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Paving the Path to Soft Power: Crucial Moments in South Korea’s Cultural Policies

A group of five men performing on stage.
K-Pop band ONEUS perform in Los Angeles, California during their Blood Moon tour. (March 12, 2022)

From the Oscar-winning Parasite (2019) and Netflix-topping Squid Game (2021) to K-Pop phenomenon BTS, South Korea has achieved exceptional critical and commercial success in film, television, and music over the past decade, drawing much attention to Korean “soft power” and its global cultural influence. The impressive growth of South Korea’s cultural sector can be credited to individual brilliance as well as an evolution in cultural policy that gradually provided artists the creative liberties and support to thrive. However, such was not always the case. The journey of South Korea’s cultural industry began in censorship and state control. 

From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the military governments of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan suppressed supposedly unpatriotic film, music, and literature. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Park Chung-hee regime regularly persecuted artists who were critical of the government. Poet Kim Ji-ha was famously put on death row (eventually released due to international pressure) after penning “The Five Bandits” (1970), a satirical poem that mocked Park. From 1980 to 1987, President Chun Doo-hwan implemented what some have referred to as a “media regime,” shutting down 172 monthly publications and consolidating all newspapers and broadcasting stations into a single pro-government reporting agency. The government also strictly controlled the influx of Western music; hits like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975) were banned, being deemed harmful influences to the public psyche. Historic enmity precluded cultural exchange with Japan and China; Japan’s colonialization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and China’s support of North Korea during the Korean War soured South Korean perceptions of both countries.

Not only was preliminary review mandatory, but the circulation of cultural products without prior approval was illegal

In 1976, the South Korean government created the Performance Ethics Committee to act as the main arm of cultural censorship. The committee conducted preliminary reviews of all performances and videos, striking down any production deemed inappropriate or critical of the government. Not only was preliminary review mandatory, but the circulation of cultural products without prior approval was illegal and remained so through the Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam administrations. It was not until 1996 that South Korea’s Constitutional Court denounced the preliminary review system as unconstitutional.

The removal of government-mandated reviews was integral to unlocking the creative potential of Korean artists. In the realm of film and television, the Movie Promotion Law of 1997 replaced preliminary reviews with an age-rating system similar to that of the United States. Cultural liberalization directly enabled the production of grittier stories such as Parasite and Squid Game, both of which offer a scathing portrait of the class divide in South Korea. Other internationally popular Korean movies and dramas such as Old Boy (2003), Train to Busan (2016), Sweet Home (2020), and All of Us are Dead (2022) also showcase the ability of Korean storytellers to captivate global audiences with dark, often violent narratives. For the music industry, the removal of bureaucratic content control allowed for the freer depictions of love and individuality common in K-Pop. Partial liberalization of the music industry also took place in 1991, when the Music Records and Video Law lowered standards for music label registration and introduced foreign investment.

These changes allowed easier importation of the Western pop and dance music that would serve as a key influence for K-Pop.  

South Korean movies and dramas were heavily influence by the Western noir, horror, and action films introduced to the country in the 1990s. By 1997, the Korea Performance Arts Promotion Council handled all foreign movie imports, streamlining importation; previously, imports required direct recommendation from the Minister of Culture. This opening allowed for Western movies to enter the country, serving as key influences for Korean cinema. In 1999, the council was renamed the Korea Media Rating Board and given direct decision-making for importing foreign music records, videos, and video games. These changes allowed easier importation of the Western pop and dance music that would serve as a key influence for K-Pop.  

The introduction of cable television in 1995 prompted momentous advances for both the film and music industries, though government hesitancy about adding more channels stifled initial growth. The deregulation of programming in 2001 was necessary for increasing and diversifying the content of cable television.[1] With a slew of new channels specializing in music, dramas, and movies, public demand for entertainment greatly increased. Dramas airing on both public and commercial stations competed for popularity, and the advent of music channels encouraged songs to be accompanied by memorable music videos, the mastery of which would contribute to K-pop’s popularity abroad.

...the policy to annually mandate a certain number of domestic movie screenings is generally considered a necessary stopgap for developing film industries to remain competitive with sophisticated Hollywood productions.

That said, deregulatory policy is only one avenue necessary for open expression and cultural growth. In many cases, governments also play an important supporting role in domestic cultural industries. Facilitation of cultural exchange through diplomacy is one such example. The establishment of diplomatic ties with China in 1992 and the relaxation of restrictions on Japanese cultural imports in 1998 facilitated the exportation, and subsequent overseas popularity, of Korean cultural products. Screen quotas for domestic movies, maintained since 1962, is an important, albeit controversial, measure for promoting domestic movie production. While its current necessity is debatable given the significant growth in the Korean film industry, the policy to annually mandate a certain number of domestic movie screenings is generally considered a necessary stopgap for developing film industries to remain competitive with sophisticated Hollywood productions. In tandem with the government’s creation of a Korean Academy of Film Arts in 1984, which would train prominent directors such as Bong Joon-ho, proactive support for the domestic film industry enabled Korean movies to thrive.

Government policy may also encourage artistry by improving living conditions for artists. Episodes of public outrage sparked support for the 2012 Artist Welfare Law. In 2011, Korean media highlighted the death of emerging scenario writer Choi Go-eun, who passed away in extreme poverty. Earlier in 2005, an insurance company prompted litigation and widespread backlash by posthumously designating renowned sculptor Koo Bon-ju as unemployed. The incidents marked a stark contrast between the growing wealth of cultural industries and the poor treatment of artists. The 2012 law marginally improved welfare policies and support systems for emerging artists, developed standard contracts for artists, and constituted a major legislative recognition of the importance of artistic careers.

By transitioning to an environment in which its people could more freely produce and consume cultural content, South Korea achieved massive expansion in its film, television, and music industries. The 1990s, in particular, was a formative era in liberalizing artistic production and importation. Former President Kim Dae-jong, who took office in 1997 and presided over major cultural policy developments, perhaps put it best when he stated support for an “arm’s length” approach to cultural industries – that is, for the government to support but not interfere with art. For other countries looking to globalize their culture, perhaps one of the key lessons from South Korea’s experience is that a reduction of censorship and import restrictions can serve as a launching pad for cultural industry growth.

[1] Hwang, Sangjae, and Youngjoo Jeong. “ Study on Changes of Diversity after the Introduction of Registration System in Cable PP Market .” Korean Journal of Broadcasting and Telecommunication Studies 19, no. 2 (June 2005).

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Seungjin (SJ) Han

Staff Intern, Korea Center

Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more

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The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more