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BIG Lessons for Thailand from South Korea’s soft power

For many years, South Korea has been projecting its soft power on the global stage, mainly through successful export of its teledramas, the increasingly popular K-pop music, Korean movies, and lately the Netflix show “Squid Game”.

The spillover from the South Korean entertainment business surge has even benefited Thailand. Thai singer Lalisa Manobal, born in the northeastern province of Buriram, recently launched her first single album. She is now a member of the South Korean girl group “Blackpink” formed by YG Entertainment.

Lalisa’s popularity has sparked great interest in Thailand’s potential soft power. The government has pledged to support the private sector’s efforts in that direction.

What exactly is soft power?

“Those who talk about soft power may not be understanding it correctly,” says Vimut Vanitcharoenthum, an economist at Chulalongkorn Business School.

The introduction to the book “Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics”, written by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, says that the author coined the term “soft power” in the late 1980s.

“It is now used frequently, and often incorrectly, by political leaders, editorial writers, and academics around the world. So what is soft power? Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power — the ability to coerce — grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies.

“Hard power remains crucial in a world of states trying to guard their independence and of non-state groups willing to turn to violence,” the introduction to the book lays out, adding “… (it) is soft power that will help us deal with critical global issues that require multilateral cooperation among states.”

South Korea started to seriously build its soft power in the 1990s, inspired by the Hollywood movie “Jurassic Park”, which made as much money as Korean industrial giant Hyundai did from the export of cars, says Vimut.

The South Korean government then provided massive subsidies to its entertainment industry.

It was well planned and it took time for the Korean entertainment industry to export its related soft power services.

“Korean businesses also hire songwriters and dance designers from the West in order to produce music that suits the taste of Western audiences,” says Vimut.

Suvit Maesincee, the former minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, has suggested that Thailand learn from South Korea’s investment in infrastructures, such as common studios which could be rented by local artists at low cost or even free of charge.

He is optimistic that Thailand has the potential to export its music, movies, computer games or animation cartoons.

“Soft power is part of the Bio-Circular-Green economic (BCG) model, under which Thailand could utilize its rich diversity in culture and biodiversity resources,” Suvit added.

Meanwhile, the current Minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, Anek Laothamatas, says that in projecting its soft power, Thailand has been outstanding in the 5Fs: food, film, fashion, fighting (Thai kick-boxing), and festival. These sectors are promoted by the ministry, aimed at increasing economic value, Anek said last month.

Critics, however, blame Thai authorities for imposing censorship on movies and hindering the development of the entertainment industry.

Regarding Thai food, Vimut argued that foreigners could also have the ability to prepare famous Thai dishes, so it does not make a big difference.

Thailand’s global standing

Germany has toppled the United States to become the world’s leading soft power, according to the Global Soft Power Index 2021 compiled by Brand Finance, the world’s leading brand valuation consultancy.

Japan is ranked second, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada and Switzerland in the top five. South Korea is ranked 11th, while Thailand is 33rd among 100 countries.

As part of the Global Soft Power Index methodology, Brand Finance conducted two surveys in October 2020: one was a survey of public opinion covering 75,000 residents from 102 countries, representing all continents and regions of the world, and the second survey took into account the views of 778 experts from 47 countries.

The index gives a 90 percent weighting to the views of the general public and 10 percent to those of specialists.

The assessment covers seven pillars: business and trade, governance, international relations, culture and heritages, media and communication, education and science, and people and values.

A country’s negative image, such as human rights abuse, weak rule of law, low quality of education and weak climate action would adversely affect its ranking.

Another soft power survey for 2021, by Monocle, ranks Germany and South Korea as first and second respectively.

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