Soft power, Korean style

Many surprising things have emerged from Korea in recent years. There’s Oh My News, the world’s highest penetration of broadband and a successful national football team.

But I certainly didn’t know that Korea had become a powerful player in Asian popular culture.

South Korea, historically more worried about fending off cultural domination by China and Japan than spreading its own culture abroad, is emerging as the pop culture leader of Asia. From well-packaged television dramas to slick movies, from pop music to online games, South Korean companies and stars are increasingly defining what the disparate people in East Asia watch, listen to and play.

The size of South Korea’s entertainment industry, which began attracting heavy government investment only in the late 1990’s, jumped from $8.5 billion in 1999 to $43.5 billion in 2003. In 2003, South Korea exported $650 million in cultural products; the amount was so insignificant before 1998 that the government could not provide figures.

The New York Times article concentrates on the impact this is having on Taiwan. Korean television shows now are more popular than Japanese ones, and tourism to Korea has surged. Economists have long discussed how countries migrate up from domestic industries, to low-value export manufacturing, to high-value manufacturing. Making the leap to export of culture is probably the last step in the chain. It could well be more significant than having a Samsung flat-panel television.

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