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South Korea Creates Council to Help Improve Image Overseas


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Some South Koreans think their nation has an image problem. While it ranks as one of the world's top economies, international surveys show that South Korea's brand value - how others perceive the country - is low. Now the government is trying to improve its reputation abroad.

A television ad airing all over East Asia is aimed at luring tourists to South Korea. It showcases both traditional and modern glimpses of the country and ends with a catchphrase.

But sparkling is not always the image of South Korea that is shown in international media.

Like in the summer of 2008, when demonstrations against American beef imports made the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Image change

Lee Chan-boum aims to change that image.

"If these are the only images of Korea being seen around the world, yes, I think that, that may negatively affect the image of Korea," he said.

Lee is the director general of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding, tasked with enhancing South Korea's prestige abroad.

The council has taken recommendations from Simon Anholt, an international consultant on brand value and advisor who coined the phrase "nation brand".

"The nation's brand is basically its image, its reputation," explained Anholt. "Whether you are talking about getting tourists, or getting investors, or getting talent or getting respect, attention, and so forth. The way your country is perceived is just as important as the way it really is. And often there is a big gap between the two and South Korea is a good example of that."

Brand value

To help determine what a country's brand value is, Anholt created the Nation Brands Index, a survey that ranks 50 countries on how they are perceived overseas. South Korea comes in 31st.

Anholt says effect of poor images is that nations cannot command high prices for their products. And for South Korea, where exports are the backbone of the economy, being well regarded abroad is all the more important.

But some foreigners living here say one factor that hurt's South Korea's reputation is the difficulty many international companies have doing business here. Some say public sentiment is often manipulated by those with protectionist or other political agendas.

The North Korea factor

Tom Coyner is president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.

"If the image of the company is not satisfactorily strong in the public sentiment's mind it's easy for agents to whip up community outrage through the Internet through e mail, what have you, so the newspapers pick it up and say the foreign company is out to take advantage of Korea," Coyner said.

Another difficulty for democratic South Korea's global image is that it is often overshadowed by North Korea, one of the most repressive governments in the world.

Consultant Anholt calls it a serious problem.

"Whenever Korea is mentioned, whether you say South Korea, Korea, or Republic of Korea, unfortunately, their more famous neighbor plays into that one way or another," Anholt said. "According to my research, people actually are not sure of the difference between South and North Korea. And that's part of the reason why South Korea scores badly in the index."

Creating a positive image

Anholt points out that South Korea has succeeded in creating a positive image with its films, television shows and music, which are highly acclaimed throughout East Asia.

He says if South Koreans want to really boost their global profile, they need to make greater contributions to international causes, such as poverty reduction or climate change.

And that is one area where Lee at the Branding thinks South Korea can show strong leadership.

"Fifty years ago, Korea used to be one of the poorest countries in the world," Lee said. "Today, Korea is not a poor country anymore. It's made the successful transition to a highly industrialized, democratic country. So when we extend our assistance to those countries that are still developing, we have a unique perspective that says we know what you are going through, we have been there before too."

The Seoul government has recently consolidated several agencies to train young adults to do volunteer work in developing countries.

And last month, President Lee Myung-bak pledged tens of millions of dollars in development aid to Vietnam and Cambodia.

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