Neo-Liberalism, Conservatism and Culture

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), February 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

Neo-Liberalism, Conservatism and Culture


Several months ago at an international academic conference, I heard a participant observing that wherever he went around the world, he saw almost the ``same'' looks and styles among various peoples. Go to such metropolitan cities as Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo and Seoul, and you will, he suggested, find out that people on the street look almost exactly like each other. Sometimes, he said, he was not aware that he was visiting a foreign country.

Come to think of it, it seems as if, over the last few years, the ethnic features of young Koreans fundamentally changed. Unless you are very street- wise, chances are that you won't be able to distinguish Koreans from foreigners. Not a few young Koreans nowadays look foreign to ``us Koreans.''

How has this change taken place? The major factor to consider here is probably that cultural globalization, as it has elsewhere, has swept over South Korea. This, no doubt, has to do with the recent opening of its domestic market. In the last decade, Korea, like other Third World countries, came to taste the severity of the changed conditions of international trade. With the inauguration of the World Trade Organization and its admission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea could no longer resist the pressures to open its market.

This meant, among other things, that Korea now had to remove tariff barriers and find its competitive leverage somewhere else.

This was probably why in 1996 the former Kim Young-sam government tried to implement new labor-related laws. At the time, Kim's attempt to make labor flexible met with massive resistance in the general strike of January of 1997. With the outbreak of a foreign currency crisis at the end of the same year, however, there was a turnaround in the scene so that Kim Dae-jung's new government could implement neo-liberal policies in almost every sector of Korean society.

Such neo-liberal policies as the restructuring of corporations, the privatization of the public sector, the opening of financial markets, and the flexibilization of the labor market soon followed, fundamentally affecting Korean society.

While it is not easy to assess exactly how recent social changes affected cultural transformations, one cannot possibly understand today's cultural phenomena and problems without taking into account the social impacts of neo-liberalization.

The controversy over the screen quota system of film is a case in point.

It is not long ago that Korean filmmakers, including actors and actresses, took to the streets to protest the US demand to abolish the quota system.

This demand had to do with the IMF crisis and the process of neo- liberalization thereafter, a situation, which apparently forced President Kim to ask for the investment of U.S. capital in Korea during his state visit to the United States in June 1998.

One curious thing, hard to understand, was that he initiated the proposal for a Korea-US bilateral investment treaty. This was unusual, to say the least, since normally the money-lending country initiated such a treaty, not the other way around. As if it had been waiting for such a request, the U.S. agreed to the treaty but demanded, as a precondition for it, South Korea give up the screen quota system.

It is widely acknowledged that the quota system was instrumental to the recent revival of Korean film. As a protective measure for the Korean film industry, it allowed Korean films to be shown in movie theatres for a determined period of time. This functioned as a safety haven for Korean film while Hollywood enjoyed its dominant position in Korea's film market.

Kim's government first seemed to listen to the U.S. demand, but had to make a pledge, however reluctant, to keep the protective measure, because it could not ignore the pressures from civil social movements and organizations as well as film directors, actors, producers, critics, and researchers. …

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