Leveraging Cultural Exports for Resilience: Insights from Taiwan and South Korea

Written by Tommy Hall and Margaret Siu.

Image credit: 人選之人—造浪者 Wave Makers/ Facebook.

Global discussions about Taiwan often focus on an invasion scenario, and many observers wonder if Taiwan is adequately preparing for war. These discussions often dissect Taiwan’s hard power—military and economic factors that may dissuade Beijing. However, soft power is crucial in conflicts between imbalanced parties. Current discussion would benefit from diversifying outside hard power calculations and examining Taiwan’s soft power. Taiwan should apply lessons from South Korea’s model to bolster its ability to co-opt global support. Describing Taiwan’s soft power vision and comparing both nations’ top-down cultural promotion efforts is helpful.

Joseph Nye envisioned soft power as a seductive force that states wield by leveraging culture, political values, and foreign policy. Of the three, Taiwanese officials believe that its democratic values and culture are paramount. Much like the rest of its external relations, Taiwan’s cultivation and utilisation of soft power is primarily defensive, focusing on ramifications for cross-strait relations and ensuring continued U.S. support to counter or prevent Beijing’s pressure. As such, Taiwan has already established itself as a champion of democracy, proving that Chinese cultural roots are not antithetical to promoting social and political rights. However, Taiwanese policymakers should further develop the cultural aspects of soft power because promoting democracy alone may not convince Western citizens to sacrifice blood or treasure for Taiwan—as the Afghanistan withdrawal indicates. Unfortunately, Taiwan faces challenges promoting its culture due to internal identity schisms and policymakers’ competing priorities. Some may argue that it is important to resolve these identity issues before supporting efforts to project Taiwan’s culture abroad, but increased exposure to the international community, coupled with increased dialogue in the arts and academia, outweighs the risks of promoting an “incomplete” image of Taiwanese society. In fact, stimulating these discussions could be the first step to resolving lingering identity and transformational justice issues. South Korea’s model may not resolve Taiwan’s identity crisis, but it does offer a policy roadmap.

Taiwan trails South Korea’s soft power, with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy ranking Taiwan as fifth, behind South Korea at second and China at fourth, in its Asia Soft Power 10 rankings. Since rankings are often subjective, examining recent history and statistics will help illuminate Taiwan’s positionality. Although the 2019 Burning Sun Scandal damaged South Korea’s cultural clout, it has shown resilience by diversifying into the global market with award-winning movies and television series: Parasite and Squid Game. In contrast, Taiwan lacks global household names in entertainment and the arts, as evidenced by South Korea’s film market being estimated at $2.2 billion in 2019, compared to Taiwan’s $261 million box office. In addition, South Korea’s K-Pop industry has recovered from scandals, hitting consecutive highs in album exports: $220 million in 2021 and $233 million in 2022. Despite peaking at $400 million in 1996, Taiwan’s music industry fell to under $100 million in 2010 and has continued declining.

Although some may doubt top-down approaches due to fears of conflicting interests and government intervention stifling organic creativity, South Korea’s government policies aimed at promoting its cultural industries have proven effective. These policies include tax breaks for major players, funding for Korean Studies, and embassy-facilitated performances. The return on these investments is evident in recent successes in South Korea’s cultural industries: BTS topped the Billboard 100, Parasite won an Oscar, and Squid Game’s HoYeon Jung became the first Asian actress to overtake Vogue’s cover. With information warfare’s increasing importance, it is notable that South Korea’s cultural capital has outmatched even Beijing’s desire to cancel celebrities for not conforming. Notably, backlash from the “BTS Army” forced the Global Times to delete criticism against the group, bolstering experts’ suggestions that fandom power can translate into radical politics favouring the origin country. These top-down efforts can also impact broader spheres of society.

In academia, the Korea Foundation exemplifies government efforts to promote South Korean culture and bolster public diplomacy through a variety of initiatives, including 70 annual research and language fellowships. Even more effective is its ability to secure partnerships for universities to permanently integrate Korean Studies professors into their faculty. Supporting Korean culture’s transnational appeal has helped the government cultivate sustainable academic interest in Korean Studies, as shown by an explosion of students studying Korean. In 2016, 14,000 U.S. students were learning Korean, compared to 163 in the 1990s. Furthermore, the U.S. Modern Language Association noted that Korean saw an increased enrolment of 95% between 2006 and 2016, in comparison to a 3.3% increase in students learning Chinese. These students may go on to be military officers, academics, business leaders, and diplomats that help shape U.S. policy towards South Korea. In short, South Korea prioritised its soft power investments and now sees dividends that Taiwan longs for in public diplomacy.

Taiwan is facing an excellent window to apply these lessons but has thus far fallen short. South Korea’s success on international streaming platforms has paved the way for Western consumption of East Asian entertainment. As Brian Hioe stated, President Tsai has acknowledged that Taiwan’s film industry could learn from South Korea, but the policy has not matched the rhetoric. The younger generation, more invested in Taiwan’s contemporary culture and less identified by its Chinese roots, should be primary recruitment targets to re-imagine government support for Taiwan’s cultural industries. Taiwan has previously shown a willingness to follow South Korea’s model, with tax incentives, funding, and subsidies for cultural industries accompanying the 2010 Development of the Cultural and Creative Industries Act (DCCIA). However, public, and private investment has stagnated since that original push. In 2019, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture established the Taiwan Creative Content Agency, which has collaborated with Netflix to enter global markets. Although these efforts show promise, they have yet to produce results. Taiwanese productions rarely reach Netflix’s Top 10 (12 out of 66 total productions). When they do, they often fade more quickly than even lesser-known South Korean productions.

Another act, like the DCCIA, might empower the Taiwanese entertainment industry to take creative risks with new talent and present-day storylines. “Wave Makers” serves as a model, living up to its title by climbing hundreds of positions up IMBd rankings. This series has garnered praise from critics, with some directly remarking that it outclasses the thematically similar South Korean series: “Queenmaker.” The success of “Wave Makers” may partly lie in its relatively young cast, starring Gen Z actresses Gingle Wang and Buffy Chen. Its focus on contemporary social issues in Taiwan may make the island more relatable to global audiences that navigate LGBTQ+ rights, environmentalism, and sexual violence in their countries’ social movements and politics.  

Emboldening the field of Taiwan Studies should be another key target for Taiwanese policymakers. With many academics believing that Taiwan Studies has “escaped death” and instead entered a “Golden Age,” it is the right moment for Taiwan to revise how it funds these programmes. Short-term and fragmented funding models (typically one-to-three-years) should be replaced by strategies that ensure faculty institutionalisation as South Korea has done—with great success in securing tenure and permanent positions. With many citing low student interest as an obstacle, a Taiwanese culture wave would likely spill over into academia, as South Korea’s trajectory also suggests. After implementing changes, Taiwan would require a robust informal support system to combat its isolation. Only then can Taiwan begin attracting more academics, businesses, and tourists.

In conclusion, Taiwan should prioritise its cultural industries and learn from South Korea. A winning strategy involves recruiting the right talent, providing monetary incentives for cultural industries, and sustainably funding Taiwan Studies programmes. Yet, these solutions are not a panacea for solving Taiwan’s soft power deficit. John Mearsheimer once stated that Taiwan could not depend on U.S. security guarantees because South Korea and Japan are more vital for U.S. credibility in East Asia. For Taiwan to prove Mearsheimer wrong, it must close the soft power gap and convince the world it is worth supporting.

All views expressed here are those of the authors alone and not the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Tommy Hall graduated from West Point with a B.Sc. in Foreign Languages: Chinese. He is a Marshall Scholar, currently reading for an M.A. in Chinese Studies at SOAS, University of London. Next year, he will read for an M.St. in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Oxford. Additionally, Tommy is the founder of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies’ Human Rights Initiative. His work has previously been published in the Army Cyber Institute’s Cyber Defense Review.

Margaret Siu is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School, where she chairs the Harvard Trade Forum and studies US-Chinese-Taiwanese economic statecraft. As a Marshall Scholar, she earned her M.Sc. degrees from the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is on the executive board of the Harvard International Law Journal, the board of advisors for the Oxford Silk Road Society, and is the founder of Apricity Magazine, an international arts magazine. She previously researched for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s