What we can learn from South Korea's decades-long creative investment

For one, Korean leaders have long subsidized culture and entertainment and now the dividends are paying off

WHAT'S ON THE COVER? This week's issue of Panorama focuses on Pinoy creativity and artistry; To highlight the potential of Philippine creatives, the cover puts side-by-side the the Korean and Filipino entertainment sectors

The Philippine military recently celebrated its first joint-command exercises, marking a shift toward a more modern doctrine of interoperability between its three branches. This is a milestone for modern militaries, given that traditionally, the land, air, and sea services often saw each other as rivals. This development was made possible through billions of pesos invested across different administrations, a decades-long modernization project that is still underway.

Meanwhile, the country’s top diplomats continue to balance the interests of world and regional powers, keeping the leaders of rival nations on their toes on who the Philippines ultimately supports.

There is one form of power, however, that’s still largely neglected.

In October 2020, top-billed Korean boyband BTS drew flak from Chinese government publications for comments made about the Korean War. Immediately after, the band’s legions of fans—aptly called the ARMY—defended the boys, and critical articles published in Chinese organs began disappearing.

‘Soft power’s edge lies in the fact that while the other tactics leverage scarcity, need, and fear, culture influences decisions through desirability, attractiveness, and—loaded as it sounds—love.’

In the years following the Korean War, caused by poverty and dearth of opportunities, a large Korean diaspora settled in neighboring Japan, their former colonial master, where they faced discrimination, many living in slums.

Today, pop girl groups from Korea feature Japanese members in their lineups, most notably Twice and Iz*one. Such groups release Japanese-language versions of their singles following said songs’ debut. Where diplomats struggle to save government-to-government relations between South Korea and Japan, culture has created dialogues once thought of as impossible.

A heritage of struggle

The Philippine film industry is one of the oldest in Asia. Despite this, local production has dwindled in the last decades, as malls prefer screening Hollywood blockbusters, a sure return of investment (ROI) given the operating costs of cinemas.

There’s a wide perception too among viewers that Philippine cinema and television are bland and predictable, with overused plots and hammy acting. The same can be said of locally produced music in terms of theme and song structure. Only in recent years have producers tried to break from the mold.

Perhaps it’s not that creators lack ideas, but the industry lacks institutional support, burdened as it is by heavy taxes, the cost of producing each movie high enough without government obligations.

The creative industry, whether audio or visual production, entails heavy overhead costs, especially when starting out. With this in mind, plus competition from foreign cultural products, it’s small wonder that local prod houses prefer to play conservative, leaving workers overworked and underpaid.

While mainstream Filipinos films are more content with box office revenue than with other measures, independent auteurs are touted as artists-to-watch in Venice, Berlin, and Cannes all as fresh talent from the country’s few arts programs have premiered in film festivals outside the country.

With quarantine extending further, audio-visual consumption has shifted to online streaming. Philippine talent is coming out, touching on once-taboo topics and conducting original executions, at least in foreign-owned streaming services tapping Filipino artists.

Only time will tell if something truly homegrown will rise—and last.

The Korean wave(s)

The last half of the 20th century saw the rise of Korean manufacturing as the country’s chaebol began to export vehicles, ships, and consumer electronics. These conglomerates were plagued by cronyism, and this proved fatal during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s.

Former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon noted in 2011 that amid its rapid economic growth, not enough time was given to beautifying the city. It was long seen as “gray, concrete.” Around that same time, a Canadian editor-in-chief remarked that “tourists didn’t want to go to Korea,” as the country was dismissed as a hub for connecting flights, not a destination.

As companies restructured, the South Korean government, cognizant of increasingly sophisticated consumers, began cultivating its culture sector by first increasing funding of its Ministry of Culture. Lifestyle and beauty products followed. A decade later, the country saw a tourism boom.

K-POLITICS Former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon

Where creative production is taxed in the Philippines, it is incentivized in South Korea. Simultaneous with its focus on manufacturing, Korean movie houses in the 1950s well into the early ’90s had limits on the number of foreign films they could screen.

The first Korean pop acts and dramas broke into regional audiences in the early 2000s, competing with Taiwanese and Chinese Cantopop and dramas. Today, Chinese clothes manufacturers tag their blazers and dresses as “worn by ” in e-commerce platforms.

The 2010s saw the reach of the Hallyu or Korean Wave expand beyond its Asian epicenter and hit shores in other continents. Korean films appealed to arthouse, film festival, and blockbuster audiences all while filling up the box office.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Hallyu contribution to South Korea’s economy increased almost tenfold, already a billion-dollar affair at the start.

In 2020 alone, Korean artists graced the covers of international glossies and performed in primetime specials in the US, all as the annual US-originated KCON celebrated its 8th year albeit electronically across global centers.

Beyond commercial culture, the art world too has dedicated exhibits and spaces for Korean art, notably in London’s Saatchi Gallery and the Doosan Art Center in New York. Korean language programs have also boomed in Thailand, Malaysia, and Canada.

Fear versus love

Traditional forms of power, whether military muscle or economic might, rely on scarcity and fear. Power is a spectrum, the most overt being the deterrence provided by missiles, followed by the ability of one country to supplement another’s lack in knowledge, infrastructure, natural resources, or funds.

Perhaps soft power’s edge lies in the fact that while the other tactics leverage scarcity, need, and fear, culture influences decisions through desirability, attractiveness, and, loaded as it sounds, love.

The US, for one, is both a manufacturing giant and the largest cultural exporter. Economy and culture, not to mention foreign influence, go hand-in-hand, as Hollywood and MTV cultivate the global demand for American tech, fashion, and food.

Nevertheless, South Korea’s refocus toward soft power isn’t without its controversies.

Young, aspiring pop idols gamble their youth on the promise of fame and money, signing up for one of Korea’s many “idol academies,” where they subject themselves to strict discipline and training, often taking the same amount of time needed to finish a college degree.

Few trainees, in fact, debut as idols.

For those that do, debuting isn’t the end of their trials. Idols are heavily surveilled by their producers, subjected to predatory contracts, often denied a private life, and required to pay back the costs if their concerts flop. Issues around mental health and sexual abuse continually stain an otherwise glossy image.

The exploitation of artists is not unique to Korea or even the Philippines, one only need look at the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe’s career.

A Philippine wave?

The Philippines already trusts Korean manufacturing. Many of our most modern military ships and jets are made in Korea, so are some of our communications equipment. Filipino homes are run by Korean electronics. Commercial construction has Korean names on its cranes and rollers.

And now, Filipinos feast on soju and samgyupsal as part of Noche Buena, preparing for bed with Korean skincare routines, as Filipino guitarists upload tabs of Korean songs on chord-sharing websites.

Perhaps it’s time for our leaders to imagine—and invest in—a future where foreigners are filling the quotas of Filipino language courses, sinigang is as craved for as ramen (and not underlined in red by Microsoft Word), and the Eraserheads or its yet-to-be anointed successor finally have a true world tour.

And if we so choose to invest, with hope, we do so in a way that truly benefits the Filipino people, our cultural workers most especially.