Education,  Geopolitics,  Growth Challenges

North East Asia’s “Waterloo” in Gangnam

In 1974 the first Swedish pop band hit the English language Billboard Hit 100 with a cover of “Hooked on a Feeling”, by Blue Swede. The same year, ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with their hit ‘Waterloo’. The band would go on to produce 18 consecutive top ten hits in the UK alone.

Alongside these and multiple other pop stars since, Sweden is unique for its extraordinary industrial prowess in the likes of Ikea, Ericsson, Volvo, Saab, Tetra Pak, Electrolux, Securitas, Akzo Nobel, H&M, Scania, ABB and Atlas Copco. Sweden’s famed gender equality policies have also elevated its women to one of the world’s most equal status with men, while its middle power diplomacy has seen Swedes head numerous UN agencies, including the second ever Secretary General, Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold. From pop, to industrial giants to political affairs, Sweden, a nation of fewer than 10 million persons played an arguably disproportionate role in positively pushing the global frontier across the second half of the 20th century.

Fast-forward to December 2012, and the end without disaster of the Mayan calendar happened to coincide with the first ever billion Youtube viewings for a single clip (and this even without the chance for no doubt millions of Chinese fans to add to that tally given that Youtube is blocked on the mainland). The rise of the world’s first global pop star from East Asia, K-pop star Psy from South Korea will be marked at the historical New Year’s eve performance in Times Square next week. As with ABBA’s victory in England in 1974 with ‘Waterloo’, might this be the ‘Waterloo’ of north East Asia’s big power soft power rivalry? The consensus might parodically lie in the middle ground, in infamously posturing Gangnam.

Other signs of a ‘Waterloo’ toned turning point for South Korea are the recent election of the country’s first female President, Park Guen-hye. With neither Japan nor China – nor even Sweden – having managed this feat as yet. China’s new Politburo Standing Committee in fact has not a single female member. Promising distance from her father’s autocratic leadership history and more proactive outreach to North Korea, President Park will expectedly, directly and indirectly, blaze a trail in the region.

Where the prominence of South Korea’s new leader may be helped by the novelty of her being the first female to hold the position, South Koreans on the international stage have also stolen a lead on their East Asian neighbours. In 2007 Ban Kimoon, South Korea’s now former Foreign Minister was the international choice for ‘Asia’s turn’ in serving as UN Secretary General. In 2012 US President Obama appointed Jim Yong Kim, a Korean American to the Presidency of the World Bank. Born in South Korea in 1959, President Kim’s family immigrated to America when he was age five. A country of 50mn that was until recently synonymous with war in the mindset of many around the world suddenly lies at the heart of global soft power.

And it seems it’s not just on pop channels and at the UN that North East Asia’s middle ground is finding its feet. Its industrial giants are too, with Samsung, Hyundai and LG already household names. Lesser known are names such as Posco, the world’s 3rd largest steel manufacturer, and nuclear energy industry giant Korea Electric Power. While Korea itself remains divided, the peninsula’s bridging skills to the rest of the world rather appear to be rising – a trend arguably only hastened by the awesome success of Psy, rather than set by it.

At the education level, all across China, South Korean students furthermore dominate the rank and file of international students. Their cultural affinity with Chinese students and related ease of learning and using Chinese (rather than being expected to speak English for example), and their vast numbers give them almost a mafia presence among foreign and Chinese students alike. Foreign students needing advice from a fellow foreign student need look no further one of their Korean classmates, whom are guaranteed to already be familiar with the process, or at least to know whom to ask.  

And so, as East Asia eases back deeper into the global psyche with help from Psy and in ways different to those of the 20th century, it seems it’s not just the larger powers that write that story. Rather, K-pop, Samsung, and Korea’s political leaders and its international students are also sharing that path, the heart of which will ultimately lie in a new era of North-South relations – arguably and hopefully within and beyond the Korean peninsula. As the song goes “Waterloo, couldn’t escape if I wanted to; Waterloo, knowing my fate is to be with you”.

If you meantime are thinking about studying for a degree in China, especially one taught in Chinese, and therein find yourself in the Middle and in the middle, rather than face your academic Waterloo, turn to Gangnam in transiting worlds, in universities across China.


Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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