There are many aspects to Korea’s public diplomacy, and many possible ways to approach the topic. Certainly the “Korean wave” of movies and television dramas that are popular throughout East Asia is one aspect of Korea’s public image; there is also the stellar reputation and visibility of world-class Korean companies like Samsung and LG that help Korea become more widely known. Of course, when foreigners think of Korea, other things might also spring to mind, such as the seemingly erratic behavior of North Korea.

I want to take a different approach, and focus on one aspect of Korea’s image abroad that may be a bit more subtle but also has a direct effect on Korea’s position in the world. That is Korea’s public diplomacy problem vis-à-vis the United States. In order to deal more adroitly with its changing and evolving relationship with the United States, Koreans must directly confront this fact. The problem is this: Koreans are emotional.

Koreans are passionate, outspoken, and animated. Everybody knows it, everybody says it, and nobody challenges it. Indeed, this passion and emotion is one of the great strengths of Korea. After all, Korea has a rich heritage of citizen involvement in politics: even during the rule of authoritarian regimes, Koreans loudly and clearly let their leaders know how they felt about issues. Today, with a strong democracy in place, Koreans are even more willing to hit the streets.

As a national characteristic, “passionate Koreans” is as fitting a generalization as “stoic Germans” or “egalitarian Americans.” Of course, there is a wide range of attitudes among the population, there are numerous exceptions to the rule, and everybody is a unique individual who acts and reacts according to a number of factors. At the same time, passion and emotion have deep roots in Korea’s rich history: a lively and egalitarian Korean culture overlaid with a thin veneer of Confucianism, combined with a long history of heartbreak, followed by success, then further heartbreak, led to a Korean culture that is both formal and hierarchical, but also centrally grounded in a firm belief, in every Korean, that Koreans are worthy of being treated with respect and are willing to bop you on the nose to make sure you know it.

But this national characteristic is also at the heart of why the outside image of Korea might be in need of some strategic updating.  The Korean government under Lee Myung-bak has realized that Korea’s external image could be better, and has launched a “global branding” initiative, spearheaded by the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. While this is laudable, I wonder to what extent it will be successful.

Although Koreans are proud of Samsung, Michelle Wie, and their successful hosting of the 2002 World Cup, the outside world sees other aspects to Korea as well: fistfights in the National Assembly, mass demonstrations against U.S. beef imports, and collective anger at the continued Japanese claims to the Dokdo islets.

In fact, the dispute over whether the Dokdo islets are Japanese or Korean is a good example of both Korean passion and the need to be a bit more strategic in how Korea presents itself to the outside world. These islands, called “Dokdo” in Korean and “Takeshima” in Japanese, are an uninhabited set of rocks located in the waters between Korea and Japan. Both Korea and Japan have claimed these islets to be their sovereign territory, and there is no formal treaty that delineates this maritime border.

Thus, although South Korea-Japan economic relations continue to deepen, and although South Korean president Lee has pledged to improve political relations, it is not clear whether good intentions will be enough to overcome the enduring “historical” issues between the two countries. Japan and South Korea have never formally agreed on their maritime border, and there is no treaty in place that formalizes ownership of the Dokdo islands. Last year, in the first few months of his presidency, Lee met twice with his Japanese counterpart, Yasuo Fukuda. During their April 2008 summit, Lee promised a policy of “not dwelling on the past but proceeding forward.” Lee also said that Japan’s past deeds are a matter for Japan to judge, and emphasized that the historical disputes between South Korea and Japan should not interfere with their future relationship.

However, despite good intentions, this underlying issue between Japan and Korea has not been resolved.

And thus, almost inevitably, the Dokdo issue—once again—overwhelmed any goodwill between Japan and South Korea last year. During the winter of 2008, the Japanese Foreign Ministry claimed on its website: “Takeshima is an inherent part of the territory of Japan…The occupation of Takeshima by the Republic of Korea is an illegal occupation undertaken on absolutely no basis in international law.” There were also reports that the Japanese Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry would instruct all social studies textbooks for middle school students to describe Takeshima as Japanese territory. Thus, little over a month after the April 2008 summit meeting, Seoul expressed “strong regret” to the Japanese ambassador to South Korea and sent a message of protest to Tokyo over the proposed textbook changes.

In attempting to influence global public opinion, South Koreans welcomed a full-page advertisement in the July 9, 2008 issue of The New York Times claiming South Korea’s sovereignty over the islets. Kim Jang-Hun, a popular singer who paid for the ad, became a national hero. Some 110,000 South Korean internet users funded another full-page advertisement in the August 25, 2008 edition of the Washington Post. A Korean-American dry cleaner puts pictures of the Dokdo islands on the plastic bags in which he returns New Yorkers’ clothing[1], and this April in Los Angeles at Dodger stadium, Korean-American baseball fans chanted “Dokdo is ours” at a game between the Japanese and South Korean baseball teams. A U.S. decision to change the official name of the islets from “Dokdo” to “Liancourt” provoked a deluge of emails.

So yes, Koreans are somewhat emotionally involved over the issue of Dokdo. However—and this is important to remember—the fact is, everybody, everybody, is emotional about Dokdo. Koreans are emotional about Dokdo. The Japanese are emotional about Dokdo. Even the Americans, who made expedient decisions about postwar treaties in the 1950s, chose to avoid the issue of ownership of the islands and are thus “emotional” about this issue.

Of course the Japanese are as emotional about this as the Koreans. Certainly it is not the case that the Japanese decided that Dokdo was Japanese territory through some rational, meditative thought process where they weren’t sure, looked at the “facts” with an open mind, and then decided to claim Dokdo. It is the exact opposite. The Japanese claim is in many ways even more emotional than the Korean claim. After all, it was only in the 20th century that Japan had any thought of claiming Dokdo; so Japanese clinging to a belief that they can somehow prove their ownership of the islands is based on even more fantasy and wishful thinking than on any kind of considered thought process.

But, this is the key point: Japanese and Americans don’t appear to be as emotional. That is, we all know that a person can be very emotionally involved and yet express that anger quietly and without yelling. The term is passive aggressive. By comparison, a soft-speaking person comes across as much more calm and levelheaded than does a more animated and loud person, no matter what the reality. Thus, because the Japanese in general do not express themselves as loudly or directly as do Koreans, Americans don’t believe that Japanese are as emotional as are Koreans.

Rightly or wrongly, in the U.S., being emotional is considered to be less legitimate, and less convincing, than is being calmly rational. Now this may seem odd; after all, one could easily make the argument that the more emotional we are about something the more we care. So the Korean mindset makes perfect sense: “Koreans really care about Dokdo; our claim is justified and the more resistance we face, the more emotional we become in order to convince you.”  Yet, in American culture, it works in reverse. The more emotional a person becomes, the less he or she is perceived to be serious. The belief in the U.S. is that one needs to “calm down” and that only when the people are rational can we really make headway into solving the problems and issues.

I have been in meetings with sitting U.S., Korean, and Japanese officials, and watched an American official say “Koreans are emotional about this issue,” while the Koreans nod approvingly, thinking the Americans understand how important this is to Koreans. Yet the exact opposite message is sent! The message the American sent was: “You guys are crazy and we just try to avoid you;” not “your emotional claim means you are more serious than the Japanese.” To that end, shouts about politics at a baseball game serve to undermine, not enhance, Korea’s claim on Dokdo in international and, in particular, Western eyes.

Koreans are emotional, and they should be. This is one of the strengths of the country, and it has made Korea the vibrant and exciting democracy that it is today. But Koreans should also remember two things: Japanese are just as emotional as Koreans about Dokdo; they merely express it differently and more quietly. Second, the more emotional Koreans get, the less this is convincing to American ears.

In conclusion, I welcome and support the South Korean government’s branding initiative. It is important that Koreans be aware of their public image and conscious of how it can affect real interactions with people and governments in other countries. I am a bit skeptical that a marketing strategy by itself will be successful. A nation’s global image is formed over decades and by innumerable interactions and actions, not with just a few flashy advertisements.

Yet I would never try to change an entire country’s approach to an issue; Koreans need to be Korean and they should be proud of being Korean. But they should know how their actions and voices are perceived overseas so that perhaps some middle ground can be found, where the working diplomats, the government, academics, the media, and the general public work to find effective ways to communicate their views to the outside world.

Persuasion, convincing, and thoughtfulness are all elements of modern diplomacy, whether that diplomacy is carried out formally by Korean officials or informally by Korean citizens at a baseball game. Merely yelling will not solve the Dokdo issue, and Korea’s global image will not be enhanced by more advertisements in The New York Times. Instead, it will be enhanced bit-by-bit, person-by-person, as Koreans meet other citizens, travel to other countries and gently help them understand the Korean point of view.

David C. Kang is Director of the Korean Studies Institute, Deputy Director of the School of International Relations and Professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. 

[1] Karim Faheem, “On City’s Plastic Bags, an Old and Distant Dispute” The New York Times. March 21 2009. (accessed June 1, 2009).