Gangnam points to our future, The Age

October 8, 2012

We like to think we are a leading force in Asia, culturally and diplomatically. We might just be kidding ourselves.

BY NOW most of us will be acquainted with Gangnam Style. It seems impossible to avoid the catchy pop song, with its video featuring that horse-riding dance. The Korean rapper behind the hit, 34-year-old Psy (Park Jae-sang), has emerged as an unlikely international celebrity.

You have to give credit to the artist. Gangnam Style has set a new standard for music videos. Since its July release on YouTube, Gangnam Style has received more than 390 million views – and counting. The song has topped charts across the West, including here and in Britain.

Indeed, it is hard not to like Psy, who explains his ethos as ”dress classy and dance cheesy”. During a tour of the United States last month, the rapper made countless guest appearances on television and radio, disarming his hosts and teaching his moves to American celebrities. The promotional charm offensive is due to arrive in Australia next week.


All fun and frivolity aside, there is something worth studying within the Gangnam phenomenon.

Much has already been written about the song’s video as a subversive take on South Korea’s consumerist culture (Gangnam is the name of an affluent suburb in Seoul renowned for its ostentatious displays of wealth). But we are only beginning to appreciate Gangnam Style as part of a broader ”hallyu” cultural wave coming out of the country.

For many decades a notable exporting powerhouse in manufacturing, South Korea has become a significant cultural exporter in recent years. ”K-Pop” music enjoys enormous popularity in Asia, as do Korean television dramas. The latter have even found a foothold in places such as Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

It isn’t simply about culture, however. As Mark James Russell, the author of Pop Goes Korea, has noted in Foreign Policy magazine, South Korean governments have explicitly used pop culture to push more traditional exports. It is striking that ”a relatively small country with a language nobody else speaks could become so trendy so quickly, and convert the new image to economic power so effectively”.

Might it be worth comparing South Korean approaches to cultural diplomacy and trade to our own in the region?

There seems to be an appropriate basis for comparison. While South Korea has a considerably larger population of 50 million, we have similar sized economies. Lacking scale or might, both South Korea and Australia depend more on creative strategic approaches to policy. Not least both may need to rely more on ”soft power” – that is, getting results through the attractive power of culture and diplomacy.

On this count, the South Korean wave reflects a successful exercise in soft power. This is one area where Australia has performed poorly.

In a recent analysis, former Australian diplomat Alison Broinowski points to one source of the problem. There is a significant gap between Australians’ self image and views of Australia in the region.

We tend to regard our country as a stable, prosperous, liberal democracy that boasts cultural harmony and enjoys healthy respect from other nations. Arguably, this isn’t always the way our neighbours regard us. There remains a perception of a lingering racism tied to the old White Australia. Some countries appear to treat us largely with indifference, contrary to our own sense of regional importance.

There is certainly room for improvement by Australia in at least two arenas of soft power.

First, consider international education. Though it is our most significant cultural export, education is one area where Australia fails to put its best foot forward. Last week, Race Discrimination Commissioner Helen Szoke highlighted the need for a more concerted effort to prevent discrimination and violence against international students.

Of course, the experience of students from abroad helps to shape our standing in the region. International education is as much a cultural exercise as it is an economic one. Too often, we think of international students primarily as cash cows for our universities. But as any good host will tell you, a generous welcome always has its own reward.

Second, there is cultural diplomacy of the more direct kind. According to Broinowski, Australia is well behind the competition when it comes to such soft power; we struggle to match the efforts of smaller nations. With only a small budget, Australia’s main cultural diplomacy agency, the Australia International Cultural Council, has an extremely low profile.

Such deficiencies can’t be fixed overnight. Some hope Ken Henry’s long-awaited ”Asian Century” white paper may address them. Much ultimately depends on Australian policymakers embracing the cultural aspects of our engagement with Asia. In other words, building soft power begins at home.

Australians should take a good look at Psy when he visits this month. But don’t make the arrogant mistake of regarding him as a wacky Asian guy doing an amusing horsey dance. He may just be, in one sense, the new cultural face of the Asian Century – a century in which Australia is even more likely to be following trends coming out of the region than to be setting them.