Author: Ae-Gyung Shim, University of Wollongong
The rise of Korean soft power – the Korean Wave or Hallyu – has steadily gained momentum since the late 1990s, driven by consumption of Korean popular culture among diverse audiences throughout East Asia and beyond.
Meanwhile, the attraction of Korean TV dramas, pop music (aka K-Pop) and cinema, as well as an admiration for top-class Korean gamers have continued to grow in allure. Pro-active support from government-sponsored organizations such as the Korean Film Council, the Korea Broadcasting Institution, the Korea Game Industry Agency, and the Korean Cultural Content Agency (hereafter KOCCA) has been central to this achievement.
KOCCA is a little-known entity that has supported the globalization of Korea’s media and culture industries by pursuing a ‘go out and sell the nation’s cultural products’ strategy since its creation in 2001. It has done so through the establishment of branch offices in China, Japan, UK and the US.
KOCCA primarily supports character, animation, music, game and digital content (in applications as varied as fashion, e-learning, mobile content and edutainment) through a series of annual events, including the International Digital Content Conference (DICON) and the Seoul Character Fair. Outside of such industry networking and showcase events, KOCCA facilitates a B2B e-marketplace where buyers and sellers can connect from around the world 24/7 on its Koreacontent.org website.
Yet, KOCCA has made its most valuable inroads into foreign markets through its overseas branch offices. By collecting industry data and facilitating long-term networking relationships in the name of globalizing Korean cultural content, its international branch offices have supported KOCCA’s mission by infusing local knowledge into its global strategies.
KOCCA China was launched in 2001. Similar to its sister branches in Los Angeles, Japan, and Paris, KOCCA China is a lean organization; it consists of a director, Man-seok Gang, and three staff, each of whom is fluent in Korean and Chinese. The agency’s task is to gain an accurate understanding of China’s potential consumer audiences and their consumption of vast quantities of pirated Korean and other country’s DVDs/CDs and illegal downloads.
In 2007, KOCCA China merged into a shared space with KOFIC, the Korea National Tourism Office and the Korea Copyright Commission in the multi-story Korean Cultural Center on Guanghua Road in the trendy Chaoyang District near Wangjing – aka the Koreatown of Beijing. Synergy for the ‘Korean brand was strengthened by conjoining these organizations under one roof, creating a ‘one-stop shop’ for anyone interested in Korea and Korean culture.
Sponsoring local events such as the Korea-Japan-China conference, the Korea-China Game Culture Festival and the Korean Animation Showcase, is one of the core functions of KOCCA China. These events introduce new strategies for developing sustained international collaboration, offering multiple entry points into the Chinese market. Officially co-produced content is considered “local content” in China, therefore it is likely to receive preferential censorship treatment and favorable distribution opportunities than wholly ‘foreign content’, which has extremely strict quota limitations.
At the moment, Chinese audiences are hungry for high-quality media content. The animation industry is a popular growth area. In China, satellite and terrestrial TV are primary distribution channels for children’s content. Since 2006, official protectionist policy has required that ‘domestic’ content run during prime-time hours between 5:00 and 9:00 pm.
Foreign content – even children’s animation – is restricted to time slots after 9:00 pm. Although the 2010 Oscar-nominated Chinese production The Dreams of Jinsha impressed the international market, local critics assert that China’s burgeoning animation industry, which is backed by government funding, suffers from a lack of high production values and arresting stories that contain universal messages.[i]
This situation has provided opportunities for foreign animators to partner with Chinese colleagues and companies. Korean companies have the industry experience from which China can benefit. Hence, a range of Korean-Chinese co-productions have emerged to fill this prime-time television gap for children’s programming. Korean companies and practitioners are becoming cultural chameleons, ‘changing their colors’ by producing Chinese cultural contents with Chinese colleagues with the support of KOCCA China.
One of KOCCA China’s earliest achievements was brokering the 2002 creation of Space Hip Hop Duck, the first official co-produced television animation between Korea and China. Space Hip Hop Duck, which aired on China’s CCTV in 2004, is an action-adventure animation dealing with the confrontation between Hip Hop Duck and space monsters. It was created and developed by Korea’s Sunwoo Entertainment, leaving its Chinese partner Shanghai Animation Entertainment Studio to deal with production (drawing) and distribution only.[ii] Since this project, many Korean animation companies have followed suit, hoping for a similar breakthrough in the Chinese market.
In just a few years, such simple co-production practices have grown immeasurably in complexity and sophistication: China is now a key creative partner, participating across all aspects of animation pre-production and post-production, including merchandising planning. For example, in 2007, Korea G&G Entertainment and China Motion Magic Digital Entertainment co-produced the 3-D animation Little Wizard Tao (aka Tao the Magical Chinese Kid) (2007), using China as a backdrop to the story. This television animation series showcases the adventures of a Chinese kid named Tao, whose best friend is a panda named Tungtung. Similar to the Harry Potter stories, Little Wizard Tao features a boy who wants to become a great wizard; he uses a magic brush, which conjures everything he draws into reality.
In 2012, Crucuru and Friends, dealing with the adventures of five animal companions, is being jointly produced both as TV animation series and a feature film by Korea-based Ffango Entertoyment and the China Film Group (CFG). Ffango is working with Auldey, a major Chinese toy company. Auldey is directly involved with the merchandizing strategy, taking charge of distribution and sales of all merchandise in China. This is the first case in which the KOCCA’s OSMU (One Source Multi-Use) model has been taken up in a collaborative venture between Korea and China.
OSMU refers to the production and promotion strategy that spins off a variety of products (e.g., Dora pencil cases, shoes, backpacks) and tie-in campaigns (e.g., McDonald’s kids meals) from one source program – aka the ‘Spielberg’ or ‘George Lucas’ full-service marketing strategy). Children’s animation characters such as Pororo – as a brand – have been a hit in Korea, largely due to the faithful following of the OSMU model. However, the Chinese merchandise market is struggling due to copyright violations, and thus it will be interesting to observe the long-term effects of KOCCA’s OSMU endeavors in China.
On a practical and economic level, KOCCA has enabled Korean companies and practitioners to marry their production experience and advanced technical skills with China’s vast distribution networks, manufacturing base, and expanding cash flows to create products that appeal to the larger Asian region. Given that the Chinese market has further ground to offer foreign content, co-producing with a Chinese partner is one of the most effective ways forward.
On a cultural level, KOCCA has contributed to the reinvigoration of Hallyu – the continuing international consumption and overt awareness of Korean cultural content production – even if it may now frequently take the form of ‘Chinese stories’.
In reality, however, KOCCA cannot force local industry practitioners in China to partner with Korean content creators. Its role is to reveal multiple business roadmaps, albeit still imperfectly suited to Chinese conditions, to interested entrepreneurs in both countries, and to provide a platform for practitioners to meet like-minded people. At the same time, KOCCA cannot guarantee that the Chinese government will accept international collaboration projects.
KOCCA China follows a simple localization strategy – ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’; this advice may sound elementary, but it is proving a significant future milestone marker for Korean content creators. So, Koreans are becoming cultural chameleons, on the basis of another old saying – ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. KOCCA China shows that catering for unique local market needs is important for further developing the spread and promotion of Korean cultural contents. In so doing, as these cases show, Korea is expanding its soft power while enabling Chinese cultural producers to develop soft power of their own, creating new pathways for media collaboration in China and offering new insights about “soft power competition” in the region.
Ironically, the Korean “success” story in China continues to attract accolades in the region – not for producing local cultural contents of its own, but for the ways in which Korean creativity is enhancing Chinese soft power, and the key role of Korean media companies and practitioners in contributing to innovation in China and assisting China’s cultural exports.
China in turn is now working to export its culture with the aim of enhancing its own soft power and creating a positive image on the world stage. Korea’s success with Hallyu, which returned substantial economic benefits in a short period through the export of cultural products, is being scrutinized by China for its own commercial and political ends.
As a result of these developments, Hallyu has taken on a new meaning: the spread of Korean cultural content is no longer a one-way street, and multi-directional cultural flows are developing through collaboration between Korea and other countries such as China and Japan. Some commentators speak of the emergence of an ‘Asian Wave’, of which Hallyu has up until now been the driving force.
Yet, with growing popularity of K-pop in particular in regions as diverse as Asia, Europe, the US and South America, regional ‘tagging’ of Korea’s popular cultural products may no longer be necessary, because what is important for both content creators and consumers is not where things are produced, but for whom they are intended.
[i] Officials at China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) continue to claim that hundreds of millions of young viewers are having difficulty accessing good-quality local animations on Chinese TV. See Fang, Lu. “Chinese Animation at Crossroad.” cntv.cn (12 March 2012), http://english.cntv.cn/special/animation/01/index.shtml Accessed 28 May 2012; and Zhihao, Tang. “Animation Industry ‘Still Lagging’.” China Daily (7 May 2012), http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-05/07/content_15220787.htm Accessed 26 May 2012.
[ii] As a side note, G-Dragon, a member of the popular K-pop boy group Big Bang, played a role in the original score for Space Hip Hop Duck in 2002, further demonstrating the crossover between cultural contents flowing outward from Korea.