The third step is to be prepared to spend time and effort on building, nurturing and adapting the desired brand to evolving societal values and pressures. It may take years of a dedicated effort to build and finesse the brand – a reflection and perception of what we are – as a person, a company, or a country.

Feelings are a powerful way of building a positive brand.

Brands appeal to our feelings and senses more than to a logical part of our brain. There are five senses – vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Marketing and commercial advertisements use powerful positive associations to encourage us to select one product over another. I'm not a marketing specialist, but I certainly think appealing to those senses could make a successful marketing campaign not only for products but also for countries. For example, I visited Korea in the past and have many positive associations of Korea – so seeing, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting something that triggers memory brings me back to Korea. When I hear a gong or see a monk, it reminds me of a Buddhist monastery in Korea I visited, or when I see red autumn leaves I think of how beautiful the royal palaces were in autumn, when I pass by a Korean restaurant and smell food being prepared, it feel hungry for some yukkejang or samgetang. Leveraging feelings would help to deliver a 'feel good' factor and build a positive brand.

Make Korea a destination country to visit.

As I wrote earlier, I believe increasing knowledge will increase liking, and subsequently, hopefully will bring people who would want to learn the language, study, visit for tourism. My externally focused proposals below are direct measures that I think may help to attract foreigners to visit the country.

1. Attract people to come and stay longer. And when they come and stay, deliver on their expectations, or even better, make them fall in love, be that 'so much more than they expected' country. The word of the mouth is the best marketing, and it's free. When people want to see only Seoul, that would mean a stopover for 2-3 days, but if there are other destinations they know about (e.g. Jeju, Gyeongju), it would motivate to travel for a longer stay and really explore the country, rather than just do a hurried sightseeing and shopping in Seoul. Korea has a stunning nature and countryside, but most foreigners know only Seoul and some perhaps heard of Jeju Island. There are places that are mostly accommodating Korean tourists. Perhaps, there is an opportunity to promote those places and open them up to foreign tourists.

2. Education in the formative years is essential how we perceive the world and what views we hold of the world around us. This is also an opportunity to positively influence. Young people studying in Korea will bring back to their home countries fond memories of the times they studied in Korea, and they will become ambassadors of Korean culture back in their home countries. STEM subjects are strong in Korea and I think there is a greater opportunity to promote Korean higher education to foreign students. This would include more payable courses taught in English at leading Korean universities. Raising the profile, excellence of education will build a good reputation of higher education in Korea abroad, it will bring young people who will be willing to pay to get a degree in Korea. The UK is an example of a country that made education an excellent business, attracting tens of thousands of foreign students every year. I have confidence Korea can do the same, especially around STEM subjects.

3. In the UK, Korean food is not as well-known as Chinese, Thai or Japanese. I wrote earlier about relying on our senses, and taste is being one of them. I think there is still a way to promote Korean food through catering for general population, and perhaps in doing so, learn from Chinese and Indian take-aways and restaurants history in the UK – they thrived by adapting the food to the local tastes and adjusting the ways of serving food (e.g. Europeans are more used to individual portions and plates rather than a culture of sharing). What about Korean fine dining? It's almost non-existent or at least not so well known or accessible in Europe. In London, Korean food is mostly family run restaurants where most clients are fellow Koreans. How about elevating it to a fine dining experience? Again, looking at history of dim sum places in the UK, there are now places that offer 'fine dim sum' dining experience. It would be great that at some point in the future, people would know top Korean dishes as they know Italian pasta, meatballs, and pizza.

4. Be a little bit like the Dutch! Almost everyone in the country of tulips speaks fluent English, German and French, because they are a country of traders that travelled the world in 16-19th century, and perhaps they recognised early in their history that being able to communicate in foreign languages was a huge advantage. If you go to The Netherlands, you'll never be lost – not only because everyone speaks English, but also because all main attractions are targeting international visitors with English speaking staff and clear signage in English. It's extremely convenient for foreigners to travel in The Netherlands for that simple reason. They also know their visitors – what kind of accommodation, food, sightseeing they like, and have a good balance between introducing Dutch culture and being cosmopolitan, so they avoid cultural clashes.

5. Simplify romanisation spelling by removing some unnecessary vowels. Spelling of Korean words using romanisation is way too complicated and heavy, with a lot of vowels forming one sound. It is impossible to pronounce that written word correctly unless you learned some Korean prior, and at times even if you learned some Korean, you'll get confused and mis-pronounce before realising you actually know the word! I had this feedback from my friend who I invited to travel with me to Korea in 2014, he was bemused how complicated romanisation spelling was in Korea. For example, if an English person follows current spelling of Seoraksan, they will pronounce it more like 'Sioraksan' with sound 'e' before 'o', so why not to write simply Soraksan? Similarly, Gyeongju = Gyongju, etc. Foreigners will not pronounce any word 100%, but close enough should be good enough, rather than giving an impression that Korean language requires twisting their tongue. Korean pronunciation is much easier than many other languages, but in my view, a complex romanisation spelling makes it appear more unapproachable than actually it is.

Fix internal problems to improve the image.

My internally focused proposals touch upon wider in-country policies and social consciousness that are integral to creating a positive image of Korea. I'll start by saying that perhaps each Korean has to realise that they contribute to building the brand, as an ambassador of the country's character, even if they never travelled abroad but only had occasions of meeting foreigners in Korea, so it also means that every Korean should feel proud and responsible in building the images of Korea.

1. Because each citizen contributes to the image of their country, impressions foreigners take home are important. Friendliness to visitors is super important to building a positive image, and this will need getting citizens onboard. When I go to small places one hour away from Seoul, my imperfect Korean gives me away, I stand out as a foreigner and sometimes I'm met with a mix of curiosity and distrust. I think Koreans are sometimes too serious, and at times it comes across as unfriendliness or unhappiness. I think they certainly can smile a bit more! Smile is a hugely effective and positive mannerism because smiles, politeness and good etiquette promote the country abroad. We all have heard that Thailand is a land of smiles, it's an excellent brand building block. In fact, Koreans are as friendly and warm-hearted nation, it's just at first look they seem to be pre-occupied and too serious to approach.

2. Implement economic and social measures so stop a growing poverty in Korea – it's not only surprising because Korea is a developed country, it also negatively affects image of the country to the outside world. I tiptoed around raising this point but decided that I would write about it. It's complex and someone may say, what do you know about life in Korea to have an opinion about the country's internal problems? After all, I'm an outsider, and from my Korean-roots family, I learned we don't discuss problems well, in fact we don't discuss them at all. However, I follow political and economic news concerning Korea, so hopefully I learned long enough to offer a well-researched outsider's opinion.

The economic boom has had its cost, the gap between rich and poor is growing, so is the fixation on consumerism and 'success at all cost' driving mental health issues and poor choices in younger generation, or abandonment of older generation. I travel to Korea regularly, but until 2014 I had never seen people sleeping rough in Seoul, and now it is a problem that looks into your face, right in the central district of Seoul, not far from Gwanghamun, homeless people sleeping on cardboard boxes. Of course, I've seen rough sleeping before, it's everywhere and eyes become less sensitive to it, but it was a shock to see it in Korea, my heart squeezed for those old men and women. The country is facing a growing social imbalance, but it has ability to fix social problems because poverty is a shameful failure if the elite have too much, and the poor have so little.

3. Related to the previous point is a need to address a damaging effect of scandals. The bribery scandals and scandals relating to rich entitled people mistreating people working for them are extremely damaging to the image of the country. Corruption is not an issue only in Korea of course, but when BBC covers the story of a daughter of the chairman of the Korean Air being abusive to the member of crew, it has a ripple effect. Those stories stick in memories as a backward practice. Respect to everyone's dignity has to be a core value in the society. The sense of entitlement of some rich people who show wealth into our face and expectation everyone has to bow to them is something that is unlikeable. Koreans are modest people, where did this attitude come from and how can it be eradicated?

4. One particular area which is close to my heart is women's agenda and addressing inequality. Korea culture is known for favouring males over females, with majority of supervisory roles taken by men. Even in domestic environment, traditional roles would be very clearly divided – a man works long hours, a woman cares for him and children. In some traditional families, from childhood there are unequal opportunities and treatment of boys and girls. It's so deeply rooted, and it's hard to address. When I was a student and had a volunteer practice in Korea through a Daegu Catholic Diocese, my supervisor had to bring coffee and tea to the director. I also was told that my body language and manners were too assertive for a female. Gender inequality is one of the highest in the world. By birth, everyone has the same rights, and all depends on personal ability and perseverance. South Korea has to be seen as doing a lot more to equal rights between men and women, to empower women to become CEOs and take lead roles based on meritocracy. A typical Korean family would give men more power and decisions. Although the issue is not limited to Korea, in terms of pay equality and women becoming senior managers or officials, Korea has to do much more to catch up with the rest of developed world. When Pak Geun Hye became South Korea's first female president, I saw it as a huge step toward gender equality. Her impeachment may have compromised the trust, but with the right support of new female talent, new generation of female leaders will grow up, someone who will have confidence and competence to lead. To tackle gender inequality, girls have to be brought up not subservient to the males, but confident and empowered.

More women should be encouraged to take traditionally male and underrepresented by females science, technology, engineering and maths subjects and politics, they have to be supported through their career to compete equally with male colleagues, and to be supported to return to work after having children. I remember a girl saying she wanted to go to one of the most prestigious universities in Korea so she could meet her husband there and marry a prospective man. She was planning to work till 30 and then become a housewife. I don't know how widely it's spread as a way of thinking, but it really struck me at the time that a woman willingly would want to rely on a man, focusing on a choice of a husband rather than acquiring knowledge and skills for a great career after university. Korean gender pay gap has been called the worst among developed countries standing at over 1/3. Perhaps when this is addressed, there will be more women pushing their careers forward without any 'imposter' feeling that they do not deserve success.

5. In 2014 Korea was ranked number 1 in consumption of spirits – with the most alcohol consumed on a weekly basis (13 shots of liquor per week). It is hard to ignore. Seeing people during weekdays stumbling out of drinking places is something that is not cool – in Korea it's exacerbated by a culture of after work drinks when a boss says let's go for a drink, you find it hard to reject. A healthier image, no smoking, no drinking culture, being good at sports is something that is greatly appealing in other countries. A drinking culture is really outgoing and unhealthy. Some countries introduced national anti-drinking and anti-smoking campaigns and a decade on, results really start to show. When smoking was banned in the restaurants in the UK in 2007, and when drinking on public transport was banned in 2008, it really helped with the image. In general, UK drinks and smokes much less than 10 years ago. Being a healthy nation would be a cool image for Korea to have.

Tell the world positive stories.

In my view, there are so many points that can showcase unique identity of Korea, and some of them may be under-utilised. For example, not everyone knows Samsung is a Korean company or Taekwondo is Korean martial arts – so it's only prudent to seek recognition they deserve.

Here are some positive points about Korea that are under-utilised in building its image:
- Korean flag is one of the most beautiful flags in the world,
- Taekwondo is an amazing sport,
- Korea has a world class healthcare,
- Korea has a valuable human capital, and a good education system to ensure its continuity,
- Korean universities are excellent for STEM subjects (and there is a growth potential, if Korea starts to attract international students outside of Asia by offering a wider range of English taught degree courses in Korean universities),
- Korea is one of the leading countries on digital technologies, and can be better known for robotics and advances in science, technology, engineering,
- Korea is truly entrepreneurial, and can be better known for easiness of doing business with,
- Korea has wonderful travel gems and sightseeing places, and can be better known for its natural beauty,
- Korea is becoming more English speaking as majority of younger generation speaks some English, but the language they learn is heavily 'American' and whilst idioms are worth learning, slang is not how people really speak and it does not come across well in Europe. Ability to communicate elegantly in English is a way to win many minds, and speaking a 'beautiful English' should be an aspiration, not a rapper / gangster parody of English from American TV pop culture.
- Korea has many products, be it ships, electronics, cosmetics, that are of good quality, and could be better known for it. 'Made in Korea' can be a banner of standard of quality. Why not to proudly display 'made in Korea' and don't let people confuse Korean products with other countries' products.
- In large, Korea has an effective and adaptable policy making, once a decision is made it is followed through.

Contribute to the larger world.

Be a front-runner on discussions that shape the world now. The news in Korea is very much focused on domestic affairs, on Asia, and USA. The world is much bigger, and it moves at a fast pace on topics of social conscience. Many governments and companies, including my company, currently invest in subjects such as diversity, inclusion, environment, values and behaviours, equality, humanity, compassion, transparent governance, climate change, and responsible leadership. We follow the trend, because many countries and leaders, and other companies are in front of us, because being all the above is what good and cool looks like, it is the future and missing out on the debate and not being part of the debate would be at a loss.

Traditionally, Korea is a hierarchical and conservative society. Seeing Korea advancing these subjects would show the world that the country is progressive and tolerant, diverse and modern, not only in economy and technology, but also contributes to collective shaping of world's values and mindset.


To be aware what image a country holds and to continuously work on improving that image of the country is a wise strategy. As people, countries need friends, they need respect of others and that special interest that would make people come and spend money in the country, or buy products from the country, that trust that would sway businessmen to invest, and that partnership that would help shape regional and world policies and diplomacy having allies amongst other countries. Image of the country supports economy, external affairs, and shapes future of that country on the global world arena. When people like an image of any specific country, it's easier for the country to make friends. It's a smaller world today, more competitive, and a good image is essential to country's ability to influence and succeed.

When I started writing this essay, I didn't expect to write so much. I apologise that it may take some time reading. Somehow, I got myself invested in this project, and thoughts were keeping coming. I also apologise I didn't write my essay in Korean, it's still hard for me. I wanted to be sure to contribute with thoughts and ideas, so was worried my poor grammar or vocabulary would prevent me expressing my thoughts clearly. Here is a summary of steps I outlined in my essay.

• Carry out a self-analysis of strengths and shortcomings – what are the elements to promote, and what elements to improve,
• Building authentic brand – something that delivers,
• Rely on feelings and senses to build associations – visual, sound, touch, taste, smell,
• Maintain stability of government and economy. Address 'not so cool' aspects and social problems,
• Leverage what makes Korea unique and choose what will present the country in its best light,
• Be seen as a welcoming country contributing to wellbeing of the greater world, making friends with other countries. As they say, if you want to be liked, make an effort to be liked.

Finally, please keep the Korean language studies for foreigners through cultural centres – it's been such a great work by Ministry of Education for many years giving an opportunity to learn Korean with the excellent books and teachers in a structured manner. Given my family history and thirst for travels, I consider myself a citizen of the world rather than one country, but Korean roots are so strong even if I'm the third generation and speak poor Korean. Having an opportunity to continue to learn Korean helps me to keep a cultural connection to the country of my grandparents. Thank you for all your hard work at the centre.

[Participation Prize]
Irina Kan

(Country of Activity : United Kingdom)

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