Do Americans Know Anything about Korea beyond the North? Not so Much…

Greetings Earthlings

On the radio this week, I spoke about Americans’ image and sense of Korea; the transcript is below. This is a big deal here. Korea has lately gotten quite excited about ‘public diplomacy,’ brand promotion, and soft power. You may recall that the Bush administration got big into this for a few years after the Iraq War and Guantanamo wrecked the world’s opinion of the US.

National ‘branding’ has always struck me as pretty ridiculous. A rose is a rose is a rose, and no cute advertising campaign is suddenly going to make people think differently about you. No amount cheesy ‘peace ambassadors’ or ‘socialist fraternity’ internationales conned people into believing the USSR was any less dangerous. In the same way, Bush hack Karen Hughes’ surreal photo-ops with Arab children could do nothing to change the US image in the Middle East that was being set everyday by the carnage in Iraq. The point being, you can’t do something dumb, have it blowback in your face, and then try to advertise or ‘rhetoric’ your way out of it. If the US wants to change its image with Arabs, killing fewer of them is the most obvious thing to do, not sending some flunky to smile on al Jazeera.

This skepticism applies to Korea’s efforts too. The overwhelming problem for Korea’s image is the North. This simply goes without saying. Newsweek put Kim Jeong Il in its ‘global elite,’ and I dare say most westerners couldn’t name another major Korean figure, political or otherwise. When Gallup recently asked Americans to name their favorite/least favorite countries, North, but not South, Korea was on the list. Pity South Korea. We can’t even remember they’re an ally. (That’s actually pretty pathetic. I’m fairly embarrassed. Even worse: only 41% of Americans think the US should fight to defend South Korea. On how the US is slipping out of the SK defense treaty, read this.)

This annoys Koreans to no end. I hear about it all the time from friends and students. So here are my quick top guesses on why Korea is so ‘foreign’ to Americans and Westerners.

1. It is small. When westerners think of East Asia, that means China or Japan. Korea is just the little bit in between. This could change if unification happens, if unification is successful, if Japan continues its slide. But for the foreseeable future, Koreans should think of  Austria – quiet, small, rich – as their model, not Germany, China, or Japan – rich, aggressive, demanding.

2. Korean food is not distinct enough from other East Asian fare for the median westerner to know the difference. Now that I live here, I know the difference, but, honestly, it is a learned art. For the average westerner looking for lunch, accustomed to eating his national cuisine mostly, Korean food is just another ethnic take-out choice.

3. The language is really hard. The US Defense Department’s Defense Language Institute ranks Korean in its hardest languages to learn category, along with Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic. By contrast, Spanish is a snap for anglophones.  This is an absolutely crucial barrier. It makes the life of all the foreigners I know in Korea much, much harder. (See p 8 here for the complete DLI ranking of language difficulty for anglophones; the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute estimates that a mediocre, ‘professional working proficiency’ in Korean requires 4000 hours of study!! Spanish is ranked at just 1100 hours.)

4. The Confucian-Buddhist tradition. The West’s religious traditions are Christian, Jewish, with some Islam thrown-in. These monotheistic sensibilities are distant from  Korea’s social norms (ancestor veneration, e.g.) and the more ‘metaphysical’ religions of Asia.





March 8, 2010


Hello everyone and welcome to …..

Right now we have our weekly foreign affairs expert for some commentary on Korea and Northeast Asia. Dr. Robert Kelly teaches in the Political Science and Diplomacy Department at Pusan National University. He’s been living in Korea about 18 months now, and his area of expertise is the international relations of East Asia. If you wish to contact him, please see his website at

Professor Kelly comes to us each Monday to talk about big issues in Korean foreign affairs. And this week we are going to discuss US relations with South Korea. Hi, Dr. Kelly.


Hi, Petra. Thanks for having me


Thanks for being with us again today.


It’s my pleasure.


It seems that several new polls came out about Americans’ image of Korea. What can you tell us?


About three weeks ago, the biggest US polling service, Gallup, released a survey of American attitudes towards foreign countries. And then last week the Chosun Ilbo and Gallup Korea ran a survey of ten wealthy countries’ attitudes toward each other. Unfortunately, Korea did not fare too well in either survey.


Can you tell us some of the details, and why Korea is viewed poorly?


Well, I think poorly is not the right word. Instead I would say that Korea has two big ‘image’ problems. The first is North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea simply dominates the world’s sense of Korea. I know this disappoints South Koreans very much. South Koreans would very much like Yuna Kim or Samsung televisions to be their representatives to the world, but this is just not the case. Kim Jeong Il is easily the best known Korean in the world.

Second, Korea is quite small, and to western populations, geographically and culturally quite distant. I discuss this often with my students. Koreans seem unhappy that there is a strong asymmetry between Koreans’ interest in the US, and American interest in Korea. Koreans, for example, have great interest in English, like to attend American universities, eat US fast food, and watch so many American movies that the Korean film industry requires tariff protection.


But Americans don’t really know anything about Korea, do they? Hah!


Beyond the Korean immigrant community of course, no, not really. The Gallup survey, for example, did not even list South Korea as a choice for Americans to select as favorable or unfavorable. So traditional US allies, such as Germany, Canada, Britain, France, Japan, etc. were listed, and all received high scores of favorability. That is, Americans said they liked these countries. But South Korea was not listed at all. However North Korea was, and the DPRK received an 80% unfavorable rating. The only country with a worse number was Iran. So, no, South Korea is just not really on the radar for most Americans; Korea means North Korea to most Americans.


What about the Chosun Ilbo study?


It too found that South Korea had only a 37% favorability rating.


That seems pretty low.


Yeah, it is. I agree. Actually, I was surprised that the Chosun figure was so low. I am quite aware of how little Americans know of Korea, but the Chosun poll included other Eurasian countries that I thought would have more exposure to Korea, including France, Russia, Italy and China.


So what does this mean?


Well, honestly, I don’t think it means all that much. It does not mean that Korea is any less free, wealthy, green, socially happy, secure, democratic, etc. These sorts of polls are usually like high school popularity contests. They make you feel good or bad, but they don’t actually change that much. However, Koreans have stressed Korea’s ‘global image’ a lot under this administration. Notions like ‘branding’ Korea or Korean ‘soft power’ mean a lot to South Koreans, so the government has embarked, eg, on a big push of Korean food in the West.


Right. I read about. The First Lady is pushing Korean food. So these polls are disappointing, but don’t mean too much. Ok.


Generally, I think so. Koreans worry a great deal, unnecessarily in my opinion, about Korea’s image. But, we all know that clever TV campaigns or cute food advertisement aren’t really the driver of such things. Korea’s image in the world will be built on its political values, not by things like how many LEDs get exported to the EU. Look at India. It is quite poor, yet its long-standing commitment to democracy and freedom, and the pacifist, Gandhian heritage in its foreign relations has won it many friends for decades. And Korea will enjoy this sort of reputation if it continues to build an open, globalized, free democracy.


But I think Koreans want more than that. They wants others to see and enjoy their cultural products too – like hanbok or kimchi.


Yeah I think that’s right, but I just don’t know how well that stuff translates into the West. Asian food is available in the West of course, but quite honestly, I never really knew or cared to know the difference between Chinese, Korean or Japanese food when I lived in the US. I didn’t know many people who could properly eat with chopsticks. And I certainly never met anyone who could speak Korean. There are of course pockets of interest in the biggest cities, but outside the Asian immigrant community, I dare say, Korea just doesn’t have that sort of profile.


Why not? I think Koreans really would like Westerners to be more aware of it, as distinct from China or Japan.


I think you really put your finger on it right there. Korea is small; Japan is big, and China is simply enormous. Less than 10% of Americans have passports; we don’t travel that much. And the US has ethnic populations from almost every country on the planet. In the huge melting pot of American life, Korea is just one far-off place, with a very difficult language and religious traditions very different from those of America. By contrast, when Hispanics immigrants come to the US, they already share some cultural territory: the alphabets are the same, and Spanish is vastly easier for English speakers to learn; Mexican food has already made huge inroads in the US; most Hispanics are Catholics. But the cultural gulf with Korea is much wider – language, Confucianism-Buddhism, food, chopsticks, traditional dress and music. Things like that.


So China dominates everything?


That is an exaggeration of course, but kind of. To the extent that Westerners follow events in Asia, China is the behemoth that dominates discussion, and for Americans, it is the alliance with Japan that is the lynchpin of the US presence in Asia. This is important. It is the alliance with Japan that draws most US attention on security in Asia. Indeed, the one truly important statistic for Koreans is that only 41% of Americans think the US should deploy combat troops to South Korea to defend it. That I think it is genuinely worrisome.


Thank you professor for coming again this week.

20 thoughts on “Do Americans Know Anything about Korea beyond the North? Not so Much…

  1. From another nation not deigned to be included by Gallup, our sympathy >:

    “And the US has ethnic populations from almost every country on the planet. In the huge melting pot of American life”

    Probably bears repetition; the demands on America’s attention are vast, and Korea is in competition with some serious people who want to gain more of that attention.

    Hadn’t heard that Korean was so difficult to learn, that’s interesting.


  2. I actually thought South Korea was making much headway in terms of promoting itself overseas. Maybe it’s only successful in Asia. We’ve been subjected to hallyu these past few years — there’s a constant barrage of South Korean soap operas, films and music over here in Manila.

    What’s interesting though, is the possible implication of these findings on the US-Northeast Asia scenario. Do you think the general indifference of the populace reflects the US government’s own attitude towards South Korea? Because that would be massive in terms of its effects on the presently precarious NEA balance.


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  4. The US populous is marked by massive ignorance on an enormous scale regarding anything but a few countries abroad (Japan, China, etc.).

    The only way to reform American perceptions of Korea is for everyone that has watched M*A*S*H to die off. That show managed to propagate and embed the American psyche with a set of false stereotypes regarding Korea (showing Vietnamese costumes, Southern California landscapes, and non-Korean actors and scenery). The show was really about Vietnam, but could not admit it given the political climate of the 70s.

    Most people put Japan several notches above Korea in cultural and economic development, when Korea was ahead of Japan in those respects until the 18th century, and will now surpass Japan in per capita GDP in the near future.


    • Hah! I love the comment about Mash. I imagine that is so. The barrier is culture and scale. Korea is just too small and too different – in language, social ways, religion. It is too psychological distant for Americans. You might respond that Americans should know more about the world, but the world is a big place, people must have priorities, and places like Europe, Canada, and Mexico are far more important to the US than tiny, distant Korea.


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    • Oh good heavens. These are hardly scientific observations. More like geusses. I’m not sure I would use them for something formal like a term paper.


  6. im thinking….. hmmm
    is there anyway that more american people can be aware of Korea???
    i dont know and well… unfortunately i dont think so..
    FYI, im a student. i used to go to Yonsei in korea and currently i live in Nebraska now. and im korean.
    im in a speech team at school and whenever i pull the “korean” topics out, their attitude is like “why do i have to care?” quite often. and i kno that so i often think that how can i make them to be interested in my speech? its such a delima..


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