Screen Policy in South Korea: From Avoiding Cultural Imperialism to Being Cultural Imperialist


“This movie is worth the sales of 1.5 million Hyundai Sonata sedans.”
-Kim Young-sam, Former President of South Korea as cited in Parc, 2016

A scene from Oldboy, my favourite South Korean movie

The previous quote perfectly depicts how huge the worldwide market for screen industry is. It implies that South Korean government is fully aware that the screen industries, as one sector of the creative industries, may significantly contribute to the nation’s wealth. On the other hand, public policy and economic development strategy in South Korea have been through some massive changes across the decades before it gained its current status as an emerging market. Moreover, it is even crowned as the 7th largest exporter in the world (Taranukha, 2016). Considering these facts, South Korea is an interesting case study in the screen industry.

This essay acts as a retrospective review of several screen policies in South Korea. It starts from 1945, right after the Japanese occupancy period, up to the recent 2010s with the policies’ main objectives to adapt and harness the utmost advantages of the globalisation era. The scope of the screen policies that will be reviewed are policies related to television program and film. Furthermore, the aim of this essay is to examine the pros and cons throughout the implementation of the policies.

The structure of this essay begins with the definition of globalisation and its impact on less developed countries, where the discourse of cultural imperialism arises to the discussion. Thereafter, it is followed by a review of South Korean’s screen policies. The review is arranged on a sequential time frame that illustrates the creative economy development in South Korea, which consists of: (1) stagnant period; (2) infant period; and (3) thriving period.

Ozekin and Arioz (2014) defines globalisation as an integrated economic system with interconnected market across countries. There should be no time, space, and trade barriers thus the cultural goods can move freely in the market (Hesmondhalgh, 2013). This barriers’ compression is expected to bring consumer closer with the goods in faster interval. It also means that there will be cross-cultural distribution, consumption, and even production in forms of collaborative projects between multi-corporations. Therefore, in its best practice, globalisation can be perceived as ‘global interdependence that unites us all’ (Tomlinson, 1996, p.24).

Until this time, United States of America (USA) is considered as a dominant superpower country, which leads to the association of the term globalisation with ‘Americanisation’ or ‘Westernisation’ (Tomlinson, 1996, p.26). Other recurring terms such as ‘McDonaldisation’ (Ritzer, 1996, p.1) and ‘Coca-colonisation’ (Wagnleitner, 1994, p.1) link the concept with two of the most popular mass goods owned by American companies. That is why, even though the concept of globalisation is supposed to benefit each and every country, the actual practice is merely one-sided. It is because of the ability of the USA to exports its cultural goods to numerous countries, especially the previously colonised countries, while the other countries fail to export their cultural goods and penetrate the market in the USA (Jin, 2007). Technically, it means that the preeminent market will keep growing while the others weakened. In the case of the screen industry, the domination of the USA can be seen from the worldwide box office report. According to the list below, the top 10 of the best-selling films is all from the USA with the total foreign market sales higher than the domestic market sales (BOM, 2017).

Worldwide Box Office (BOM, 2017)

In my perspective, USA became a dominant country because it is endowed with the advantage of English as the universal language, political domination since World War 2, large domestic market as a support system, and the presence of highly skilled cultural workers and leading edge creative infrastructures that are largely based on the country. As a result, American culture is presumed as a threat that pervades other nations’ indigenous local values, customs, and commons (Bullock and Stallybrass, 1977). This phenomenon is known as cultural imperialism.

Ever since the 1960s, the term has been widely used in many books and other scholarly publications related to cultural consumption (Tomlinson, 1991). According to Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.), imperialism means ‘a system in which a country rules other countries, sometimes having used force to get power over them.’ Nevertheless, in contemporary life, the power is not always reinforced by physical force, but by cultural goods or soft power which are likely to be unconsciously immersed in the consumers’ lifestyle.

This is in line with the opinion from Williams (1983) which divides the practice of imperialism into two approaches, namely a political system and an economic system. The term imperialism in this essay is imperialism in the context of the economic system, thus it will also be related to the notion of modernity, capitalism, and consumerism (Tomlinson, 1991). It means that mass-produced goods and popular culture are the main subject of the discourse. They induce homogenisation in consumers’ preference with the aid of multinational and transnational corporations. For Tomlinson (1991), this can be considered as a harmful impact of globalisation because it steers the cultural diversities across countries to possess one universal identity and lose their authenticity.

On the other hand, when the cultural goods are not slavishly accepted, they form hybridisation. Hybridisation ‘accentuates the adaptation and active articulation of global processes with local norms, customs, tastes, needs, and traditions’ (Ryoo, 2009, p.142). The difference is not taken as a threat, but conversely it is celebrated because in contemporary world globalisation is unavoidable. This is another positive view on globalisation even though it is only possible if the cultural identity of the country is firm enough. Additionally, imperialism is considered as an advantage for developed countries since it opens the opportunity to penetrate global market and gain more profit.

In general, in the discourse of cultural imperialism, it is common to discover disagreement of whether this phenomenon is a good or bad thing. However, the answer depends on which perspectives that we choose. Furthermore, cultural imperialism is a relative subject which cannot be generalised under one interpretation. Appadurai (1996, p.32) conveyed that
for people of Irian Jaya, Indonesianisation may be more worrisome than Americanisation, as Japanisation may be for Koreans, Indianisation for Sri Lankans, Vietnamization for Cambodians, Russianisation for the people of Soviet Armenia and the Baltic Republics.
Hence, cultural imperialism is not always about the USA. Sharma (2012) conveyed that the USA is still dominated the world, but as time goes by, there are many developing countries with rapid economic growth rates that will act as strong contender and one of them is South Korea. The situation may resemble the decline of the USA’s economic power, but statistically, it is not. Indeed, it suggests that nowadays it is possible to have more than one superpower country.

Besides the USA, South Korea has another challenge to avoid cultural domination from its neighbouring countries, China and Japan (Ryoo, 2009). To help its domestic industry grow and later spread around the world, the South Korean government decided to do some interventions and one of them is in form of screen policy.

Stagnant Period (before the 1980s)
South Korea was colonised by Japan from 1910 to 1945 and later administered under US Army Military from 1945 to 1948. At the Japanese period, there was a strict censorship and monitoring policy since media is utilised as a propaganda tool to spread political belief. The policy repressed political freedom. Nevertheless, the Japanese colonisation bequeathed film production knowledge and technology to South Korea. At the American period, Hollywood films are directly distributed to South Korea. There were merely a few Korean films produced and it was stopped when the Korean War occurred from 1950 to 1953 (Parc, 2016). After the war ended, the film industry started to raise although there is still no significant development. This is due to the priority of South Korean government to foster manufacturing industries, such as: ‘textile, apparel, food and beverages industries, and later heavy and chemical industries’ rather than creative industries (Kwon and Kim, 2014, p.425).

Then in the 1960s, government intervention in the screen industry began. The screen policy was related to film import quotas which aim to protect its local industry from cultural imperialism. It means that the circulation of foreign film is highly regulated. The foreign film was only permitted to be imported by successful local production house which able to attract a certain amount of audience. The goal of this policy was to trigger competition between production house and create a sustainable system (Parc, 2016). Despite the film-related policy, television drama was still depended on imported content (Jin, 2007).

Unfortunately, the policy did not work as it was originally intended. It encouraged ‘quota quickies’ (Parc, 2016, p.4) principle in the filmmakers. They produced low-quality movies because they acknowledged that they ruled the whole domestic market and they did not have to compete with foreign films. However, they failed to attract consumers because almost all of the local films in the cinema were in poor quality and there were no foreign films to help cinemas to captivate consumers. In addition, the low-quality films could not be exported. Considering the ineffectiveness of the policy finally it was cancelled (Ryoo, 2009).

Infant Period (the 1980s - 1990s)
Earlier in this period, market share for Hollywood films dominated 70-80% of the Korean cinema revenue (Lee and Han, 2006). The significant change happened in the late 1990s because there was a transformation in South Korean public policy. After the Asian economic crisis, the South Korean government chose to put forward creative industries instead of manufacturing industries. This served as a catalyst for South Korean creative industries growth, which consists of television dramas, films, music, manhwa (cartoons and comics), and video games (Kwon and Kim, 2014).

The import quota policy was changed with screen quota policy. Foreign films were accepted in the domestic market to attract wider audiences to the cinema. However, with the screen quota policy, cinema had to screen at least 146 days of domestic films in a year so that South Korean films obtain equal opportunity to compete with foreign films. Moreover, strict censorship is officially abolished in 1996 (Lee, 2006). While there is screen quota for the cinema, the government issued an hourly quota for television channel (Kwon and Kim, 2014).

This policy aimed to assist the growth of the infant industry. When the audiences went to the cinema, it was hoped that they choose domestic films instead of foreign films. After a period of time, the goal was successfully achieved. Chaebols (Korean businessman) begun to established cinemas and multiplexes since there was high demand from the audiences as well as produced films. They were also allowed to accomplish business cooperation with foreign corporations. They adopted the ‘integrated system of production covering financing, producing, distributing, and exhibiting movies’ (Parc, 2016, p.8). Hollywood had inspired Korean filmmakers in terms of movie production process and content such as genre and artistic style, thus the quality of the films was continuously improved. Moreover, with the help digitalisation as a new medium for distribution, it was easier to penetrate the global market (Kim, 2004; Nam, 2013).

Considering the positive impacts, the policy was fully accepted by the South Koreans although it was trickier for the Americans. The USA’s film producers had to formulate a strategy over the best schedule to release the films so the premiere date will not clash with other Korean or Hollywood blockbusters, thus the ticket sales will be higher (Lee and Han, 2006). Nevertheless, a research by Parc (2016) found out that the policy is not directly tied to the increase in audiences. The policy is more successful to initiate healthy competition between film-makers and chaebols as the owner of the investment to produce a better quality film which will engage more audiences as consequence.

Thriving Period (the 2000s – Now)
In order to catalyse the development of the screen industry, Korean government issued additional policy related to subsidy and tax exemption for Korean production house. For example, direct subsidies scheme for small and medium size enterprises producers (Parc, 2016). It also built infrastructures such as High Digital Production Centre and Digital Magic Studio which function as a film studio, broadcasting studio, and digital archive (Kwon and Kim, 2014). Combined with the improved living standard and development of information and communication technology, screen industry in South Korea headed as a mature industry.

In the meantime, there are 4 countries that produce more than 400 films each year, namely India (1288 films), USA (751 films), China (456 films), and Japan (448 films). They can be categorised as super producers of the screen industry. The position of South Korea in the film production landscape is as super producers with approximately 138 films produced each year in 2009 (Crane, 2014). Supported by the previous screen quota policy, South Korea is one of the few countries which has a higher market share for domestic films. The market share is stable at approximately 60%, while the foreign film has 40% of the market (Lee and Han, 2006). The trend can be seen in the table below, with a bold title for Korean films. Furthermore, related to the television program, 40% of the program is required to be from independent producers so that the industry flourish (Parc, 2016).

South Korean Box Office (KOFIC, 2017)

At this period, domestic screen industry is getting mature. Audience chooses domestic films voluntarily without further instruction, which is portrayed in the box office hit sales throughout the years (KOFIC, 2017). Jin (2007) even stated that nowadays cultural imperialism is no longer intervening the Korean market. That is why the South Korean government decided to take further action to expand its market and constituted export-orientated screen policy. The government established Cultural Product Trade Division in Ministry of Culture (Kwon and Kim, 2014). Since the export policy was launched, South Korean cultural goods, or prominently known as Korean Wave (Hallyu), gradually spread to Asia and lately Europe and USA. The export policy is essential for South Korea since it has a small amount of citizen, unlike the USA with the huge domestic market. Thereby, it must embrace consumer from foreign countries to acquire greater sales (Hong, 2014).

In the meantime, South Korea has replaced cultural goods from USA and Japan which previously dominated Asian market, especially in East and Southeast Asia (Ryoo, 2009). Broadening the market to Asian market is easier since there is ‘cultural discount’ (Kim, 2004, p.2009). It means that the audiences have a relatively similar cultural background so they can relate to the content and influence their preference. For example, the American culture of violence and sex which often portrayed in its films are not closely tied to Eastern cultural value. That is why South Korean screen industries have added-value in Asia. Besides, when more economically advanced country aims to broaden its market, the easiest strategy is to penetrate less-developed countries, because there is no significant challenge. However, with this expanded market, South Korea transform into cultural imperialist that may endanger local cultures in Indonesia, Malaysia, or Taiwan (Nam, 2013).

Consequently, it gives some drawbacks for the USA and it must reinforce its position as the leading exporters of cultural goods. The South Korean government received high pressure from the USA to abolish the screen quota system because it violates the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations. The pressure caused a dispute between 3 different ministries, namely: (1) Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism; (2) Ministry of Strategy and Finance; and (3) Ministry of Foreign Affair. Even though the USA deemed the screen quota to be completely erased, in the end, the quota was merely reduced because South Korea still need the policy (Chang, 2014). In 2006, the screen quota was cut from 146 days to 73 days. As a compensation, South Korea permitted the USA to established branch offices of multinational corporations and reduced foreign films fees from 700 million to 50 million won (Lee, 2006).

Another reinforcement strategy from the USA is to remake foreign films. For instance, USA adapted these South Korean Movies: (1) ‘Il Mare’ as ‘The Lake House’; (2) ‘The Tale of Two Sisters’ as ‘The Uninvited’; and (3) Oldboy with the same title (Kotzathananis, 2016). Nevertheless, they often receive unsatisfactory review because they diminish the real essence of the film (Crane, 2014). In addition, production houses from the USA started to invest in South Korean production house and collaborate to produce the television programs. For instance, the affiliation of Nickelodeon with JEI, Discovery Channel with Q Channel, and CNBC with MBN. Besides the USA, other countries decided to accomplish this strategy too, such as the affiliation of KBS with CCTV from China and MCC with TVS from Japan to form hybridisation between two cultures (Jin, 2007).

All in all, the effect of globalisation is unavoidable, thus every country must formulate a strategy to overcome the disadvantage (e.g. cultural imperialism, homogenisation) and earn the advantage (e.g. wider consumer, intercultural collaboration). Furthermore, globalisation is an important aspect of introducing cultural goods across nation and exchange culture, hence people can learn to appreciate the beauty of cultural diversity.

In relation to South Korea’s case, before a country determines to penetrate global market, the government have to make sure that the domestic market is firm enough. It is because when a country export cultural goods to other countries, there has to be a reciprocity agreement between the countries that permit two-way exchange of cultural goods. If a country protects its market from imported cultural goods, it means that there is uneven competition and it will prevent the country to export its domestic cultural goods.

Therefore, the most vital thing is not avoiding globalisation and completely banned foreign goods from local markets – which proved to be ineffective in South Korea case – but to fortify local industry by providing stimulus (e.g. fair quota, investment, infrastructure) to enhance the quality of the goods which will spark competitive market structure (Ryoo, 2009). If consumer preference is already drawn to the local product, strict protectionist screen policy is not required since it is not relevant anymore with the aim to reduce competition (Parc, 2016).

This is an essay for Creative Lives Assignment for Creative Industries and Cultural Policy Course at the University of Glasgow. Please provide proper citation if you use this as reference.

APPADURAI, A. (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
BOM (2017) Yearly Box Office. [Online] Box Office Mojo. Available from: [Accessed 15/02/17].
BULLOCK, A. and STALLYBRASS, O. (1977) The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. London: Fontana Books.
CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY. (n.d.) Imperialism. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 14/02/17].
CHANG, A.R. (2014) The Effect of Foreign Pressure on Liberal Policy Autonomy: The Case of South Korea’s Screen Quota System. International Review of Public Administration, 19(1), pp.1-22.
CRANE, D. (2014) Cultural Globalization and the Domination of the American Film Industry: Cultural Policies, National Film Industries, and Transnational Film. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 20(4), pp.365-382.
DAVIES, R. and SIGTHORSSON, G. (2013) Introducing the Creative Industries; From Theory to Practice. London: SAGE Publications.
HESMONDHALGH, D. (2013) The Cultural Industries. 3rd ed. London: SAGE Publications.
HONG, E. (2014) The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture. New York: Picador USA.
JIN, D.Y. (2007) Reinterpretation of Cultural Imperialism; Emerging Domestic Market Vs Continuing US Dominance. Media, Culture & Society, 29(5), pp.753-771.
KIM, E.M. (2004) Market Competition and Cultural Tensions Between Hollywood and the Korean Film Industry. International Journal on Media Management, 6(3), pp.207-216.
KOFIC (2017) Yearly Box Office Statistics. [Online] Korean Film Biz Zone. Available from: [Accessed 15/02/17].
KOTZATHANANIS, P. (2016) The 20 Best Asian Movies Remade in Hollywood [Online] Taste of Cinema, 10th April. Available from: [Accessed 14/02/17].
KWON, S.H. and KIM, J. (2014) The Cultural Industry Policies of the Korean Government and the Korean Wave. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 20(4), pp.422-439.
LEE, B. and BAE, H.S. (2004) The Effect of Screen Quotas on the Self-Sufficiency Ratio in Recent Domestic Film Markets. Journal of Media Economics, 17(3), pp.163-176.
LEE, M.H. and HAN, E.K. (2006) Competition: Hollywood Versus Domestic Films: Releases Strategies of Hollywood Films in South Korea. International Journal on Media Management, 8(3), pp.125-133.
NAM, S. (2013) The Cultural Political Economy of the Korean Wave in East Asia: Implications for Cultural Globalization Theories. Asian Perspectives, 37(1), pp.209-231.
OZEKIN, M.K. and ARIOZ, Z. (2014) Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Cultural Globalization as Hybridization. Zeitschrift für die Welt der Türken, 6(3), pp.179-191.
PARC, J. (2016) The Effects of Protection in Cultural Industries: The Case of Korean Film Policies. International Journal of Cultural Policy, pp.1-16.
RITZER, G. (1996) The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life. California: Pine Forge Press.
RYOO, W. (2009) Globalization, or the Logic of Cultural Hybridization: The Case of the Korean Wave. Asian Journal of Communication, 19(2), pp.137-151.
SHARMA, R. (2012) Breakout Nations: In Search for The Next Economic Miracles. London: Allen Lane.
TARANUKHA, A. (2016) Why South Korea Remain Classified as an Emerging Market. [Online] Frontera, 20th October. Available from: [Accessed 14/02/17].
TOMLINSON, J. (1991) Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. London: Pinters Publishers.
TOMLINSON, J. (1996) Cultural Globalisation: Placing and Displacing the West. The European Journal of Development Research, 8(2), pp. 22-35.
WAGNLEITNER, R. (1994) Coca-colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria After the Second World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
WILLIAMS, R. (1983) Keywords. London: Fontana Books.

You Might Also Like