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South Korea’s creative economy

When community quarantines due to the Covid-19 pandemic were initially imposed in 2020, only essential workers and those with quarantine passes were allowed to go out. As majority of the population was stuck at home, many reverted to cable TV, streaming sites, and social media to pass time or have a break from work-from-home and household duties.

Korean dramas — with storylines ranging from star-crossed lovers, start-up companies, mental health, to playing deadly children’s games for a hefty sum of money — became a hit with both long-time fans and those who were just introduced to the K-drama world.

But even pre-pandemic, K-drama already had a fan base in the Philippines. The Hallyu wave began when TV networks started including Koreanovelas in their primetime programming. Eventually, Filipinos listened to Korean popular music (K-pop), patronized Korean artists, enjoyed samgyupsal, kimchi, and soju, and South Korea became one of the top foreign tourist destinations for Filipinos.

South Korea today is an economic powerhouse, far from its deplorable state in the 1950s following the Korean War — where Filipino soldiers provided support to the South Korean warriors.

The country’s rise from the ashes was also an arduous journey, but one of the great contributors to its economic success is developing its cultural and creative sectors (CCS). According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Korea’s cultural contents industry has 2.6 percent of the global market share, generating US$114 billion in sales, US$10.3 billion in exports, and 680,000 jobs in 2021. It is the seventh largest in the world and has been constantly growing, with an average annual growth rate of 4.87 percent.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a creative economy “builds on the interplay between human creativity and ideas and intellectual property, knowledge and technology.” The lifeblood of this economy are the creative industries, which include advertising, architecture, arts and crafts, design, fashion, film, video, photography, music, performing arts, publishing, research and development, software, computer games, electronic publishing, and TV/radio.

The Korean government’s economic strategy is making new industries and markets by integrating or aligning imagination and creativity to science, technology and ICT and creating decent jobs by reinforcing traditional industries.

An important facet in Korea’s creative economy is digitalization. According to OECD, Korea’s digital infrastructure, as measured by the share of households with broadband access, is higher than in any other OECD country.

The Korean government’s early investment in digital infrastructure allowed their creative industries to gain momentum. For instance, it enabled their music industry, that shifted from analogue to digital, to be globally competitive.

They also utilized the internet and new media to enable citizen’s active participation in the creative economy, such as creating an online website where Koreans can easily access information and receive comprehensive support to build from a creative idea to a new business.

South Korea’s success may not be easily replicated, but as UNCTAD suggests, nations, especially developing countries, should look into their creative industries as opportunities to leapfrog into emerging high-growth areas of the world economy.

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