Indonesia’s Soft Power Diplomacy in South Korea

Actor Chicco Jerikho (left) recently starred in a mini-K-drama, alongside Kim Sejeong (center) and Ahn Hyo Seop (right). Credit: @realfoodjellyid/Instagram.


The bilateral relations between Indonesia and South Korea have notably developed in the past few years.

For one, the Indonesia-South Korea relations was upgraded into Special Strategic Partnership in 2017 under the augur of the New Southern Policy, championed by former President Moon Jae-in. This upgrade resulted in an increase of South Korea’s investment into Indonesia.

More recently, the Indonesia-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IK-CEPA) was concluded in 2020 and officially entered into force on the first day of 2023. The agreement is expected to accelerate South Korea’s investment in Indonesia to 15,59% on average by its fifth year.

The sitting President Yoon Suk Yeol has also displayed a positive disposition towards Indonesia. President Yoon organized a state dinner during President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s visit in July 2022 that included prominent individuals such as Shin Tae-yong, the coach of Indonesia’s football team, as well as chairmen of Hyundai Motor and LG Group.

The bilateral relations is in its 50th year in 2023, a cause for celebration, and Indonesia seems to have grabbed on this opportunity to foment the relationship stronger. This is reflected in the cultural, economic and entertainment sectors. 

Cultural Diplomacy

Indonesia’s cultural diplomacy with South Korea consists of a variety of initiatives. For instance, an Indonesian delegation participated the 14th Seongbuk Global Food Festival Nurimasil in Seongbuk District on 25 September 2022. The Indonesian Embassy introduced some local cuisines including bakso, nasi goreng, martabak telur and tempe goreng to visitors.

A month later, Indonesia also participated in Itaewon Global Village Festival 2022. This time, the Indonesian booth exhibited traditional-style clothing, fabric and garment products. To liven things up, Kelompok Tari Tradisional Indonesia (Indonesian Traditional Dance Group – KTTI) performed Gantar Belian, a traditional dance from Kalimantan region. KTTI consists of Indonesian migrant workers and professionals who settle in South Korea.

Moreover, another boot displayed Indonesia popular such as Kopiko, a coffee-flavored candy, and Indomie, a worldwide instant noodle phenomenon. At the end of the event, the Mayor of Yongsan District named the Indonesian delegation as the top exhibitor and rewarded them with a gold medal, while KTTI clinched the Gold Prize and won KRW5 million.

In March 2023, the Indonesian Embassy opened a free class on Indonesian Creative Economy and Cultural Program that lasted until June 2023. The class consisted of a gamelan course and a traditional dance course jointly taught by KTTI.

Furthermore, the Embassy also hosted the Indonesia Festival Week in Busan University of Foreign Studies on 26-28 April 2023. The festival included an open lecture by the Indonesian ambassador, a storytelling and poetry-reading competition, and a book review session titled Budaya Indonesia di Mata Orang Korea (Indonesian Culture in the Eyes of Koreans). The Festival was also held on 4 June 2023 in Ansan, where it was reported to have attracted 2000 visitors.

These series of cultural activities attracted a large following and crowd from the public, while the participation and achievements of Indonesian representatives in local festivals surely boosted Indonesia’s profile in the eyes of Koreans. Moreover, it also reflects a positive development in the Indonesia-South Korea relations, as evidenced by the enthusiastic reception of the Korean public and local government.

People and Capital Movement

On the economic front, some activities are worth mentioning. The Indonesian central government assisted the local government of North Sulawesi to promote its creative economy and tourism sectors through the Colorful North Sulawesi event, which was held on 07 December 2022.

The event was also a business matchmaking platform between Indonesia and Korean stakeholders, especially in the sectors of hospitality, fashion and culinary, as per President Jokowi’s mandate to advance post-pandemic economic recovery.

Prior to this, Jeju Airlines and the Governor of North Sulawesi inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in September 2022 to boost the region’s connectivity. At the national level, the state-owned flight carrier Garuda Indonesia gradually increased additional flights between Jakarta-Seoul and vice versa from twice a week to three times by May 2023. Moreover, Garuda Indonesia also offers a Bali-Seoul route, scheduled twice a week.

In the financial sector, the Korea Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) agreed to implement employee exchange program with Indonesia’s Otoritas Jasa Keuangan (Financial Service Authority – OJK) to facilitate Korean companies’ familiarization of the Indonesian market and regulations.

Activities on these fronts indicate that the movement of people and capital between the two countries would be a key aspect of the bilateral relations in the future. Increased flight schedules between the two countries would surely facilitate Indonesia’s target of hosting 20 million tourists per year. Meanwhile, assisting Korean companies to understand Indonesia’s regulatory landscape would help with the inflow of foreign investment into the country, especially at the time when Indonesia pursues ambitious projects such as Nusantara, the new capital city.

The Entertainment Industry

South Korea’s entertainment industry, which is well-known for its K-pop and K-drama, is gradually warming up to Indonesian talent. In February 2019, two Indonesians, namely Mavin Saputra and Zhavanya Meidi, debuted as K-Pop idols under group Z-Boys and Z-Girls respectively. These groups uniquely consist of non-Korean idols from across Asia. A year later, a girl group called Secret Number also debuted, a member of which is Indonesian Dita Karang.

Furthermore, Indonesian Muhammad Zayyan joined a new boy group named Xodiac, which debuted in April 2023 under One Cool Jasco (OCJ) Entertainment agency. Recently, the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE) also organized a project hosting overseas idol groups to take a part within cultural exchange program Grow TwoGether in South Korea. A Bandung-based girl group, StarBe, participated in the event and will release a Korean-language single.

On the K-drama side, Indonesian actor Chicco Jerikho stunned the public when he starred in Office Romance Recipe, a four-episode drama that premiered in November 2022. Chicco shared a scene with A Business Proposal stars, Ahn Hyo-Seop and Kim Sejeong, two popular faces in K-drama these days.

Ways Forward

Despite the above soft diplomacy thrusts by Indonesia in South Korea, are these efforts sustainable and effective?

In terms of the entertainment industry, at least some headways are made through the inclusion of Indonesians in new K-pop groups. Indonesian showbiz companies such as talent agencies should utilize such an opening. For example, these companies could learn from their Thai counterparts on ways to match-make their media stakeholders with Korean counterparts, including the regulator agency and entertainment companies. Moreover, a public-private cooperation scheme between Indonesia and South Korea in showbiz should be considered as well.

One could say that this opportunity is wider now that ROK is experiencing a form of stagflation, which means the country is channeling extra efforts to boost its creative economy sector (which includes the entertainment industry). This translates to potential job creation, enhanced people mobility and capital flow between both countries.

Two-way travel between Indonesia and South Korea should also be maximized. There is already a steady inflow of Indonesians into South Korea owing to the latter’s cultural appeal and technological sophistication. Indonesia simply needs to increase its appeal as well, not only as tourism hotspot but also as a destination country for foreign investment.

Lastly, Indonesia’s attempt to enhance its visibility in the Korean public, through participation in local festivals, events and competition, is already a step in the right direction. An increased public approval and sentiment by the Korean people towards Indonesia could build a solid foundation on which the bilateral relations could stand and develop further in the future.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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