[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Culture grows fitfully and locallyWhat ever happened to cultural policy? In the early years of the Kim Dae-jung administration, cultural policy was the talk of the town as pundits and policy makers searched for ways to revive the economy. Suddenly, “culture” in the broadest sense of the word became something that could be produced and marketed. The nation buzzed with talk of turning Korea into a center for animation, film and tourism. Art and film festivals sprouted up across the nation as local governments competed against one another in the hope that their event would cross over to become truly “international.” And for the first time in history, Korean popular culture became trendy in many parts of Asia.
The focus of public policy shifted in the middle of 2000 with the firming of the economic recovery and the dramatic inter-Korean summit. By the end of the Kim Dae-jung administration, cultural policy had fallen off the national agenda and received only passing mention in the presidential campaign of 2002. The new Roh Moo-hyun administration has had little time to address cultural policy. All of this makes the culture hubbub of the late 1990s look a bit shallow.
Cultural activity with lasting influence usually occurs in sudden bursts that fade quickly before the storm gathers for the next burst of activity. Seen in this light, the burst of cultural activity in the late 1990s, of which cultural policy is only one representation, is now taking a rest in preparation for the next flowering. History shows, however, that the cycle of cultural boom and bust is irregular and follows strange economic rules. Culture prospers during times of economic difficulty as well as prosperity: difficulty stirs creativity; prosperity feeds experimentation.
Korea in March 2003 finds itself in an uneasy holding pattern. The people have high hopes for the new president, but their hopes are tempered by fears of war and economic insecurity. The holding pattern frustrates the urge of many to break out and try something new.
None of this is good for cultural policy, but prospects are brighter they seem. Of particular importance are President Roh’s plans for decentralization because culture grows best when it is allowed to breathe. Many of the locally sponsored events of the late 1990s have had little impact because they are imitations of famous domestic and foreign events. Frequently, local governments lack the human and financial resources to support events so that they have a chance to succeed. More important, however, the mind-set of “national cultural policy” encourages the imitation and reproduction because bureaucrats are by nature conservative.
The Korean media often looks enviously at nations with clearly defined national cultural policies, but reality suggests a reverse correlation. The United States has no national cultural policy, but is the largest exporter of cultural products in the world. Japan has no national cultural policy, but has influenced popular culture throughout Asia even as its economic clout has waned. At the local level, however, both countries have a variety of public and private organizations that promote local culture and market it aggressively.
By contrast, French culture has continued to decline in influence around the world despite a high-profile, well funded national cultural policy. At home, European integration has forced France to open up to pan-European influences even as its cultural policy remains rigidly nationalistic.
The popularity of Korean pop culture in Asia and the success of events, such as the Busan International Film Festival, of local origin show that the same holds true for Korea. If done well, decentralization will shift the focus of cultural policy discussions from the national to the local. The promotion of cultural exports will be the responsibility of companies that want to make a profit from such exports. The promotion of cultural activities, by contrast, will be the responsibility of local governments and civic and business organizations.
If decentralization coincides with strong economic growth and an easing (or resolution) of tensions with North Korea, then Korea will witness a new and unusually potent burst of cultural activity sooner rather than later.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser