You may be sick and tired of the song “Gangnam Style,” but there is no denying that Korean pop artist Psy has become one of the ‘it’ stars of the past year—reportedly, even first daughters Sasha and Malia are fans. His status as a worldwide media sensation even scored him an invite to last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. However temporary, the spotlight on Psy has positively promoted K-Pop and Korea.
Meanwhile, the ROK is not ignorant to the fact that pop-culture can be a great tool of cultural diplomacy. So, what does it look like when a government tries to harness this phenomenon? In Korea’s case, it is a large-scale effort to export Hallyu—aka the Korean Wave—and with a nod to Hollywood, the creation of an attraction and cultural production complex called Hallyuworld. Yes, that’s really happening.
Companies and organizations have always exercised a great deal of control over the management of their brand, spending a lot of time and money to cultivate a positive public image, and why shouldn’t nations do the same? They have every reason to be concerned about foreign public opinion, for political AND financial reasons, not limited to increasing tourism and direct foreign investment.
The way countries manage their image through the practice of diplomacy has seen a shift over the years: traditional government-government interaction has evolved to include government-people communication, and now with social media, people-to-government conversations. Furthermore, the U.S., among other countries, subsidizes professional, educational, and cultural exchanges, with the belief that through people-to-people, or P2P, exchanges, every individual has the potential to act as a “mini-diplomat” forging meaningful connections with foreign publics. And it’s working.
Inevitably, there can also be a downside. With the global communication space open, it is nearly impossible for a country to control the plurality of ‘voices’ speaking on its behalf across multiple media platforms.
Enter again, pop-culture celebrities. Every once in a while, a public figure projects some unfavorable characteristics internationally, which have the potential to injure their home country’s image.
Remember when the cast of the Jersey Shore went to Italy? People worried that the belligerent gang would export a negative impression of Italian-Americans, and Americans in general.
More recently, ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman gained infamy with his tour of the North Korean capital Pyongyang, where he professed his friendship to leader Kim Jung Un, a top antagonist of the U.S. He followed this up with a trip to Vatican City, where he speculated on who the next pontiff would be and expressed his desire to meet with the new pope.
And then there’s Andrew W.K, self-proclaimed cultural “ambassador of positive partying.” He was recently invited, and then promptly disinvited, from a U.S.-sponsored visit to the Middle East. It is likely that the U.S. State Department pulled the plug after realizing that songs like “Party ‘Til You Puke” were not an appropriate conduit for the image the U.S. would like to promote in the region.
This is not a new or unusual circumstance. We have only to look back to Jane Fonda’s controversial anti-war activism and trip to Vietnam in 1972, which earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.” The difference today is the communication landscape. Without even leaving the country, thanks again to online social networking—and oft to the dismay of their managers and publicists—celebrities are speaking directly to the world through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. The platforms for international cultural gaffes are endless.
When marketing initiatives result in unlikely spokesperson Kim Kardashian tweeting about the Middle East and peddling milkshakes in Kuwait, or when Jay-Z and Beyonce decide to travel to Cuba, the government must mitigate the international fallout for such accidental engagement. “Some things are beyond my control,” said President Obama in his speech at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner on Saturday. He quipped “It’s unbelievable. I got 99 problems and now Jay-Z is one.”
There is a silver lining: Occasionally these things have a way of working themselves out. You may recall the 2005 film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." Kazakhstan was so outraged at its portrayal as a racist, sexist and primitive country that they threatened suit and blocked the film in the country. Well, seven years later, Kazakhstan is admitting that the movie was so popular that it raised awareness and increased tourism almost tenfold, and the Foreign Minister formally thanked Sasha Baron Cohen for the movie.
Now only time will tell whether Denis Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” will someday result in a nuclear détente with North Korea.
By Mariam Samsoudine