It may have been a long time coming, but a South Korean president has finally made a state visit to Iran. On May 1, 2016, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye visited Tehran and met with President Rouhani and even Supreme Leader Khamenei. With the Iran nuclear “framework” deal forged in 2015 and the lifting of international sanctions, an opportunity has emerged for South Korea to not only develop economic relations but also further political ties. Yet the common perception in South Korea is that the visit was mainly to impress a domestic audience by presenting the economic benefits from the trip. It is notable in this regard that the South Korean delegation to Iran included a number of business leaders. Furthermore, the Park administration placed strong emphasis on the point that dozens of trade agreements were signed during the visit.
The temptation then is to sit back and let trade flourish without investing any real political capital into enhancing bilateral relations. This would be a mistake. South Korea-Iran relations should be given more priority than just simply treated as a political gambit to improve the Park administration’s domestic approval ratings. The danger is that this diplomatic opening could all be forgotten about by the current administration as other pressing matters arise. Alongside this, Park’s domestic critics, who have challenged the economic benefits from the trip, tend to overlook the diplomatic opportunities. To avoid such pitfalls, the focus should be on enhancing and sustaining the relationship so that it does not go back to the level of downgraded ties. The economic rewards for South Korea are important as has been highlighted elsewhere, but consideration also needs to be on its strategic interests that can be achieved by forging stronger ties with Iran. This will need to go beyond the lip service paid during the summit. To make relations more sustainable for the future it will require systemic and dedicated efforts.
Before exploring the right approach for the future, it is important to ask: what are the strategic interests for South Korea in forging closer ties with Iran? Simply, courting Iran would be a big boost toward strengthening the international sanctions regime against North Korea. Outside of China, the next most important country that North Korea can rely upon is Iran due to the reciprocal nature of the security relationship that has evolved since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Currently there are three areas that Seoul will need to focus on in terms of seeking Tehran’s support for enforcing sanctions against North Korea. The first is preventing further missile cooperation with Pyongyang, the second is halting arms imports, and the third is restricting North Korean state trading companies access to financial markets in Iran. These three concerns are the core components of the Iranian-North Korea security relationship that weakens the sanctions regime and keeps counter-proliferation officials in Seoul, Washington, and beyond awake at night.
Are these objectives realistic to pursue? Some may argue that it will be a difficult challenge to address these concerns directly with Tehran, however there is reason to believe that progress can be made on security-related issues. For example, it was interesting to note that during Park’s trip, Iranian President Rouhani stated that “we want changes on the Korean Peninsula and we are, in principal, opposed to any nuclear development.” Emphasising this comment, nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea which has long been of great concern has evidently come to a halt. It will be imperative for the international community to ensure that this does not resume again in the future and Seoul can play a positive role in this regard.
The viewpoint that South Korea cannot influence Iran’s political choices also overlooks the way in which diplomatic relationships evolve over time as each side becomes more dependent on the other. The key is to make Iran value its relationship with South Korea to the extent that it will not endanger it by engaging in illicit activities with North Korea. Besides, by boosting ties with Iran, Seoul can present an example to the North Korean leadership on the rewards to be gained from giving up its nuclear program. With such potential strategic benefits, it is crucial that the Park administration does not let this opportunity slip away as it becomes preoccupied with other concerns.
Still, pursuing active relations with Iran will certainly be a challenge for South Korea due to two main factors. Firstly, it has been noted that South Korea’s diplomacy is relatively weak compared to its economic and military power. This is particularly the case outside of the East Asia region where its diplomatic reach is more limited. Secondly, engaging in direct political statecraft with Iran can present additional challenges related to the complex regional dynamics of the Middle East, such as the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Israel’s own security concerns. South Korea does not want to end up in a position where it has to choose sides.
Given these narrow diplomatic confines and recognizing the strategic interests of Iran, what can be done by Seoul to strengthen bilateral ties for the future? Trade is obviously important. The infrastructure projects that have been muted during Park’s trip can establish a long-term commitment between the two countries. However, given its diplomatic deficit and difficult regional dynamics, a less intrusive way exists for South Korea to enhance relations with Iran: soft power.
Soft power is not a new area for South Korea in pursuing its diplomacy abroad. Joseph Nye has previously discussed the potential for South Korean soft power to support its efforts to become a global player. Regionally, South Korea’s soft power has had a positive reception with its neighbours China and Japan which could translate into Seoul seeking out a balancer role between the two despite tough regional dynamics. At the same time, the government has recognized this to a certain extent as seen with the previous administration’s “Global Korea” approach. However, this policy was more limited to the hosting of a few international forums like the G20, rather than as a structured approach to achieve diplomatic objectives.
In general, we can see that South Korea possesses some advantage in its soft power and the government is slowly recognizing this as it hopes to play a more global role, particularly in areas where its diplomatic reach is limited. Thus it will be prudent for the Park administration to build on the success of the summit in Tehran and recognize the benefits of its soft power in order to strengthen future ties. The first stage will be to understand the ways in which its soft power has emerged in Iran and its linkage with Hallyu or the Korean wave.
It is widely recognized that South Korea’s soft power has come hand in hand with Hallyu which is the rising popularity of Korean cultural products around the world ranging from dramas to pop music. Iran has not been immune to this global trend. Korean dramas have reportedly been popular in the country, notably historical ones. This began with Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace whose sixty episodes were broadcasted on state TV in 2007 and earned impressive viewing figures of around 90 percent. While it can be difficult to measure directly, the popularity of Korean dramas certainly enhances Korea’s brand and Iranian interest in its products. For example, due to the popularity of the actress Lee Young-ae from Jewel in the Palace, young Iranians have sought out Korean cosmetics and fashion items. South Korean businesses operating in Iran have taken advantage of this. LG Electronics invited Song Il-gook, actor of another popular Korean drama Jumong, to meet with Iranian fans in 2009. Evidently, the reception he received highlighted the popularity of such dramas.
This has not been an isolated case in Iran, similar trends have been witnessed across the world. Much of this is down to the business strategies used by South Korean entertainment companies that have allowed them to enjoy great success and popularity among various countries around the world. It is important that the South Korean government recognizes the growth of Hallyu in Iran as a way to enhance its national reputation and thus form the bedrock for deeper relations. However, applying the right policies to sustain these trends is a more difficult and delicate challenge. As with any government, the temptation would be to play a more active role in diffusing South Korean popular culture in the target country. This though would be counterproductive as past state-driven efforts to promote Hallyu have not always succeeded.
Rather indirect policies designed to facilitate the growth of Hallyu around the world would be more effective. These would be efforts that recognize the ways in which it came to be a success in the first place. For example, digitization and loose copyrights were crucial ingredients that allowed Hallyu to reach audiences beyond South Korea. Looking ahead, the South Korean government can boost its nation’s soft power through two ways. First, at home it can support Hallyu by avoiding domestic policies that might stifle its growth and popularity, such as restrictive copyrights. Second, abroad it can facilitate opportunities for South Korean TV broadcasters to gain greater access to the Iranian market. Furthermore, recognizing the importance of digital contents, it could even help upgrade Iran’s internet infrastructure that would allow users easier access to South Korean dramas and other cultural products.
President Park may have achieved some positive feedback domestically following the trip, but this will only be a short-term achievement. Looking beyond the initial achievements of the visit, the administration will benefit greatly from facilitating the growth of soft power as led by Hallyu which will enhance South Korea’s national brand in Iran and then place it in a stronger position to pursue its strategic interests related to North Korea.
Are there any lessons that can extrapolated from this example for other countries, particularly in Europe who are similarly seeking to rebuild ties with Iran following the lifting of sanctions? In a similar way soft power can benefit relations between the EU and Iran. Given the challenges of maintaining diplomacy with Iran amidst complex regional dynamics (Saudi Arabia and Israel), soft power can work in the areas that traditional sources of power cannot and crucially can reinforce them. To this end, learning from the success of Hallyu can be crucial for European cultural products to gain a foothold.
“This work was supported by Laboratory Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of Republic of Korea and Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2015-LAB-2250003).”