Tag Archives: South Korea

TV and the Failure of Russian Soft Power

Ever heard of R-Pop or R-Drama? Of course not. And therein lies Russia’s problem.

Squid Game – a dystopian South Korean TV show in which indebted characters risk their lives in a game – was the surprise 2021 hit of the year on Netflix. The show’s popularity had a knock on effect – a huge surge in the number of foreigners wanting to learn the Korean language. Language tutoring services in the UK reported a 76% increase in students learning Korean, and 40% in the United States. Furthermore, the language learning app Duolingo says it now has “more than 7.9 million active users learning Korean.”

Interest in all things Korean has been growing for some years, largely due to the immense popularity of the products of the country’s cultural industry. Back in 2018, for instance, the BBC reported that K-Pop was driving a “boom in Korean language lessons,” and that the South Korean government was “capitalizing on its cultural assets by setting up 130 language institutes in 50 countries.” “This type of centre may attract people who are interested in Korea because of pop culture at first, but they can also expose those students to other parts of Korean studies, including politics, trade, history, and more,” said Jenna Gibson of the US-based think tank the Korea Economic Institute.

K-culture is a model of soft power at work. Attractive popular products pull in the public, who then acquire a deeper understanding of the country in question, going away at the end of the process enamoured with the object of study.

Soft power of this sort is big business and immensely profitable. It also translates into a favourable international image, which theoretically should provide political benefits. Arguably it was crucial to American success in the Cold War. Hollywood as much, if not more, than the American army ensured that the United States came out on top.

It’s also something that modern Russia is not very good at. Speaking this week to the State Duma, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lamented that, “If you compare us with other countries who enthusiastically promote their national languages, the amount of money [we devote to the issue] is far from in our favour. We need to correct this. I hope for your support in this regard.”

Lavrov drew deputies’ attention to organizations funded by foreign countries to promote their culture, such as the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and Alliance Francaise. These receive far greater funding than analogical Russian organizations such as Rossotrudnichestvo and the Pushkin Institute for the Russian Language. Russia needed to do more, he said.

To my mind, Lavrov has a point, but I’m not at all convinced that the solution is to pump more into what you might call “official” or “semi-official” organizations dedicated to promoting Russian culture. To see why, let’s return to the case of South Korea.

The rapid advance of K-culture is the product of deliberate state policy following the 2008 financial crisis, when the South Korean government decided to invest heavily in the business of popular culture. The enactment of this policy fell upon private industry, and the aim was not soft power, but export-generated financial profit. This, as far as I can tell, is typical of how South Korea has grown: a close relationship between the state and business, in which the former points the way and provides backing, and the latter then generates goods for foreign markets in accordance with the general plan.

The thing is is that in order for the plan to work, this cultural business had to be able to sell its products, which meant that they had to be attractive and entertaining. And so the Koreans made sure that they were. K-Pop is hip and bouncy, with loads of beautiful people singing catchy songs. One might accuse it of being very low brow, but it does the job. It sells in truckloads.

The same could be said of K-drama. It’s formulaic, but addictive. The Korea of the K-drama world, whether it be today or ancient Joseon, is full of beautiful people in beautiful clothes in beautiful settings, and even if they’re being attacked by Joseon-era zombies, somehow the loving camera work makes it all look strikingly pretty. I imagine that I would horribly disappointed if I actually went to South Korea, as it would be a huge shock to realize that the average person doesn’t actually look like a supermodel.

So, yes, you can criticize the work of K-culture for being less than high art. If you like, you can call it pulp. But it’s addictive, attractive pulp. And along the way, you get to pick up a lot of Korean culture – you learn some words, you discover lots of foods, you get to know the country’s history, you pick up cultural quirks, such as Koreans’ obsession with relative age, and so on. As a form of soft power, it’s really good. It makes people like Korea and want to know more about it.

Compare this with what Russia offers the world. No doubt, there’s lots of good stuff on the domestic market, but what gets offered to people outside the country is pretty gloomy. A quick look at the Russian TV shows available on Netflix proves the point. The one item that pops up that could be said to be a successful cultural export is Masha and the Bear. Beyond that, though, the offerings are thin on the ground and also pretty grim: Metod – an anti-social detective hunting serial killers; To the Lake – death from disease; Sparta – ‘A game with no rules and no limits’; Locust ­– just the title is off-putting; and so on.

Depressing stuff. The same could be said of Russian films, at least those that get to the West. The most praised in recent years was Leviathan. I’ll confess I didn’t watch it. The reviews sounded just too gloomy, and I could do without spending lots of time just to feel rotten at the end of it. But judging by the reviews, the whole point of it is that Russia sucks.

You get the point. Watch Korean drama, and you think, “I’d like to go to Korea.” Watch Russian drama, and you think, “What a shithole.” And that, dear readers, is why Russian soft power is less than impressive. It’s also why pumping more money into cultural promotion, as Lavrov suggests, isn’t likely to achieve much. For you have to have something positive to promote. Masha and the Bear aside, Russia doesn’t appear to have a lot to offer, at least not of the sort most people want to spend money on. And that’s a problem.