Gangnam Style! What is PSY doing for South Korea

PSY said that he doesn’t like the responsibility of being a cultural ambassador for South Korea. PSY was also praised by the UN’s Ban Ki-moon. But on the other hand he is just a pop singer, though super popular one. So is he somebody who is a real cultural ambassador for South Korea what does he tell the world about South Korea then?


Sung-Yoon LeeKim Koo-Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Korean Studies, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

1. Psy is a talented performer, a very good dancer. But he is not a naturally gifted singer, and is also in his mid-30s. And even in South Korea, he was not a superstar. But “Kangnam Style” took the right tone–comic, colorful, satirical, upbeat, and easy-to-follow rhythm, melody, and dance moves embodied in an overweight, older male singer who performs with joyous abandon. While the song itself is not innovative, the combination of all these factors does make the song quite creative. But, I believe it will be exceedingly difficult for Psy to have continued success in the future due to his limitations–age, limited artistic creativity and singing capability, English language skills, etc.

2. At the same time, Psy, more than any other Korean entertainer or artist, has put South Korea on the map. And he has achieved this without the kind of creativity-stifling government sponsored programs and formulaic pop-artist training regimen. In short, Psy’s worldwide popularity was unexpected and spontaneous, the fruit of Psy’s talents alone. For a country quite obsessed with its national image abroad, Psy has done far more to enhance South Korea’s image than internationally famous Koreans like UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Unification Church founder Moon Sun-Myung, Olympic champion figure skater Kim Yu-na, and, of course, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Hence, Psy indeed is an inadvertent cultural ambassador for South Korea.

James Hoare, Former British Chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, former President of British Association of Korean Studies

As I understand it, until recently Psy was often in trouble with the ROK authorities because of life style issues –drugs etc. But having had his successful hit, the ROK government wishes to latch onto it, to increase the international impact of the ROK. Fine – we had Cool Britannia here under the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, which was an attempt at much the same thing, to capitalize on the success of a singer, artist or whatever, to persuade people outside the country that this is something that matters. The trouble is, it seems to me, is that Psy’s masterpiece, ‘Kangnam Style’ does not really represent the ROK. It is essentially an American-derived genre, hung about with pictures from the ROK but which does not convey much to the non-Korean watcher or listener. It could be Japanese or Chinese equally as well as Korean. Psy is South Korean but what he portrays could be anywhere.

Gi-Wook Shin, Professor, Department of Sociology, Stanford University

Yes, he has raised a “branding power” of Korea.  While Korea has become an economic power house (a top ten country in the world), it is still behind comparable nations in its cultural power.  In this context, his case shows that Korean cultural power is on the rise as well–typically cultural capital follows economic one.

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