South Korea’s Soft Power and Engagement with Africa

South Korea has effectively harnessed the power of soft diplomacy and leveraged its cultural exports to enhance global influence in recent years. The Korean Wave or Hallyu comprising K-pop, Korean dramas, and Korean cinema has captivated audiences worldwide, significantly shaping South Korea’s growing social, political, and economic ties with Africa.

According to prominent American political scientist Joseph Samuel Nye Jr., soft power is based on three elements: culture, political values, and foreign policies. South Korean culture is an incredibly rich and dynamic mix of traditional values and modern influences. Seoul’s political values are rooted in democracy and economic development and its foreign policies toward Africa focus on economic cooperation and development partnerships.

With a population of 1.4 billion projected to double by 2050, Africa represents a substantial market. Approximately 60 percent of its population is under 25 years of age. The Africa Development Bank has announced real GDP growth projections of 4 percent across the continent for 2023-2024. This growth is only slightly behind the 5.3 percent projected for East Asia and substantially higher than the 1.3 percent predicted by the IMF for advanced economies in Europe and North America during the same period.

South Korea is well-positioned to leverage its expertise, experience, and growing influence to contribute to Africa’s development while tapping into the continent’s expanding consumer and capital goods markets.

While challenges such as limited access to credit, infrastructure deficiencies, bureaucracy, and corruption persistently hinder economic growth and development; opportunities are abundant. South Korea is well-positioned to leverage its expertise, experience, and growing influence to contribute to Africa’s development while tapping into the continent’s expanding consumer and capital goods markets.

Image: Seunghee Lee/South Korean Embassy in Uganda

Dr. Jane Chi Hyun Park, a senior lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at Sydney University underscores the power of popular culture, including music and movies, as potent tools for transcending cultural boundaries. A prominent expression of South Korea’s soft power in Africa is K-pop. At a recent K-pop festival at Makerere University in Kampala, South Korean Ambassador to Uganda Park Sung Soo, acknowledged that many aspects of his country’s unique culture are spreading around the world.

Characterized by catchy tunes, captivating choreography, and magnetic performances, K-pop has garnered an enthusiastic following across the continent since Psy’s “Gangnam Style” took the world by storm in 2012. African fans have wholeheartedly embraced K-pop groups such as BTS, Blackpink, EXO, and TWICE according to Addis Bot, a young Nigerian woman studying public relations and communications.

Amidst rumors concerning plans of South Korean groups to visit Africa, MustB performed at the ‘K-Wave Festa in Cape Town last December and is the only group to have visited thus far according to Lalitha Moodley at The Korean Cultural Centre in South Africa. The cultural exchange goes beyond merely consuming K-pop music. African fans have established fan clubs across the continent, initiated dance challenges, and even enrolled in Korean language programs, fostering a sense of connection with South Korean artists and an awareness of the once-isolated culture of the Hermit Kingdom.

South Korean television dramas, known as K-dramas, provide a powerful cultural bridge connecting South Korea with African viewers. K-dramas explore universal themes of love, family, and personal growth. Ugandan communications professional Josephine Katabarwa suggests the structure and intricacy of storylines resonate with African audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Squid Games, Boys Over Flowers, Descendants of the Sun and Itaewon Class have all captivated audiences across Africa. The emotional storytelling and high production quality of K-dramas have resulted in increased viewership through streaming platforms, further solidifying South Korea’s cultural influence. K-dramas not only entertain but also educate African viewers on different aspects of Korean traditions and lifestyles, fostering a genuine interest and appreciation of Korean society.

South Korean cinema has played a significant role in enhancing the country’s soft power in Africa. Films like Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, have received international acclaim and prestigious awards, including the Academy Awards. These successes have piqued the interest of African cinephiles, igniting their curiosity about South Korean cinema.

Film festivals and cultural exchanges have introduced African audiences to Korean films, fostering cross-cultural dialogues and collaborations. African filmmakers have also drawn inspiration from the innovative storytelling techniques and artistic creativity of South Korean cinema, facilitating a mutual exchange of ideas and techniques.

Taekwondo has also played a significant role in bolstering South Korea’s soft power in Africa. The global appeal of Taekwondo as a sport that embodies discipline, respect, and physical prowess has led to its widespread popularity across Africa. South Korea has actively promoted Taekwondo in Africa through various initiatives, including training programs, tournaments, and cultural exchanges. These efforts not only enhance South Korea’s image as a nation that values tradition and sportsmanship but also foster strong people-to-people connections.

While South Korean pop culture has exerted a growing influence on Africa, it is essential to recognize the reciprocal nature of this cultural exchange. African elements, such as traditional clothing, dance, and music, have found their way into K-pop and Korean entertainment. This fusion not only appeals to African fans but showcases the richness and diversity of African culture to a global audience, further strengthening the bond between Africa and South Korea.

South Korean cuisine, particularly Korean barbecue and popular dishes like bibimbap and kimchi, has been introduced to African countries through restaurants and food festivals. The unique flavors and communal dining experience of Korean cuisine resonate with African food enthusiasts, leading to the establishment of Korean restaurants in major cities and the incorporation of Korean elements into local fusion cuisine.

The impact of South Korean pop culture in Africa also extends to education. A number of African universities have introduced Korean language courses due to the increasing interest in South Korean culture. Learning the Korean language has become a gateway for African students to engage more deeply with K-pop, K-dramas, and other aspects of South Korean culture. This educational trend promotes cultural exchange and opens opportunities for students to study in South Korea through scholarships and exchange programs.

Social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, have played a pivotal role in connecting fans, providing opportunities to discuss their favorite content, share fan art, and organize fan events. This sense of community and interconnectedness has strengthened the bond between South Korean pop culture and African audiences.

Social media and digital platforms have made a tremendous contribution to South Korea’s cultural influence in Africa. Fans of K-pop and K-dramas connect with fellow enthusiasts across the globe, sharing their love for South Korean culture. Social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, have played a pivotal role in connecting fans, providing opportunities to discuss their favorite content, share fan art, and organize fan events. This sense of community and interconnectedness has strengthened the bond between South Korean pop culture and African audiences.

South Korea’s cultural influence in Africa has significant economic implications. The popularity of K-pop and Korean entertainment has led to an increase in the export of South Korean products, including cosmetics, fashion, and electronics. These items have become highly sought-after commodities in African markets, significantly contributing to South Korea’s economic ties with the continent.

As this cross-cultural exchange continues to flourish, it holds the potential to deepen the bonds between South Korea and Africa, paving the way for even greater collaboration and understanding in the future. South Korea’s strategic use of pop culture exemplifies how soft power can be harnessed to build enduring relationships on the global stage, fostering mutual respect, appreciation, and cooperation between nations.

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Christopher Burke
Christopher Burke is the managing director of WMC Africa, a communications and advisory agency in Kampala, Uganda. Christopher completed an MA in international relations at Yonsei University in 1999 and has spent almost 30 years working on a broad range of issues in international relations, development, communications, governance and peace-building in Asia and Africa.

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