The Ultimate Soft Power of Korean Wave: Effect on Indo-Korean Relations

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With the Korean wave sweeping the world, it has influenced the South Korean economy and created its own new identity. The Korean wave, also known as Hallyu, has gained popularity through its Pop music, TV, drama, food, education, film and gaming. At this juncture, this article evaluates the influence of Korean culture on Indo-Korean relations using soft power as a potential tool.

The concept of soft power was introduced in 1990 by Complex Interdependence scholar Joseph Nye, an American political scientist. According to Nye, soft power is an influencing factor affecting the relations of other states in global politics. In a general sense, it centres on the way that one country speaks with the people of another country. However, this brings us to the fundamental question of “how to achieve soft power.” To answer this, culture, beliefs, policies, and people-to-people connections are the primary and significant pathways to achieving soft power.

Different facets of the Korean culture

Further to highlight the importance of South Korean soft power, Joseph Nye, in an article for Harvard’s Belfer centre in 2009, identified its potentiality. He says, “South Korea has resources to produce soft power, and its soft power is not confined to the geographical limitations that have constrained its hard power throughout its history.” 

Korean Wave in India

In recent years, the Hallyu has been surfing throughout the globe, including in India. Each year, Korean culture is turning more popular in India, ranging from K-pop to K-drama, fashion to cuisine, language (hangul) to tourism, dance and education. 

Korean culture acknowledges the strength of East Asian soft power shifting its focus from western modernity, bringing both countries to a common platform. When one traces history, after colonialism, western modernity gained prominence globally, followed by dominating western theories like capitalism which swept the world under western domination in all spheres. However, with the growing Korean wave and few other Asian cultures, the world could now witness a shift from western modernity. 

The Korean wave is indubitably a deliberate soft power tool of South Korean diplomacy.

Undoubtedly, globalization and the internet played the most prominent role in spreading Korean culture in India and across the globe, hence internationalizing the Korean wave. In this era of an entirely interdependent world, the exchange of cultures became a common phenomenon. For example, apart from pizza and burger culture in the west, we could now also see K-pop, sushi, Bollywood, etc. Therefore, it is now a new normal for people in India and elsewhere to adopt inter-cultures in their day-to-day lives, especially in urban spaces.

K-pop Culture and K-drama As an Indo-Korean Soft Power Tool

Korean drama, or the BTS, has Korean elements like the people dressed in hanbok, stories about Korean schools and other elements. India, being one of the most populated nations and with the growing popularity of pop music among Indian fans, acts as a market for the consumption of Korean culture. 

It is noted that South Korea has gained more wealth in the last two decades, making it one of the top countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita. The study by the centre for statistics and international studies says that South Korea has turned into an economic powerhouse because of its soft power, and the role Indo-Korean soft power is highly notable here. 

The Korean drama series Squid Game took India by storm and is among the top watched series on Netflix upon release.

The desire to learn the history and culture of something arises when one loves it with all one’s heart, so as with k-culture. If one looks at statistics, Netflix studies show that there has been a more than 370% increase in the number of Indians watching K-dramas. Pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020 and 2021 has only increased its popularity in India. Also, Spotify’s 2020 data puts BTS as India’s fourth most streamed boy band. Therefore, this shows the role of India in making South Korean soft power diplomacy successful. 

South Korea’s Gastrodiplomacy in India

Gastro diplomacy, also known as food diplomacy or culinary diplomacy, is prominent when discussing Indo-Korean soft power relations. Food can become the most important soft power tool which can influence and enhance the relations among nations.

“The popular K-dramas and movies highlighted Korean food, making it one of the popular dishes in Indian restaurants.”

The most famous Korean food includes Kimchi, kimbap, tteok-bokki etc. one cannot ignore the fact that Korean food played a crucial in getting Indians closer to Korean culture. This, again a significant soft power achievement among both nations. 

Language and Education As a Soft Power to Bridge Indo-Korean Ties

In order to access any culture, language plays a crucial role in expressing ideas and feelings. In the 1990s, when South Korea emerged as an economic powerhouse, and at the same time, India adopted the Look East Policy. This was at the time when a bridge of cultural ties between both countries emerged, and India started to effectively accommodate Hallyu language/ Korean studies into its universities under its graduate and post-graduate programs. Jawaharlal Nehru University was the first Indian university to commence Korean studies in 1976, followed by Delhi University and currently the central university of Jharkhand, Manipur University, and Nalanda University, along with a few other universities offering courses in the Korean language. 

South Korean Ambassador to India Chang Jae-bok (third from right) with Najma Akhtar, Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Milia Islamia University, in February 2022. Promoting the Korean language and studies in India was the primary agenda of this meeting. Image courtesy-Twitter@RokEmbIndia

The embassy of South Korea in Delhi also encourages students to learn the Korean language and works to increase student exchange programs between both countries. Along with public universities like JNU and Delhi University, private universities act as key stakeholders in promoting student exchange programs. For example, Christ (Deemed to be University) in India has such an exchange program. It also celebrates the Indo-Korean Utsav yearly in solidarity with the Indo-Korean cultural relations. The exchange programs allow Indian students to study at Korean universities for a semester or two and vice versa. Further, this promotes intercultural exchanges among the student communities.

Indian Cultural Influence on Korean Land

Social media has been filled with clips of Koreans enjoying Indian food. Not only do they enjoy Indian spicy food and sweets, but they also make food blogs on ‘how to prepare Indian food. Also, recently, Korean students spotted dancing for Bollywood’s ‘yeh jawaani hai deewani’ song went viral. This has also won millions of Indian hearts. All these aspects clearly show the level of cultural exchanges between the countries. 

Conclusion

The Indo-Korean soft power diplomacy has been built mainly on the three pillars: culture, knowledge and policy. Countries could no longer rely on hard power in the current geopolitical situations across the world and with the complex inter-dependency among nations. Thus, soft power, gains more prominence in this regard. It bridges the gaps between each other and builds strong ties among nations. Indo-Korean public diplomacy also played a crucial role in creating friendly relations between the countries. The Korean culture went beyond the Hallyu, K-drama, pop culture, food, dance etc. and won the hearts and minds of the Indian people, and so as with the Indian culture in South Korea.

The K-pop band BTS has played a critical role in the spread of Korean soft power globally.

Soft power is a tool to enhance the nation’s growth trajectory and its formal relations with other nations. In this regard, Indo-Korean soft power diplomacy helped the nations to stimulate economic growth and enhance their national image, thus creating their own identity in the global arena. Finally, the future of Indo-Korean relations will hopefully become even brighter and more robust in the near future.

You may also be interested in:

HOW DOES SOFT POWER PORTRAY INDIA’S IMAGE TO THE WORLD?

About the Author

Navya Chandrika

Navya has a keen interest in geopolitics, pursuing her master’s degree in International Relations from Pondicherry University; she has a penchant for research and looks forward to exploring domains like foreign policy, diplomacy, and national security, public policy, governance and climate change. She likes to engage in public discourses actively and is keen on collaborating with individuals and institutions of novel and diverse ideas. Navya believes in the ability of academic research to empower public opinion.

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