Thursday, 20 October 2011

South Korea: Proud to be a Middle Power…?

My plane landed in South Korea on the early morning of a cool autumn. This was my second trip to Seoul, something that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. The enjoyment of that first visit had been diminished by the grey clouds and chilling weather at the time. Therefore, I expected greater things to come this time around, as I took in the sight of the future-like roof of the Incheon Airport.

Throughout my week-long trip there, I began to identify the spirit that South Koreans are growingly projecting to the rest of the world, including to Indonesia. I will write more on many aspect of this (including on the phenomena of Hallyu in the country’s soft power diplomacy) in future blog entries.

However, let me first start with an early observation of South Korea’s image, based largely on my earlier perceptions of Korea and its people. Mind you, these perceptions have been further shaped by only a few days of people-watching, museum-sighting, and official meetings in Seoul. Some questions were asked, some were responded with breadth. Therefore, any err produced in my observation is simply for lack of time, and not necessarily, understanding.

For many Indonesians, our image of South Korea is somewhat incomplete. Historians may choose to focus on the Korean War and talk of Korea as if it has not evolved from its status as an ex-Japanese colony or an American satellite. Food connoisseurs would often highlight too much on the kimchi, its variants and compliments. On a Sunday in Jakarta, Korean food is just another option among the possible restaurants visited for lunch.

And of course, for young Indonesians, Korea is K-Pop, and K-Pop is Korea. Nothing less, and nothing else.

This is how Indonesians often prefer to view South Korea; through our respective perspectives and lenses. We know bits and pieces, but we sometimes don’t connect them all up. Indonesians like me rarely soak up on the many images of Korea to make up a whole image of the country and its people. As such, we often never regard South Korea for its truer potential. We often fail to measure the extent of Korea’s strength in today’s globalized world.

And therefore, when Indonesians talk about strategic partnerships, we usually identify the United States, China, Japan or the EU. South Korea often falls below the radar of what we deem as greatness.

Just like Samsung’s Galaxy is often considered a less preferred option to Apple’s iPad and iPhone, Hyundais are often easily regarded as more economical option to the Japanese Toyotas, Hondas, and Suzukis. K-Pop is a lot of fun, but self-professed musicians continue to identify America’s music as their main reference. And Park Ji-Sung is a damn good player, but not among the greats.

Therefore, even though many things from South Korea are actually gaining global attention, we in Indonesia prefer to regard them as of secondary level or even quality. As such, South Korea and its global projections are often not seen as a threat, let alone a contender in toppling the dominance of traditional Great Powers. In other words, we don’t see South Korea the way some of us like to judge Red China or Capitalist America.

The more I thought about it, and the more I saw it on the streets of Seoul, it then occurred to me… That’s just it!

South Korea is rising… True.

South Korea is gaining global recognition… True.

South Korea is a power-in-the-making… Nope.

The country does not seem to project aspirations for great powerness. If anything, it appears that South Korea is simply aiming at that status I like to refer to as, the middle power. It is apparent that South Korea wants to progress. It wants to be recognized. It wants to matter. But it certainly does not seem that it bares intentions of great power status. Instead, it allows such status to be left for countries like the United States and maybe the Koreans’ Big Red Neighbor.

I remember when I wrote the Jakarta Post article on KIA (Korea Indonesia Australia) as the new middle powers, some of my Korean friends said: “Hey, that’s what we are: a bona fide middle power”.

A ‘bona fide’ middle power… I proposed that idea to a few Indonesian friends of mine and they sneered at me for wanting to be mediocre. “Nobody dreams to be a middle power; everybody wants to be great”, they said.

Well, I am beginning to find that South Korea seems to be fine with this… And actually doing quite well at it.

Some Koreans reading this blog may want to correct me on this; but that just seems to be the feeling that I get.

While we take jabs at things coming out from South Korea, claiming that they are perennially “second best”, I have this feeling that many Koreans don’t mind this at all. They know that whatever they produce is actually good. And they are showing this by making preferences to Korean brands in their daily lives.

Although iPhones are all around, I saw more people using Samsung phones and tabs, the rich and the middle class. While Benz and BMWs could be seen, there’s visibly an ocean of Hyundais and KIAs running along Seoul’s thoroughfares. I looked at the hotel’s TV, and sure enough, it’s an LG.

And although my interpreter confessed to liking Mariah Carey, K-Pop artists are in your face everywhere you go; on TV, on billboards, and even on the keychain of a taxi driver. The humongous crowd lining up outside the Lotte Department Store to meet one of these K-Pop artists (I couldn’t discern which one, they all appear the same to me) is an even truer testimony of K-Pop’s influence on the society, young and old.

POSCO is Asia’s most profitable steel company, and yet I was informed of this only when visiting the company. The Koreans are proud of this, I’m sure; but it just seems that their sense of pride is not so overwhelming that it becomes cockiness. I’ve yet to read an article fearing South Korea’s overconfidence; the same cannot be said of China’s image in the eyes of South China Sea observers.

South Koreans don’t go around pretending that anything Korean is the best in the world. Yet, they are comfortable with embracing them in their every day lives. It maybe has to do with being nationalistic about their local products. It maybe also has to do with the government’s protection and promotion of local products. But at the end of the day, what I see is a society fully behind the country, even if the country’s aim is not to usurp the present global balance of power.

A country comfortable at being a middle power, and making the best of its status as such.

This is something that we, as Indonesians, should start to learn about.

Indonesians often reminisce about our past glories as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement or the lead architect of Asia-African cooperation. Well, I say those days are nearing an end. In a globalized world as today, we can only dream about being one of the international community’s great leaders. That mantle is being carried by others; we can’t simply take it over. But as a ‘bona fide’ middle power, we may be able to play a certain role, and instigate that difference we want to make to the world.


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