Vietnam's soft power: A view from Korea

Monday, 2015-12-21 09:42:40
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Director of the Korea Foundation Hanoi Office Park Kyoung-Chul
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In August 2014, I was dispatched to Vietnam to head the Korea Foundation Hanoi Office, an agency responsible for promoting mutual understanding and friendship between Vietnam and the Republic of Korea. Since beginning my work here, I have realized that examples of Vietnam’s implicit soft power can be found almost everywhere in the country.

Although unpolished as of yet, if these rough pearls are polished, placed in a systematic order, and used for cultivating international friendships, the country will be able to enjoy more economic successes and strengthen its position on the global stage.

In the eyes of a foreigner, one of Vietnam’s most obvious examples of soft power is its people. Or, to put it more specifically, soft power lies in the national character of the Vietnamese people. This is easily seen in the warm and appealing charm that endears the Vietnamese to anyone they encounter. The radiant and elegant smiles of women and the care free high school students having fun cycling together on the crowded streets immediately capture my attention because the cheerful and caring spirit they embody is very different from the Korean culture of “palli palli” (literally means “hurry hurry”).

Korean artists performing pangut, a style of Korean percussion dance as part of their Vietnam tour in August 2015.

Smiles are frequent and easy to come by in Vietnamese culture: they communicate attentiveness, a sense of humor and nonchalance, all important assets for forming and cementing friendships. The desire and willingness to smile when with others eventually leads to consideration for the feelings of others, a phenomenon that is true for individuals and organizations alike. Korea’s rapid economic growth and social development are in large part thanks to the spirit of “palli palli.” But from a different point of view, this same culture deprives Koreans of their warmth of heart in favor of speed and efficiency. The absence of smiles in modern Korean culture is probably why they are so easily recognizable for me.

A long history and traditions passed down from generation to generation are another source of Vietnam’s soft power: the country’s cultural treasures. History inspires modern people through the works of artists. Like Vietnam, Korea is proud of its long history and traditional culture. Korean television dramas and popular songs have created a phenomenon in Asia known as the Korean Wave (Hallyu), which is the marriage of modern and traditional Korean culture.


A performance in the Vietnam-Korea Festival in Da Nang in December 2015

Also, Korea is the world’s last divided country. An ordinary married couple suddenly separated because of war and the division of the country were unable to see each other until many decades later at a reunion for family members of the two Koreas. This story, of which there are thousands of cases, is bound to attract the interest of many people around the world. Like Koreans, the Vietnamese people also endured a great deal of suffering due to multiple wars. But now, Vietnam is gradually making itself known in a globalized environment and has reaped many significant economic successes. The affluent cultural heritage created through the history that Vietnam has made through its relations with so many other countries will no doubt add to the country’s soft power.

PARK Kyoung-Chul

Director of the Korea Foundation Hanoi Office