Koreans Need to Improve Their Global Image

      November 17, 2009 13:15

      Kwon Oh-yul

      The majority of Koreans hope their nation becomes a leading country in the world, or so the received wisdom goes. What makes a country a world leader is subject to debate, but several international organizations including the CIA, the IMF and the OECD, consider Korea to be a developed nation. Yet Koreans and others do not view it as a leading nation.

      It is widely known that Korea continues to have a poor brand image. According to research by the IMD in Switzerland, Korea's national image ranked on average 29th among 55 countries in recent years. The expert Simon Anholt has released analysis that shows Korea's national reputation on a continuous decline, from 25th out of 50 nations in 2005 to 33rd in 2008. In terms of brand value relative to GDP, the U.S. stood at 143 percent and Japan at 224 percent, while Korea was at less than 30 percent. This implies that a product made in Korea can be sold only for 66 percent the price of a product of the same quality made in the U.S.

      How foreigners perceive Korea is shaped through the mass media and through their experience with Korean products, culture and people. Korea’s ranking is an average assessment based on eight categories, including export, tourism, governance and people. Of these elements, the most important is based on the perceptions that foreigners have after interacting with Koreans. In light of the fact that Korean people ranked 39th out of 50, it is apparent the image of individual Koreans among foreigners is in need of an overhaul.

      Korean culture focuses on families and groups. Koreans tend to discriminate between those inside their social circles and those outside of it. They may be kind to the people they know but appear rude and inconsiderate to strangers. And as a society based on the nuclear family grows increasingly competitive, social circles are shrinking, and rudeness is becoming more common.

      Koreans violate basic social rules 44 times more often than do Japanese, according to one study. Korea may well have become the Asian capital of disrespect.  With such little consideration for strangers, Koreans playing loud music generate 1,878 times as many noise violation complaints as Japanese.

      Foreign workers in low-level jobs in Korea are easy targets for disrespectful treatment. Foreign brides who newly arrive in Korea often experience cruelty; the divorce rate among international couples, which hovers around 40 percent, may be largely driven by this culture of discrimination.

      Humiliation is the basic form of asserting ethics in a group-focused culture, much as instilling social consciousness is in a Christian-based culture. Therefore, when there is conflict between loyalty to group and social consciousness in a group-focused culture, the former wins. This explains why violating laws against illegal tutoring, for example, is deemed acceptable; it is done "for the sake of the children" and the family name. If Koreans think foreigners do not know of such things, they are mistaken.

      The role of the 7 million Koreans abroad who serve as Korea's points of contact with foreigners is particularly important. Among minority groups in the U.S., Koreans are not the poorest, but receive a large share of welfare benefits. Also, many Koreans have been caught being on the dole illegally in Germany and Switzerland. The sense of privilege among Koreans living abroad, the community election scandals that are becoming a yearly event, the prevalence of legal action -- such things provide an embarrassing image of Korea.

      To achieve the nation's long-nurtured desire to become a leading country requires improving its image, and all Koreans, including those living around the world, should mind their manners, while the government supplies a nationwide strategy.

      By Kwon Oh-yul, director of the Australian Center for Korean Studies at Griffith University

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