Postcard from Seoul


If you visit the National Assembly building in Seoul at the moment (as I did a few days ago, ploughing through the snow), you find an unusual sight: leading actors from Korea’s film industry braving the cold to protest against the screen quota cut proposed by the Korean Government as part of its preparation for a Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

Actor Jang Dong-gun stood there last Monday for three hours in the cold, protesting against a cut in the quota that would reduce mandatory Korean film content shown in cinemas from 146 days per year to 73.

Jang is one of a new crop of Korean stars in an industry that is booming like the Australian industry did in the 1960s and 1970s with directors such as Peter Weir and actors such as Mel Gibson, now all safely ensconced at Hollywood. The international success of the Korean industry, where films like Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War are winning prizes at festivals around the world, has given Koreans a new surge of national self-esteem. There has been nothing like it since the surge of nationalism that accompanied the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 and the soccer World Cup in 2002.

Protest against the proposed cut to the film quota

Just this past week, a low-budget movie with a suppressed homosexual flavour, The King and the Clown a Korean version of Brokeback Mountain smashed box office records, passing the 10 million viewers mark. The story is a period drama, where two condemned men stay alive by keeping the king laughing. It’s a runaway success tapping a deep sense of Korean cultural difference. But many argue in the press here in Seoul that the film would never have been made without the protective quota.

Korea is gearing up for the negotiations over its proposed Free Trade Agreement with the US in a way that shows the negotiations will be tough with screen actors and producers protesting in the streets, and rice farmers taking their message (that growing rice should be regarded as a national identity symbol) to every conference and venue. But last week the heads of five top economic agencies, including the Korean Employers Federation, gathered at the national Convention and Exhibition Center (COEX) and solemnly announced their support for an FTA agreement.

The official announcement that negotiations would start came on 2 February, and since then the Korean press has been full of the issue. There has been reckless talk of Korea becoming the ‘FTA hub’ of East Asia.

But of course, the reality is that Korea has an overwhelming trade surplus with the US, and stands to gain nothing economically from a trade deal. It is all about politics, and appeasing the US. Keeping Uncle Sam happy on the economic front is seen as good business in Korea. A trade agreement might even curb the US appetite for slapping trade sanctions under anti-dumping laws on highly competitive Korean exports, such as computer chips.

What the Americans get out of such a deal is access to the Korean market for their agricultural exports, particularly wheat (to the detriment of Australian wheat exporters, who will probably lose their single desk export agency, the AWB, because of the present imbroglio), and financial services, as well as access to Korean Government procurement.

But the most important gain for the US would be on intellectual property rights, where US copyright-protected goods, including film, TV, music, software, and games would see sales and royalties drastically improve, as well as royalties paid to holders of US patent rights.

These were precisely the kinds of advantages that the US side were able to secure through the FTA with Australia. We are already seeing the effects of that deal throwing open our economy to US investment, for example, and seeing Australian iron-ore exporters to China, like Portman, fall easily into American hands.

It won’t be quite so easy in Korea after all, it took a financial crisis on the scale of the 1997-98 upheaval to deliver such prizes in Korea as Daewoo Motors to US interests like GM. Now many of the banks bought for a song by hedge funds in 1998 are being sold back to Korean interests at a hefty profit. (A case in point is the Korean Exchange Bank, now about to be sold by the Lone Star hedge fund back into Korean ownership, at a suggested profit of between US$5 and US$10 billion.)

So the Korean actors braving the cold and protesting against their Government’s lowering of the quota that has been instrumental in creating a national flowering of Korean cinema, are probably fighting a lost cause. Hollywood takes no prisoners when it comes to dealing with foreign cultural assets; it simply devours and destroys them. And governments that sign FTAs with the US find themselves having to make concessions on copyright as well as access for US investment that are hard to justify on any grounds other than appeasing Uncle Sam.

Our own experience in Australia might be taken as a warning by Korea. On the cultural front, we as a nation have fallen so far from protecting our national cultural identity that we refused to endorse the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which was adopted last year. Only two countries voted against the convention: The United States and Israel. Australia actually abstained from asserting our right to have our own brand of cultural expression.

Let’s hope that Korea does not make the same mistake.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.