By: Peter M. Beck, International Crisis Group

Expanding Korea’s Soft Power
Weekly Chosun
26 May 2007

Given that Korea will always be a shrimp among whales militarily, finding ways to expand Korea’s cultural influence (soft power) overseas is critical. Of course Korea’s actors and singers are leading the Korea wave washing over the region (signs proclaiming “Rain is coming!” were everywhere the last time I visited Bangkok), but did you know that each year, the Korean government spends less than W700 per person to support the study of Korea overseas, while Japan spends over W1,000 to promote things Japanese, even though Japan is much better known to the world than Korea? There is a very simple way to remedy this: Expand the budget for the Korea Foundation.

Korea’s movies and music will sell themselves, but Korea’s traditional culture, not to mention politics and economy, are not such an easy sell. Few Koreans know that for more than 15 years, the government-funded Korea Foundation (www.kf.or.kr) has been actively supporting Korean Studies throughout the world. The Foundation provides scholarships for foreign scholars and students to study in Korea, carves out space for Korean artifacts and artwork to be displayed at the world’s top museums, publishes beautiful books and a journal on current affairs, sends books on Korea to the leading libraries and provides support to foreign universities and think tanks to conduct research and hold conferences on Korea.

Despite these noble efforts, each year the foundation struggles to receive funding from the National Assembly when it is budgeting time, precisely because there is no domestic constituency to demand that additional funds be provided. The Foundation’s budget for this year is a mere $35 million (W327 Ock)—less than one-quarter of the Japan Foundation’s budget. Koreans can be rightfully proud of the recent launch of an Aegis-class destroyer which Chosun Ilbo proclaimed was “more powerful than Japan’s most advanced ship.” However, given that the King Sejong the Great cost just over $1 billion to build, wouldn’t it be a good idea to spend just a little bit more to promote the beautiful alphabet the king had created?

I have a very good reason to sing the praises of the foundation: It is the organization most responsible for nurturing my study of Korea. Back when I was a graduate student, the foundation provided me with a fellowship to conduct field research in Seoul. To this day, the best trip I have ever taken was the to Hahoi Village. It was there that I could experience (and survive) Andong soju for the first time. I can still feel the glow of the steel being made when we visited POSCO. I also served as a translator for their bi-monthly journal, Korea Focus, which tries to give foreigners a range of views not usually found in English. The pay wasn’t great, but I thought of it as my Korean class. My wife would bear the brunt of my frustrations with the Korean language: Why can’t the author state his opinion clearly instead of ending a sentence with “…?????.” Why is the author using so many obscure Chinese characters?

For the past ten years I have received grants from the foundation to hold conferences on Korea in the United States when I was at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, and for the past three years to support the reports being written by the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office. The amounts were never huge, but they really made a difference for my organizations. In fact, the foundation provides the only funding that ICG receives from China (excluding Hong Kong), Japan or Korea. The Japan Foundation and Sasakawa Peace Foundation will not go near projects that might offend Japan’s right wingers. ICG’s report on history/territorial disputes certainly would have. Yet, in all of my various capacities, the Korea Foundation never once even hinted at what subjects I should write about or the opinions I should express.

This is not to say that the Korea Foundation is perfect. In fact, it would speak well of Korea’s next president to insist that three conditions be met before the foundation’s funding is expanded. First, the selection of the president should be free of politics. It is well known that one president’s chief (if not only) qualification was that he had backed the right horse in the presidential election. Second, the Korea Foundation is slated to be moved to Jeju-do as part of the government’s decentralization program. I love Jeju-do as much as the next person—I went there four times last year—but for a grantee to have to get on an airplane to meet with the Foundation would be inconvenient to say the least. Third, the foundation must do a better job of insulating the grant-making process from politics. Three American think tanks have quietly complained to me that they thought their funding had been suddenly cut off for political reasons.

At the Foundation’s 15th anniversary celebration last year, I insisted, “Being pro-Korea does not mean being pro-Roh Moo-hyun.” In fact, after Roh made his December 23 speech in which he insisted that Korea should not “hang from the crotch of the United States”, he certainly should not consider me one of his admirers. The current president may be hopeless, but that will not stop me from hoping that Korea’s next president will do better. Improving Korea’s standing in the world will depend on it.