South Korea’s cultural industry as a model

SOUTH Korean telenovelas, K-pop music and films have taken the world by storm. “Extraordinary Atty. Woo” rules on Netflix, BTS tops worldwide music charts, and “Parasite” won the plum prize at the Cannes Film Festival. These cultural forms are called the “Hallyu.”

Hallyu is a Chinese term that is translated as “Korean Wave.” It covers everything from K-Pop to Gangnam rap to movies to online games to drama to Korean cuisine, with Korean barbecue restaurants and groceries spreading around the world. In a savvy strategy, the South Korean investors used culture to promote the clothes, food, even the literature of South Korea.

But such cultural forms called “Hallyu” did not happen overnight. They are the products of a long, sustained and well-funded investment strategy. This happened because South Korea may possibly be “the only country in the world that has a dedicated goal to become the world’s leading exporter of popular culture,” according to Martin Roll, an international business consultant.

He said that Hallyu “is a way for Korea to develop its ‘soft power’… It refers to the intangible power a country wields through its image, rather than through hard force.” One-third of all venture capital in Korea is spent on the entertainment industry, according to Roll.

Such an investment has had a profitable return. Netflix has bought a very deep bench of South Korean Koreanovelas and films, fueling a demand for the slick shows seen from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur. This has cultural brought unprecedented profits for South Korean production houses as well as the people associated with making such products: the directors, scriptwriters, actors, production people. Even South Koreans and other people who could swiftly put English subtitles on the South Korean films and Koreanovelas that roll out of the dream factory weekly are finding their hands full.

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Young men and women in South Korea go through a rigorous training in singing, dancing and acting before they are allowed to sing and record their music. Unlike in the Philippines where young people with mestizo features who sound like wolves baying when they sing are allowed to perform, the South Korean talent scouts have the eyes of eagles and the ears of owls. They do not allow mediocre talent to perform. They now have such a huge stake in the global cultural industry that they cannot export just average talents.

Moreover, interest in South Korean contemporary writing with English translations sparked after the South Korean cultural invasion. The novels are seen as groundbreaking and innovative. They bend and break literary genres, explore often untouched social and political themes, and speak to the 21st century global citizens.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo and translated by Cho Nam-joo is a global literary and popular bestseller. It has sold more than 1 million copies in South Korea, has been turned into a successful film, and stoked the fires for the #meetoo movement in South Korea. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur, is a queer Korean love story. The novel is an urban tale of hedonism and friendship, where life is seen from different angles, and where love and hate commingle.

Ahn Hyung-Hwan, vice chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, noted how Korean cultural products have changed the media landscape. Over-the-top media, or OTT, refers to media that bypass the usual distribution channels of traditional operators. These include streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus and YouTube Premium, whose profits come from paid subscriptions. In July, Walt Disney Company Asia Pacific and HYBE joined this group.

The Philippines has long been known as a fabled country of dance and song. Our telenovelas are watched in some Southeast Asian countries and our singers are some of the best in the world. If the government can only funnel funds for our cultural producers, our films, music, literature and telenovelas can surely compete with the best in the world. If only we could start by opening that purse.