To the great disappointment of academics in the humanities, none of the three presidential and vice presidential candidates in Saturday’s elections made cultural issues part of their election platform.
Taiwan seems to look on the cultural industry as a decoration, a minor field not worth mentioning. Politics and moneymaking is the all-consuming concern.
It has been said that culture is the foundation of Japan and is what saved South Korea. During the financial crisis at the end of the 20th century, South Korea closed one-third of its banks and 200 other financial institutions, laid off 40,000 government employees, and restructured five big, extremely rich chaebol — in short, it was a massacre.
In the end, Seoul looked to the cultural sector to solve its economic problems.
The difficult economic restructuring transformed South Korea from a nation of original equipment manufacturers into a strong and innovative player on the world stage.
Will decorations and minor skills save our nation? That sounds like a tale out of One Thousand and One Nights. Still, South Korea did use it to solve the impact of the economic crisis that swept across Asia, with the result that South Korea today has surged onto the world stage.
During the 1998 Asian financial crisis, then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung said: “In the 21st century, culture will be a source of national strength. It will not only help raise living standards, it will also create an industry with huge added value.”
Every South Korean knows that the Hollywood movie Jurassic Park earned US$850 million globally, which is about what 1.5 million exported South Korean vehicles were worth.
In his 1998 inauguration speech, Kim said that he would direct his efforts toward the globalization of South Korean culture. Following up on his pledge, he set up the Game Industry Promotion Center the year he was elected, followed by the South Korean Culture Industry Promotion Law in 1999 in a concerted effort to promote the cultural, entertainment and other industries. In 2001, he set up the Cultural Industry Promotion Center to boost exports of cultural products.
His administration’s policy agenda said that movie theaters must show domestic films on at least 126 days of the year. This strategic prioritization of cultural industry development brought quick results, as the 1999 South Korean film Swiri crushed the global blockbuster Titanic at the domestic box office.
The Korea Culture and Content Agency was established in 2000 — which Taiwan emulated last year with the establishment of the Taiwan Creative Content Agency — and in 2002, soap opera Winter Sonata was released on NHK in Japan, drawing a resounding response, and even making fans of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife.
Not only did the show earn Korean Broadcasting System US$25 million in Japan, related books, CDs and DVDs sold well there. In the same year, many Japanese women visited the shooting locations of Winter Sonata, boosting Japanese tourism to South Korea by 57 percent compared with the previous year.
In the 21st century, 70 percent of all exported South Korean soap operas have been sold to Japan, making it the biggest market for South Korean soaps.
At the same time, as digital games became a strategic industry, South Koreans said that not even selling vehicles could compare with selling games. The total value of games produced since 1998 has increased sharply. The Lineage series has performed best. In addition to its popularity in Asia, it has become one of the “big three” globally alongside games from Microsoft and Sony.
With all this, South Korea’s foreign-exchange reserves increased from US$3.9 billion in 1997 to US$92.7 billion in 2000.
Kim’s policies showed that he was a man of his word, which benefited his country. It might seem an easy thing to make an election pledge, but in Taiwan, politicians cannot even make pledges on cultural policy. Moreover, when it comes to delivering on a promise, that is even more difficult. Cultural policy-related pledges in particular must be made by the president to achieve Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chiun’s (鄭麗君) statement that “every ministry is a cultural ministry.”
Lu Ching-fu is a professor in Fu Jen Catholic University’s department of applied arts.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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