One of the first things Japanese Ambassador to Korea Bessho Koro noticed when he arrived in Korea about three months ago was the crowds routinely assembling outside his residence in the Seongbuk-dong neighborhood of Seoul ― gaggles of Japanese women aiming and clicking cameras.
But, to his chagrin, they were not there to get a shot of him. They were snapping pictures of the house across the street of actor Bae Yong-jun of “Winter Sonata” fame, a TV drama that first aired in 2002.
Bae is an example of the immense popularity of Korean pop culture in Japan but, importantly for relations between Korea and Japan, a hint to how ties can be strengthened through pop culture and, in particular, nation branding.
“Korea’s accomplishments have been outstanding in nation branding, and national branding has become important in the diplomatic world together with public diplomacy and soft power,” Bessho said in a speech during a luncheon hosted by the Presidential Council on Nation Branding at the Korea Press Center in downtown Seoul, Wednesday.
In his speech, Bessho proposed strengthening Korea-Japan ties through joint nation branding, cultural exchanges and other public diplomacy programs.
“My hope is that we can make a joint Japan-Korea brand out of this in collaboration with third countries bringing together the strengths of Korean and Japanese industries working together by appealing to the world as Korea and Japan partners,” he said.
|Japanese Ambassador to Korea Bessho Koro gestures during a speech hosted by the Presidential Council on Nation Branding at the Korea Press Center in downtown Seoul on Wednesday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
Bessho’s proposal comes as a simmering confrontation between China and Japan over the islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China intensified to its most dangerous level to date, and as tensions once again flared between Korea and Japan over the Dokdo islets (which Japan calls Takeshima).
Korea and Japan have historical and other conflicts, too, in part stemming from Japan’s colonization of Korea in the early 20th century, as well as mutual cultural misperceptions and conflicts over how to interpret history.
Relations were on particularly rocky terrain through the 2000s, ever since a controversial history textbook was approved by Japan’s ministry of education and, on the surface at least, two-way ties have not really recovered since.
Decades of diplomatic efforts have failed to solve these problems. So, Korea, Japan and China are now working on creative solutions to these confrontations.
Ma Young-sam, ambassador for public diplomacy at Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said that Korea, Japan and China are already working on ways together to leverage the enormous soft power each has individually to help solve perennial tensions among the three nations.
“Tensions among the three countries require many kinds of solutions, including political, economic and cultural,” Ma said. “So, we think people-to-people exchanges and joint cultural events provide the most basic, but also the most effective and fundamental solutions to these tensions.”
Ma said that when leaders of the three countries met in Beijing in May 2012 for the 5th Trilateral Cooperation Summit, they agreed to explore establishing a public diplomacy forum that would enhance ties on that fundamental level ― people-to-people relations.
“It is important to have a multilateral structure that includes Japan, Korea and China that cultivates cooperation between these three countries,“ Bessho said in the speech, echoing the agreement formed at the trilateral summit in Beijing.
Bessho harkened to the halcyon days of good relations between Korea and Japan that hummed along for a few years after the Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi Keizo summit in October 1998.
Since then, people-to-people exchanges are in the millions annually and two-way trade about $80 billion a year, making Korea Japan’s third-largest trading partner and Japan Korea’s second largest.
“I greatly respect the decision by Kim Dae-jung to open Korea to Japanese culture,” Bessho said. The two leaders took political risks that paid dividends for the Japanese and Korean people, he said.
That agreement paved the way for the success of hallyu in Japan. First, Bae Yong-jun in 2002 and later BoA in 2005 laid the groundwork for other K-pop sensations to make inroads on Japan’s Oricon charts, like Super Junior, DBSK, and Girls’ Generation, not to mention Psy.
Japanese dramas are still more or less prohibited on Korean television, however, and Bessho made a pitch for Korea to open up to must-see Japanese TV.
“I am Mita, Your Housekeeper,” which was a Japanese audience favorite in 2011, a story revolving around a family grieving over their mother’s recent suicide. They hire Mita as a housekeeper to look after the house, which has been thrown into disarray. Such a show could be a big hit in Korea, too.
“If we could extend it to Japanese dramas on ordinary Korean TV it could provide an additional breakthrough in mutual understanding,” Bessho said.
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com