It’s been a big week for dog and pony shows, particularly in Yokohama and Seoul. As both cities wheeled out their best tricks for regional and global leaders – and international media – for the Apec and G20 summits, it was the Koreans who pulled out all the stops to show that Seoul is now a proper rival to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. Well, almost.

The morning I touched down in Seoul there was a small exercise in traffic management in effect at Gimpo airport as Hyundai pick-up trucks fixed with LED display screens circled the arrival and departure areas encouraging – yelling at – drivers to move on and keep the lanes free. On the highway into town there were similar vehicles blinking messages and every few minutes a motorcade would roar past with outriders, flashing lights, sirens and limos full of real or possibly decoy heads of state.

While I was only on the scene for the dress rehearsal, it was clear that Mayor Oh Se-hoon wanted to show the world that he has traffic under control and Seoul is a city that flows as easily as Singapore or Munich on a Sunday afternoon. For the 48 hours that I spent in the Korean capital last week, this was pretty much the case as there was little gridlock and it seemed that the city’s worst drivers must have been given an incentive to stay off the roads in the run-up to the G20. Perhaps for the first time since I started visiting the city I was able to fit in the same number of meetings I might be able to schedule in New York and everything ran (almost) to time.

Fluid traffic aside, the G20 also gave Mayor Oh an opportunity to continue his beautification programme for Seoul and one of the newest additions is a Geneva-style jet d’eau blasting out of the Han River as you approach from the west. Sellers of plastic sheeting and fibre-board cladding must also have been thrilled with the arrival of the leadership circus as it seemed most building and construction sites had been re-clad with all kinds of banners and billboards welcoming presidents and prime ministers and promoting Brand Korea.

Also, it seemed that commercial time on international TV news and business channels had been bought up by various Korean agencies flogging free-trade zones and hot springs; one presentation showed a western woman banging some sticks on a traditional instrument that seemed to suggest Korea is a musical place full of wonderful, lyrical traditions while the script was trying to make some vague link about collaborating and working together.

Korea wants, and deserves, its place at the top table and it is throwing billions of won at media agencies to get its messages out there. The problem is that it is messages rather than a single, focused message. It could be argued that a total brand statement for Korea will only come when the borders are thrown open and the country embarks on the long and painful road to reunification; in the meantime, South Korea needs to rein in other agencies and get the world to understand what it’s trying to say.

Despite all the legwork done by the likes of Samsung, Hyundai and LG to build a positive image for “made and designed in South Korea”, a recent report by one of the world’s leading credit card companies reveals that the country is at the bottom of tourism tables. When credit cardholders across Asia (and some other leading economies) were asked where they’d most like to go on vacation it was Australia and Japan that tied for first place with Korea hardly getting a look-in.

If Korea is looking for a bit of soft power to go with the hard then polishing up its brand image for tourism might be the best place to focus resources.

Where many countries have to build a lot of elements from scratch, the Koreans already have two solid airlines, excellent hotels in Seoul, fine restaurants, good nightlife; and friends and colleagues tell me that Korean golf courses and clubhouses are among the best in the world.

Having already mastered the art of marketing mobiles and creating wafer-thin flat-screens, perhaps the next thing Korean brands need to focus on is getting people to visit the country to enjoy its hospitality. Korean and Asiana airlines already have the route networks and fleets to bring in the visitors. The Shilla and the Park and Grand Hyatts are already some of the best hotels in Asia. And there’s the food culture. The problem is that it’s still not quite enough. Beautiful Jeju needs to build better international resorts. Taxis need to be more user-friendly for international visitors and locals alike. And there’s a lack of small, intimate, interesting hotels.

If Korea really wants to wave its flag around the world, the answer might be sitting in dry-dock down in the second city of Busan. As the world’s biggest shipbuilder, Korea should perhaps consider building a cruise line to rival the likes of Carnival and Crystal and take its soft-power act to the high seas: K-pop, karaoke and kimchi included.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

More columns at

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article


Comments have not been enabled for this article.