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Soft power and nation rebranding: The transformation of Korean national identity through cosmetic surgery tourism

Eric Ping Hung Li (Faculty of Management, University of British Columbia, Kelowna, Canada)
Hyun Jeong Min (Department of Marketing, Pacific University Oregon, Forest Grove, Oregon, USA)
Somin Lee (Faculty of Management, The University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada)

International Marketing Review

ISSN: 0265-1335

Article publication date: 3 January 2020

Issue publication date: 12 February 2021




The purpose of this paper is to explore the interconnection between the corporatisation of K-beauty and Korea’s nation branding exercise and its links with soft power. Through the investigation of the transformation of Korea’s beauty industry, the authors seek to illustrate the inter-relationship of the market systems and national identification practices.


This study employed the qualitative case study approach to examine the latest development of Korea’s medical tourism. Through analysing a variety of secondary data that associated to the latest development of cosmetic tourism, this paper presents the impact of the transformation and reconfiguration of Korea’s beauty industry on the country’s nation branding strategy and the development of Korea’s soft power in the global marketplace.


The findings highlight how Korea’s new cosmetic tourism industry contributed to the renewal of Korea’s nation brand in the global market. The findings also illustrate the interconnection of the emerging Korean popular cultural products (K-pop and K-beauty) in the regional and global marketplace.

Research limitations/implications

The findings demonstrate the role of market in re-defining a nation’s brand and identity. The findings also illustrate how market-driven strategy influences the development of a nation’s soft power in the regional and/or global marketplace.

Practical implications

The study shows that practitioners can be active agents in nation branding. Through highlighting strategies to develop soft power within and beyond the country boundary, this study shows how market agents, governments and other stakeholders can co-create a market system that transform and reconfigure the nation brand in the global marketplace.

Social implications

In additional to explore the transformation of the beauty industry in Korea, this paper also presents the history and transformation of the beauty standards in Korea and other Asian cultures. Such dialogue invites marketing and consumer researchers to further explore the role of history and culture in guiding the production and consumption of new (consumption) standards.


This is the first paper that connects the theory of soft power in nation branding and country-of-origin literature. The case analysis of the socio-historical development of K-beauty also demonstrates how non-Western cultural goods enter the international marketplace. In summary, this paper provides new conceptual framework that illustrates a new collaborative mechanism that engages government and practitioners to co-create new cultural norms and standards to the local and international markets.



Li, E.P.H., Min, H.J. and Lee, S. (2021), "Soft power and nation rebranding: The transformation of Korean national identity through cosmetic surgery tourism", International Marketing Review, Vol. 38 No. 1, pp. 141-162.



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