In a campaign that has many scratching their heads, South Korea is convinced that it must match the efforts of companies such as Hyundai, LG and Samsung to promote its public identity. So it's taking part in an international ranking system to compete against other nations on first impressions of outsiders.
Early results are not encouraging. According to one recent Nation Brands Index, South Korea ranked 33rd among 50 nations -- behind countries that officials here whisper are lesser than their own, including Poland and the Czech Republic.
The United States ranked seventh. Germany was No. 1.
President Lee Myung-bak has formed a Presidential Council on Nation Branding and has announced the goal of moving to 15th place by 2013.
"Korea is the world's 13th-largest economy with some $20,000 in per capita income but ranks only 33rd in the global brand index," reporters here quoted Lee as saying. "This is a big problem."
Some find it refreshing that the nation cares about what others think about it. Others hint that it's a bit neurotic.
"Korea's problem is that it doesn't have an Eiffel Tower. Paris doesn't need a slogan -- it's Paris," said public relations executive Phillip Raskin, a branding committee advisor.
"Paris would be attractive even if its slogan was 'Go to hell.' In fact, it might actually be that."
... But the ambitious Lee wants to change that, introducing programs to promote the South Korean martial art tae kwon do and pitching the nation as an environmentally friendly "Green Korea." The centerpiece of his agenda is food. The government has announced a plan to globalize Korean cuisine, vowing to put it among the world's top five by 2017.
Every day, newspapers carry articles about image boosting: Should the nation build a robotics museum and compete with Japan in that emerging field? How about building some of the world's tallest skyscrapers, or opening a nude beach on a popular island?
The branding czar talks of a new volunteer program modeled after the U.S. Peace Corps and of "Rainbow Korea," a catchphrase for the nation's so-called expanding multiculturalism.
Perhaps South Korea should promote that they have the world's largest and best organized riots. Their amazing riots feature well-drilled protesters, with their color-coordinated cop-whacking sticks, and their myriad riot policeman in Orc-like gear. South Korean riot police are conscripts, so there is no shortage of them. As one reader explained to me, in most countries, the job of the riot police is to stop riots. In South Korea, in contrast, the job of the riot police is to confront the rioters and Do Battle.
P.J. O'Rourke once compared South Koreans to Northern Irishmen. The South Koreans don't have Northern Ireland's fundamental ethnic division, so their riots tend to be organized around more ad hoc pretexts, but what shines through is their mutual love of a good donnybrook.