WorldPeople & Culture

The $40 Million Bet That Made South Korea a Food and Cultural Power

Whether you’ve flipped sizzling beef over a Korean barbecue, crunched down on a tangy piece of kimchi, or basked in the warm steam wafting off a bibimbap bowl, the experience is captivating.  What you might not know, though, is that your meal likely came with a heaping side of government funds. In 2009, the South Korean government launched the $40m Korean Cuisine to the World campaign with the goal of improving South Korea’s global reputation through its food.  

In the years to come, the government would spend millions of dollars opening Korean restaurants abroad, developing and standardizing recipes, and working to make South Korea a culinary destination for international tourists. But can food really help elevate a country’s reputation? And how much further can South Korea push its food campaigns?  

Gastrodiplomacy, a term first coined by The Economist in 2002, happens when governments try to increase the value and knowledge of their nation through food. Though the term was born in the 21st century, the tactic can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans inviting their adversaries to the table to break bread, drink wine, and settle arguments. 

Much later, President Richard Nixon’s attempt at using chopsticks in China led to a rise in Peking Ducks on American menus, while a dessert served in a shoe during a meal between Israeli and Japanese prime ministers caused an uproar. Those friendlier aspects of a nation’s culture can be a welcome reprieve from the usual, more forceful tactics countries use to gain power, such as military or political agendas. 

Reaching people in this way is known as “soft power,” or a country’s ability to accomplish its goals through positive attraction rather than through exerting force. Rather than coming directly from government actors, it’s born from their collaboration with cultural sectors. 

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