SEOUL — In the world popularity contest, South Korea feels a little like the ugly duckling that wants everyone to know it's really a swan.
Citizens flinch on hearing their country ridiculed as a place where politicians throw punches. They despair over a recent poll of foreigners in which four in 10 cited the nation's lack of "charm."
Then there's the outlaw cousin to the north. When much of the world hears "Korea," it envisions Kim Jong Il and his hermit state of North Korea, not the democratic nation that has long been a trusted U.S. ally.
Well, South Korea isn't going to take it anymore. The image-obsessed country intends to repair its maligned reputation by spending millions of dollars to develop a national brand.
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."
Analysts say South Korea has been dealt a bad hand.
"One unfortunate thing is that South Korea shares its name with a rogue state," said Simon Anholt, a British government advisor who devised the ranking system. "The link to North Korea is bad news. It gets painted with the same brush."
Despite its ancient culture, South Korea is a relatively new player on the modern stage.
"It just hasn't been a significant country for very long," Anholt said. "Other nations have been sending a stream of cultural or political ambassadors into global consumption for many years. Korea hasn't been doing 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.
"I am frustrated that people don't appreciate our culture," said Euh Yoon-dae, head of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. "For so long, Korea has been sandwiched culturally and economically between Japan and China."
Euh distinguished his plan from a mere marketing or tourism effort. "We're trying to advance the identity of Korea," he said. "It's the substance rather than the brand itself. We want to walk the walk rather than just talk up some new advertising campaign."
Still, newspapers and bloggers have poked fun.
"It's just mind-boggling. A country isn't like some product you can just promote overnight," said Jon Huer, a sociologist and Seoul newspaper columnist. "Korea's image has always been a bit harsh. It's not a Nepal or a Thailand -- both tourist-friendly places. It takes time and patience to get to know the place and its people."
Many here have some advice for South Korea: Relax.
"Korea is stuck in this way of thinking that it has to outdance, outspend and out-palace other countries," said Michael Hurt, a local blogger, photographer and branding committee member.
"It's never been about that. Korea is a quirky taste."
Euh acknowledged that South Korea has a long way to go: "It takes time to change the image of a country."