The Korean government yesterday set in motion an ambitious project to raise the international profile of the country, whose image abroad lags painfully behind its achievement in economics, democracy and diplomatic clout.
"Korea's national brand is seriously weak and the country's image does not compare with its national power. This is one of the tasks that the nation should address most urgently, as it strives to leap into the ranks of the world's most advanced countries", said Euh Yoon-dae, chairman of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding, which was formally launched yesterday.
The 47-member panel will advise President Lee Myung-bak on measures aimed at reinforcing Korea's reputation and "soft power" in the international community.
In an interview with The Korea Herald, he stressed the need of "strategic and creative thinking" in improving the image of the nation.
"We should break the mold in thinking about national image, which we usually associate only with culture and history. We have Samsung mobile phones, LG TVs, the unrivalled archery team, and many other things that are the world's best", the renowned educational reformer said.
The former president of Korea University is credited with significantly improving quality of education and efficiency in school administration. He also stabilized finance of the private university by inducing corporate investment.
His efforts helped the school rank top among Asian private universities in 2006 in a survey of the Times in London.
The university is also regarded as one of the most globalized universities in Korea in terms of faculty, students and curriculum.
"When it comes to this job, we should stop viewing Korea in the way Koreans view it. We need a more open and global mindset in thinking about what will best represent Korea", he added.
The council consists of 16 top government officials and 31 private sector members including businessmen, scholars, lawyers, marketing experts and a popular musician.
The extensive presence of private experts reflects the very nature of the work, which should be backed by heightened awareness of the public and active involvement by companies, civil society and citizens, the chairman said.
In 2002, the government established an organization headed by the prime minister to boost the national image. But the body failed to function properly, convening only once in a year.
Despite the world's fastest growth and democratization, Korea's image abroad failed to keep up with such achievements, resulting in what is widely called the "Korea Discount".
Though on the wane, corruption, militant labor activism, narrow-minded nationalism, and opaque corporate governance remain fixed images of Korea to many outsiders.
President Lee recently deplored the deteriorating national brand value due to confrontational politics, street protests and North Korea's nuclear threat.
The popularity of Korea's songs, dramas and films has dramatically helped the nation polish its image, but these sources have recently begun to fade.
The country's brand value is estimated at less than 30 percent of its gross domestic product in 2007, while the United States was viewed to be worth 143 percent of its total GDP and Japan 224 percent, according to a survey by Simon Anhold, a nation branding authority in the United Kingdom.
"Sadly, our country's brand value is 1/50 of that of Japan", Lee said in a recent biweekly radio address. "Moreover, it is even less than that of private businesses such as Samsung or Hyundai".
With an annual budget of 8 billion won ($5.8 million), the council consists of five teams dealing with international cooperation, corporate and information technology, culture and tourism, the global community and overall coordination. A 19-member working-level body will assist the panel.
By Hwang Jang-jin