South Korea/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Kiwon Hong

The developmental phase of Korean cultural policy reflects procedures of historical, political, economic, and social development of Korean society. The Japanese colonial period which officially lasted from 1910 to 1945, deprived the culture sector of autonomy. The colonial government’s policy goal was to eradicate Korean people’s cultural pride. During this period, Korean history and cultural heritage was subject to manipulation and distortion. Many traditional cultural practices and customs were debased to facilitate control over colonized Korea. There was no room for proper cultural policy discourse in this antagonistic period.

Political turmoil after the Second World War and the Korean War had an indirect impact on the formation of modern cultural policy. The independence of the Korean Peninsula in 1945 followed by the territorial division of the North and South caused ideological contention also in the cultural sector. Confrontation of communism and capitalism affected artistic trends, which eventually constrained both part of freedom of expression up to present years. Due to the unrest of society after the Korean War there was slight room for discussion about cultural issues thus no official policy statement on culture was made. Some effort to restore cultural self-esteem was made and a few national cultural facilities, such as the National Library, the National Museum, the National Theater, and the National Korean Traditional Music Institute, were set up.

Activities in the 1960s and 1970s are susceptible to contradictory judgements in terms of cultural development. The 1960s and 1970s saw accomplishments as well as shortcomings in the culture area. During this period, the government put in great effort to restore Korean national cultural heritage that had suffered during the colonial period. Emphasis was also put on refurbishing the national spirit to recover from the colonial setback. Institutions to preserve the traditional arts disciplines were founded along with the establishment of new cultural facilities. Enactment of the first and comprehensive legal provision to promote culture and the arts (Law to promote Culture and the Arts, 1972) was a sign of pursuit for setting up modern cultural policy. The cultural sector did not enjoy an independent policy field but most of the times combined with the field of public information. The arts and cultural sector equip itself with legal system and expansion of infrastructure whereas freedom of expression suffered in these days of external achievements. Not only the confrontational situation between South and North but also prolonged ruling of despotic government oppressed artistic and cultural expression.

Decades of despotic government and rapid economic development had a twofold effect on Korean society. On the one hand, greater economic affluence triggered interest in cultural arena. On the other hand, because of the failure to democratize the Korean political system in the 1980s, freedom of thought and artistic expression were restricted. Nevertheless, cultural policy focused on expanding tangible infrastructure. Local governments were financially supported by central government to build new cultural facilities such as theaters, public libraries, and museums. This ‘Grands Travaux’ type of policy resulted in art centres that were monotonous in design and function, and which did not reflect local cultural identity. Unbalanced growth between hardware and software, the results were also disappointing. Local governments were ill-equipped to run programmes in those facilities. Necessity for deficiency of human resources to run those facilities was another drawback.

It was only in the 1990s that cultural policy achieved an independent policy field both nominally and practically in governmental undertaking. Ministry of Culture was established independent from field of education or public information in 1990. A nationally renowned writer, Rhee, Uh-Ryung, was given the first minister’s position, It symbolized that cultural policy field was to reflect the logics of the cultural field and its professionalism by evading the appointment of a politician or bureaucrat as its head. With the inception of decentralization policy, local issues became gain interest in cultural policy. The「Local Cultural Center Promotion Act(1994)」 was established in this vein.

The financial crisis of Korea in 1997 turned cultural policy and administration towards a market-oriented direction. In line with the growing interest in the creative sector worldwide, the cultural industry gained substantial attention in Korea. Cultural industry was seen as a potential source of increasing wealth of a country. The IT sector, the cultural content industry, especially the game industry attracted a growing market not only locally but also internationally.

Cultural policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century continued to place great emphasis on the commercial potential of this sector. Although there have been debates on how to reinforce the non-market based art sector, a notable portion of the cultural budget was allocated to promote the cultural industry and to organize institutional support. Although the arts sector became actively involved in social inclusion and education policy, this was less visible than the cultural industry. The digital content field was integrated into the content industry field, which left the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (hereafter Ministry of Culture) in a greater volume of budget than before. Amidst this flow of commercialization, a remarkable advancement in arts and culture has been achieved as the Arts Council.of Korea(ARKO) launched its way as an civil decision making body as the grant maker in the arts.

This was also a period of retrogression because there had been ideological divide underlying cultural policy actors and its orientation. This contention came to the surface when the administration changed in the 2008. Cultural policy became a battleground of ideological clashes between the conservatives and the liberals. The ruling conservative party [Grand National Party] insisted that cultural policy should regain its proper place versus the leftist policy inclination of past government. Many cultural practices that did not match the conservatives orientation was accused of pro socialism and even communism, which was still a delicate issue as a divided nation. Cultural policy was susceptible to political influence more than ever after democratization of 1990s.


Chapter published: 29-11-2013


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