SEOUL, South Korea – In the world popularity contest, South Korea feels a little like the ugly duckling that wants everyone to know it’s really a swan.
Citizens flinch at hearing their country ridiculed as a place where politicians throw punches. They despair over a recent poll of foreigners in which 4 in 10 cited the nation’s lack of “charm.”
Then there’s the outlaw cousin to the north. When much of the world hears the name “Korea,” it envisions Kim Jong-il and his hermit state of North Korea, not the democratic nation that has long been a U.S. ally.
Well, South Korea isn’t going to take it anymore. The image-obsessed country intends to repair its reputation by spending millions of dollars to develop a national brand.
President Lee Myung-bak has formed a Presidential Council on Nation Branding and has announced a goal to move up to 15th place by 2013.
“Korea is the world’s 13th-largest economy with some $20,000 in per capita income but ranks only 33rd in the global brand index,” reporters here quoted Lee as saying. “This is a big problem.”
Analysts say South Korea has been dealt a bad hand.
“One unfortunate thing is that South Korea shares its name with a rogue state,” said Simon Anholt, a British government adviser who devised a brand ranking system.
Despite its ancient culture, South Korea is a relatively new player on the world stage. “It just hasn’t been a significant country for very long,” Anholt said. “Other nations have been sending a stream of cultural or political ambassadors into global consumption for many years. Korea hasn’t been doing that.”
But Lee wants to change that, introducing programs to promote South Korea’s tae kwon do and pitching the nation as an environmentally friendly “Green Korea.” The centerpiece of his agenda is all about food. The government recently announced a plan to globalize Korean cuisine, vowing to put it among the world’s top five cuisines.
Many here have some advice for South Korea: Relax.
“Korea is stuck in this way of thinking that it has to outdance, outspend and out-palace other countries,” said Michael Hurt, a local blogger, photographer and branding committee member. “It’s never been about that. Korea is a quirky taste.”
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