Culture Minister says a 'new normal' can't be avoided
In a post-Covid-19 era, digital games will no longer be a matter of choice, but part of our daily lives and an essential piece of culture, Park Yang-woo, 62, minister of culture, sports and tourism, said, in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily last week. Rather than only seeing its bad side, we need to balance technology with the maintenance of humanity, he added. The culture minister emphasized the importance of combining new technologies and cultural practices with long histories such as tourism, which has been dealt a crippling blow by the pandemic.
To learn about the Culture Ministry’s vision for Korea’s hard-hit cultural sectors, the KJD sat down with Park at the ministry’s Seoul office near Seoul Station last week. Here are excerpts from the exchange.
Q. Most of the industries the Culture Ministry supports have been greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Which of them has been hit hardest? What measures does the ministry have in mind?
A. The tourism industry has taken the biggest blow. The industry’s loss in revenue due to the pandemic is presumed to reach 10.5 trillion won [$9.4 billion] for the first 10 months of this year.
We have been providing financial aid to related businesses, including granting a total of 110 billion won in unsecured special loans and 530 billion won in ordinary loans from the Tourism Promotion and Development Fund and postponing the collection of repayments for a total of 200 billion won of loans.
We are also making efforts to prepare for the extension of the Covid-19 situation and a "new normal." As part of the efforts, we started a "safe travel campaign" and the promotion of hiking last month after social distancing regulations were lowered to Level 1, so that tourists could disperse in uncrowded places.
Some experts say the tourism industry is fundamentally changing worldwide not only because of Covid-19 but also due to environmental issues and challenges to globalism. As an expert in tourism, do you agree? (Park has a doctoral degree in tourism studies). If so, how is the Culture Ministry prepared for such a big change?
Even before the pandemic, the trend in travel has been changing from group tours that view famous attractions to individual tours for specific experiences. Covid-19 has accelerated that change, and considering this shift, the Culture Ministry launched the Travel Forecast Service on Oct. 28. The service recommends customized travel destinations for you based on big data, while predicting each destination’s crowdedness on the day when you will travel.
To help individual tourists have unique experiences and to reflect environmental and social concerns, tourism policies need to respect regional uniqueness, so that a sustainable tourism ecosystem can be established. The Culture Ministry plans to build a new provincial tourism service system, with which foreign and local tourists can smoothly move from a provincial airport to their destinations for seeing, experiencing, shopping, eating and sleeping. This is another concept of the "safe travel" we promote. "Safe travel" is not only about social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 but is also about moving safely in every way, from the first point of arrival to the final destination.
A lot of experts say the so-called “new normal," including digitization and universalization of non-face-to-face services, will continue even after the pandemic. Does the Culture Ministry have long-term plans to deal with that?
We can now see online art auctions, online concerts, digital games, webtoons and media streaming services in everyday life. Considering that, we will focus on helping effectively combining content with digital technologies such as artificial intelligence [AI] and 5G. The Travel Forecast Service is part of those efforts.
In particular, we will help museums more actively build virtual reality [VR] and augmented reality [AR] content based on their collections. National museums have already added 749 new types of online content such as videos of exhibitions and VR exhibitions since the outbreak of Covid-19 . We will also help museums provide customized and multi-language guide services that make use of AI and Internet of Things technologies. We will take into consideration the digital gap between people and will add programs to narrow it.
One of the mainstays in the non-face-to-face era is digital games. The negative aspects of digital games such as addiction and violent content tend to be highlighted in Korea. I have heard that digital gamers regard you as a game-friendly culture minister. Is it true?
I’m friendly to every type of culture and art. But as for games, I think the world itself is a game. Cultural anthropologists define culture as a total way of life. In our daily life, there are already games. I think operating a smartphone is similar to playing a game. If a piece of content [or a story] is put into a new technology, it becomes a kind of game, in my view. So, games have become a way of life and, therefore, an essential piece of culture. For the industrial aspect, it is very important. Digital games represent two-thirds of Korea’s total content exports. The more important thing is that it is an essential piece of culture and can be combined with any other piece of culture such as TV dramas and films. In addition, it can be combined with education and medical treatment.
Now, games are no longer a matter of choice but part of our daily lives. Of course, addiction problems should be seriously dealt with. In addition, there can be ethics problems, which will become more and more serious along with the development of technology. For example, can marriage with a human partner continue to exist if people prefer to take a game character in the VR or AR world with AI as their partners? We need to think about a balance between preserving our humanity and developing technology.
In a recent National Assembly audit of the Culture Ministry, a ruling-party lawmaker argued the current standard yeongjeong (portrait for funerals and memorial rites) of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-98) should be replaced because of its painter’s pro-Japanese activities during Japanese colonial rule (1910-45). There have been similar arguments about the standard yeongjeong of other national heroes. I would like to ask you a more basic question. Do we need the standard yeongjeong? Is it right to standardize a person’s portrait? In addition, many of them are just imaginary portraits painted long after the death of the historical figures. Do you have any plans to abolish the standard yeongjeong system?
There is demand by local governments for the yeongjeong of historical figures who were born or active in the regions, so that the portraits can be installed in their shrines or be used for the tourism industry. For example, a standard portrait of King Danjong (1441-57) — [A tragic boy king who was killed by his uncle King Sejo, who usurped his throne] — now in the process of creation, will be used for [the promotion of] the annual Danjong Culture Festival in Yeongwol, Gangwon [where the young king was exiled and executed].
If a portrait based on incorrect historical research is used for a shrine or the promotion of tourism, that is as bad as providing incorrect historical education. The standard yeongjeong system helps an artist create a portrait with minimum historical inaccurateness based on the consultations of a committee composed of 15 experts including historians, archaeologists and experts in fashion and art. In addition, it is not mandatory to use the standard yeongjeong, and therefore we never standardize art. The standard yeongjeong system contributes to nurturing artists specializing in portraits in the traditional Korean style, the development of techniques for such portraits and the research in history of clothing. In addition to these positive effects, there exists demand by local governments. Therefore, it needs to be maintained.
Besides Covid-19, what is the most important issue for the Culture Ministry now?
We are focusing on reducing the economic cost of producing and consuming arts and culture. We have succeeded in expanding the related budgets for next year by 61.9 billion from this year. The budgets will be used for specific support of the culturally marginalized class and for public facilities of arts and culture. Meanwhile, the Employment Insurance Act revision passed by the National Assembly in May is to include artists and will take effect on Dec. 20. Therefore, payments of job seekers and maternity pay will be available for artists who meet certain conditions.
The New Korean Wave is another interest of the ministry, now that the film "Parasite"  and BTS have proven the increasing power of the Korean Wave. We have increased the 2021 budget for content by 82 billion won from this year in order to support export of online cultural content; to build and operate online platforms for Korean popular culture; and to hold online festivals for the New Korean Wave.
BY MOON SO-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]