Culture Treaty Couldn't Save Korea from Hollywood

Submitted by Sasha Costanza-Chock on February 16, 2006.Bilateral FTAs | English | Screen Quotas | WTO

Luke Eric Peterson

[Embassy] As a negotiation strategy, it wasn't exactly one for the Korean textbooks. Before free trade talks were officially launched this month between the United States and South Korea, Asia's third largest economy had already caved to U.S. pressure, agreeing to gut a popular policy which has been credited for nurturing Korea's celebrated film industry.

Since the late 1960s, Korean law dictated that local cinemas screen domestic films for a minimum of 146 days per year. The policy has long been in the crosshairs of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), which objects to the marginalization of U.S. films in Korea. With Hollywood wielding enough political clout to bar the door to trade talks with the United States, a reduction in the quota-system was always going to be the price of admission for Korea.

And, after resisting U.S. pressure for years, the Korean government announced late last month that it would agree to halve its screen quota immediately. Further reductions in the quota are widely expected.

Remarkably, Korea's capitulation to MPAA demands comes mere months after the conclusion of an international treaty which was supposed to strengthen the hands of governments in protecting local cultural industries.

The UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity was concluded last October to great fanfare, with only the U.S. and Israel failing to sign on to the agreement. Yet, the newly minted Convention proved impotent in preventing Korea from abandoning its own successful cultural policies.

Ultimately, a free trade pact with the United States proved too tantalizing a prospect for a Korean government, which has aspirations to be the economic hub of Asia. Government economists are already tallying up the potential economic gains of a deal with the United States. They're also promising the cultural sector a massive injection of new cash in an effort to compensate for the lost protection of the screen quota policy.

But don't count on Korea's cultural community to fall silent. While the country's films enjoy international prominence, Korea is also no slouch when it comes to street performance.

Some times the spectacle can be tragic, as was the case when a Korean farmer stabbed himself to death at a 2003 rally against global trade talks. At other times, the performances are worth their weight in PR gold, as has been the case with a succession of carefully choreographed appearances by Korean screen idols to picket outside government buildings. The Korea Herald reports that one such picket had to be shut down after a crush of fans turned out to catch a glimpse of the country's top movie star, Jang Dong-gun.

Plans are afoot for mass protests this week, when activists from around the world will descend on Seoul to rally in support of cultural diversity.

Meanwhile, Korea's highly-subsidized farmers are also gearing up to oppose U.S. trade talks which threaten to reduce barriers to foreign food imports. The farmers scored a victory of sorts earlier this month when they shut down a public meeting where officials were to discuss the proposed trade deal.

With so much public opposition, the U.S.-Korea negotiations won't be easy to conclude. Negotiators have less than a year to sew up a deal, before U.S. President George W. Bush loses his fast-track negotiating power -- after which the U.S. Congress will once again reassert its right to examine every clause of the proposed trade agreements with a fine tooth comb.

(While U.S. and Korean negotiators race against the clock, Canada could find itself on the outside looking in. Canada launched trade negotiations with Korea last July, and several rounds of talks have already taken place. But, with a finite number of negotiators at its disposal, the Korean government might concentrate its resources and energies on the more luminous U.S. prize.)

Even if negotiations between the U.S. and Korea should fall apart, Hollywood has already secured its prize. The MPAA, in a press release, adds that its "ultimate goal is a global market for films and filmed entertainment unimpeded by the artificialities of government policies."

There may be a lesson here for the global movement of non-governmental organizations and culture vultures who long championed a global treaty on cultural diversity, only to see that treaty rendered irrelevant by hardball U.S. trade negotiating tactics. Joining hands to conclude feel-good treaties at UNESCO is of little consequence if countries are left isolated when it comes to engaging in global trade negotiations.

Indeed, the more salutary experience of several Eastern European governments -- which recently wriggled out of onerous trade commitments with the United States -- provides a stark contrast with Korea's recent fate.

When the European Union added 10 new member-states in 2003, the trading bloc demanded that new entrants like Poland and the Czech Republic amend their existing economic agreements with the United States. While the United States balked, the EU insisted that the agreements either be amended, or torn up altogether.

The European Commission, the EU's powerful Executive branch, didn't like that these old economic agreements tied the hands of Central and Eastern European governments when it came to introducing audio-visual policies which favoured local TV, cinematic or musical productions.

After a brief diplomatic stand-off, the United States quietly agreed to revise its lop-sided agreements with the new EU member-countries, rather than risk seeing the agreements terminated at the insistence of EU officials.

In other words, thanks to the negotiating muscle of the powerful European Union, a number of Eastern and Central European governments once again enjoy the freedom to introduce cultural policies which carve out a place of prominence for local content -- the very same sort of policies which are now being torn down in Korea.

The lesson for other governments should be abundantly clear. In fact, it's one that you can readily glean from one of my favorite U.S. television exports, The Sopranos: If you want protection from bullying tactics, you need to join a crew.

Luke Eric Peterson is an Ottawa-based writer and consultant. He writes a bi-weekly column for Embassy.