Beyond hallyu

The Korean Cultural Center is ready for its next chapter


It’s been a little over a decade since the Korean Cultural Center (KCC) was established in Manila. I got to visit their former space back in 2013 to cover one of their events and it’s always been a fond memory. It was the first time I got to delve deeper into their culture. I even donned a hanbok.The Korean wave or hallyu was already pretty strong in the country at that time and it wasn’t difficult to draw in a huge crowd of young Filipinos to their event. Now, in their new home, the KCC is ready to get into the next phase of cultural exchanges with Filipinos.

I had the pleasure of getting a private tour of their new, multi-story building in Taguig and sit down with KCC director Im Young-A quite recently. I left feeling inspired and a tad jealous with how well Korea had wielded their culture into one of the most impressive examples of highly effective soft power.

Their new building boasts of technologically advanced, interactive displays that showcase their traditional culture. It’s a great way to say “we’re modern but we value our rich cultural heritage.”

Traditional paintings are turned into motion graphics to keep the younger generation’s attention. Touchscreens teach visitors how to write their name in hangeul. Beside it, a gorgeous visual display of how their writing system came to be and even a section talking about Korean food and the way their people eat. Visitors who come in to try the hanboks don’t even have to change clothes. Standing in front of a screen and moving your arms to choose the style and color is more than enough. Think Cher in the ’90s movie Clueless but better as you get a digital image of you in traditional Korean clothing.

PUNGHWA The current exhibit at the KCC's 5th floor is an uplifting, multi-sensory experience.

Classrooms for cooking, language, dancing, martial arts, and even painting dominate the floors. A well-stocked library featuring books, multimedia materials, and even copies of dramas Filipinos have grown fond of is also in the building. A studio welcoming local digital creators to make content about Korea can also be found in the new KCC.

KCC’s current director, Im Young-A, arrived during the pandemic. She was faced with the daunting task of opening the new building. With the successful opening behind her and the team, one would think that there would be time for them to take a breather. The work, however, continues. And there’s much to be done. Im says the next decade of the KCC will be focusing on a different kind of cultural wave.

“We’re moving beyond hallyu, the term that signified a cultural wave coming from Korea to the other parts of the world,” she says. “We now wish for the wave to go both ways—Korea is also looking forward to learning from other cultures.”

Seeing how popular their culture has become all over the world, it’s time to think about its future and sustainability. “To make it sustainable, we want to collaborate with other countries to make content that is both unique and universal,” explains Im. Evidence of this can be seen with some of the most popular agencies looking for their new idols outside of Korea.

The director shares that Korea offers official development assistance (ODA) for cultural industry projects in other countries. Currently, Korea is one of the biggest providers of ODA to the Philippines, particularly in infrastructure projects.

COLLABORATIONS A Korean artist painted the Baybayin characters for Gusto kong maging mabuting kaibigan a missing letter change one of the words but the gesture was much appreciated

“We see so much potential in the Philippines’ creative pool, especially in music and film,” says Im. “Updates in the production system will go a long way in making the industry more competitive.”

The move to heavily invest in cultural promotion started in 1998 with President Kim Dae-Jung who lived abroad for many years. Following an economic crisis in 1997, his government passed the law for “Cultural Industry Promotion,” which allowed South Korea to invest almost $150 million in efforts to get Korean culture out to the world. “For a long time, we also saw the French and English cultural centers in Korea and we wanted to promote our culture as well,” says Im.

Korean embassies abroad as well as their cultural centers would host their talents to showcase what their idol groups can do. “Now, they are too popular and expensive,” Im laughs. As part of Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST), the KCC also has another mission abroad—to protect their talents.

Following an economic crisis in 1997, the government of President Kim Dae-Jung passed the law for ‘Cultural Industry Promotion,’ which allowed South Korea to invest almost $150 million in efforts to get Korean culture out to the world.

“One of our main focus points is to promote our artists abroad,” she said. The MCST also helps protect Korean creators through copyright and earn properly from their work. From musicians, writers, filmmakers, and even webtoon creators. After all, giving artists proper compensation and championing their works abroad provide a healthier environment for them to keep creating.

The term “people-to-people exchanges” is thrown around quite a lot in diplomacy. They are cultural promotion’s biggest allies. Pre-pandemic, Koreans and Filipinos traveled to each other’s countries as students and tourists, pushing for better understanding of each other’s culture. While the Korean culture is stronger as of now, we’re seeing Filipino culture making its way to them as well.

“My daughter is a fan of SB19 and she knows a lot of the lyrics,” says Im. She herself has interest in our local music scene, admitting that she likes the songs of Ben&Ben especially after their collaboration with Young K of Kpop group Day 6. “We hope there will be more opportunities for Filipino music and film to be consumed in Korea,” she says. “We want to be a facilitator for Korean and Filipino artists to come together.”

As I was leaving KCC, Jang Seon-ji, PR officer, pointed out the mural being painted outside the building by a Filipino artist. “Once finished, it will feature two women from Korea and the Philippines, wearing traditional clothing and sharing their culture.”