Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Korean Cultural Center in Beijing at forefront of soft-power diplomacy

Hwang Jae-ho,

As we move through the 21st century, within each country's foreign policy, the use of soft power in public diplomacy  [JB emphasis] and cultural diplomacy has been held in great regard. 

The "power to reign in people's hearts," also known as "soft power," is the ability to shape the preferences of others without force or coercion. It is especially effective during exchange and cooperation between our nation and other countries with different cultures and systems. It also holds great significance for us when dealing with China, not only geographically our immediate neighbor but also an important influence on our economy and issues of reunification. 

The Korean Cultural Center, Beijing, is where cultural diplomacy and, possibly, public diplomacy is put into practice directly in China.

The director of this center is Han Jae-heuk. He also is minister counselor of the Korean Embassy in Beijing. He was former director-general for public information policy, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and consul at the Korean Consulate in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Hwang: What do you do at the Korean Cultural Center, Beijing?

Han: At the Korean Cultural Center, Beijing, our main job is to introduce Korean culture in China and promote cultural exchange between Korea and China. Immediately after Korea and China established diplomatic relations in 1993, the Korean Cultural Center, formerly known as the Korean Culture and Information Center, was founded on a smaller scale in a leased office floor in Beijing. Today, we are based in a freestanding office building with four stories and two underground levels, equipped with the most modern facilities and equipment in downtown Beijing. We run a variety of exhibitions, performance events and all kinds of class programs to introduce Korean culture.

The Korean Cultural Center in China

Hwang: Could you describe the programs more specifically?

Han: At the Sejong Institute, there are 20 classes that teach beginner and intermediate-level Korean language courses. We also offer 10 free Korean culture courses in Korean traditional dance, taekwondo, gayageum, Korean calligraphy, etc., to teach the local people about Korean culture. For popular classes such as cooking classes, online registration fills up in a matter of minutes. As we enter the third semester for this year, over 1,000 Chinese individuals have registered for classes, and for the past 10 years over 20,000 people have registered. As the center attracts international visitors, the open-minded middle class and younger generations who work in the city, we operate a wide range of programs to meet the needs of the mainstream.

During lunch break time, we offer Korean classes, culture classes and courses dedicated to K-pop and hallyu-style makeup. Along with hosting movie screenings every weekend, we invited famous directors and actors for post-screening discussions. Every month, through weekly Korean culture-related events, we've hosted traditional performances, indie bands and musical performances, classic performances and poetry readings. Moving away from offline promotions, every day we share news to our 30,000 members on Chinese multi-purpose messaging app Weixin and WeChat about exhibitions hosted at the culture center, along with news on Korean culture, arts and tourism.

A Korean cooking class at the center.

Hwang: Marking the 26th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and China, how is the current state of affairs between Korea and China in cultural, sports and tourism exchange?

Han: In a few weeks, August 24 will mark the 26th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and China. For the past 26 years, diplomatic relations between Korea and China have rapidly advanced with an unprecedented growth in diplomatic history. What served as the leading role was the cultural exchange between the two countries and its people. In the past, the people did not understand each other very well, but now, if you were to converse with most Chinese people living in cities, they are familiar with Korean cuisine such as kimchi, bibimbap and bulgogi, and would have heard of places such as Seoul and Jeju and dramas like "Jewels in the Palace."

Among the younger generation, we have met people who know more than us about K-pop, K-dramas and K-movies. Recently, even in Korea, in addition to learning about traditional Chinese culture, Chinese pop culture has drawn attention, with channels dedicated to Chinese dramas available to the public. Although two years ago relations between Korea and China faced difficulties and affected exchanges in the culture and tourism sector, we have seen gradual recovery after President Moon Jae-in's state visit to China last year. During the visit, the two heads of state enjoyed cultural performances from a world-class orchestra and artists from Korea and China, and experienced the harmony of Korea-China cultural exchange.

Hwang: Could you introduce your most recently held event?

Han: To mark the upcoming 26th anniversary, our biggest event was held this year in early July, with the Korean Embassy in China and the Gansu Provincial Government jointly hosting a large-scale Friendship Fair event. With an opportunity to host an event in Lanzhou, the culture center held a variety of performances in taekwondo, traditional dance, beatboxing and b-boying with up to 50 performers, and the center received great praise from the 4,000 locals who attended the event. By hosting a lecture with South Korean Ambassador Noh Young-min at Lanzhou University, and setting up tourism exhibitions of our highest-quality agricultural and marine products, cosmetics and hallyu-related products at the local trade show, our events kept pace with the China Western Development and Silk Road Development. Prior to this event, the local government and organizations in Harbin also held Korea-China culture exchange seminars and cultural arts performances.

A taekwondo performance

Hwang: What was the most rewarding experience of your career?

Han: Immediately after formally establishing diplomatic relations in 1992, it was the first time a South Korean president made an official Beijing-sponsored state visit to China. During this time, I remember the bright eyes of Chinese university students showing great interest in learning about Korea, and I also remember when I was first dispatched to work at the culture center and can visualize the faces of young students and the elderly participating in our newly opened Korean language courses. 

Though nowadays people in China are much more familiar with Korean movies, dramas and K-pop, dramas such as "What is Love" was broadcast nationwide on the CCTV network from 1997, and K-pop concerts, such as H.O.T performances, had only been picked up in the late 1990s. 

What's fun is that in some ways being the director of the culture center is being a salesman of our culture. Yet it is good to see the sales involve the depth and significance of our culture. From traditional music and dance to modern films, dramas, webtoons and cultural industries, to even Korean food and fashion, recognition of our artists in a variety of fields in culture, art and sports on a global scale has made me so  proud.  
Nowadays, we often meet the Chinese arts community while visiting local Korean restaurants, or at the center, eating and having traditional Korean tea and meals, taking the example of our own customs of sharing delicious food with our neighbors. When we meet, I introduce the high culture of Korea to China and am often told how happy and fun it is to enjoy time together.

Hwang: What do you most want to accomplish during your term in office?

Han: We intend to develop more integrated cultural events. At the end of last year, we held a city documentary screening and photo exhibitions, in addition to poetry recitals and folk song concerts featuring Jeju haenyeo (women divers). We received feedback that the attendees were deeply impressed with the various forms of culture that depicted the lives of haenyeo and the natural human environment of Jeju. 

At our folk painting exhibition, attendees learned how to draw, with folk art painters creating an interactive cultural experience. We want to use these types of participatory and integrated methods to expand our exhibitions and performance events. We also wish to expand on interactive cultural exchanges. For performance events, rather than using a one-sided approach in showcasing just our culture, we always include Chinese culture in the programs so that everyone can enjoy each other's culture. It is important to share and understand one another through this interactive approach.

To conclude, "soft-power diplomacy" is one country's diplomacy directed toward the people of other countries in contrast to traditional diplomacy, where one country's diplomacy is directed at the governments of other countries. If successfully pulled off, it is extremely urgent to secure the friendly sentiments of the people of other countries. These past few years, both Korea and China have had reservations due to the THAAD deployment issues. Soft-power diplomacy alone is not enough to quickly resolve doubts about each other and restore sincere relations. At the forefront of soft-power diplomacy, we look forward to the power and effect of the more active public and cultural diplomacy of the Korean Cultural Center.

Hwang Jae-ho is a director of the Global Security Cooperation Center, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul.

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