S. Korea Doesn't Find It Easy To Block Japanese Culture


Across the street from South Korea's culture and sports ministry, wrecking balls are hard at work. The demolition of Japan's former colonial headquarters - a domed, granite monolith - is another effort by the government to heal history's wounds.

But while the edifice - a lingering reminder of Japan's brutal 1910-45 occupation and its attempts to replace Korean culture - is razed, South Korea faces a new barrage of cultural products that come in from the sky.

Today, TV signals and younger visitors from Japan bring movies and magazines with them against government wishes, rendering a Korean official decades-old ban on Japanese pop culture increasingly ineffective.

Earlier this month, officials at the ministry of communications and information reported that Japanese TV signals were reaching across the Sea of Japan and into Korean homes near Pusan, the second largest city. Although this has been happening for years, the ministry only recently thought of jamming the signals "in vulnerable areas," the Korean Times reported.

But, to block Japanese ninja movies, says Kim Soon-shik, a ministry official, as Seoul blocks North Korean propaganda, would be prohibitively expensive and illegal under international law.

For those dismayed by this "living room infiltration," as it is called in the Korean press, things can only get worse. Next month the number of Japanese stations available here by satellite TV will jump from three to as many as 57, and by next year to more than 100. A few years ago, Seoul forced Japan to move its conical-shaped satellite "footprint," which spread over a chunk of Northeast Asia. But there is still some spillover.

Any South Korean with a satellite dish may become a carrier for what many here consider a foreign "virus." So far, there are 1 million households with satellite dishes.

The graphic sex and violence in Japanese media are not tolerated in conservative South Korea, and people here fear a debasing of values. But in large part, the ban remains in place because of lingering anger at Japan for its wartime atrocities and its inability to be frank about them.

The new satellite channels are particularly worrying because three of them will be broadcast in the Korean language - ostensibly for the 1.5 million Koreans living in Japan. But many believe South Koreans are the real target audience, and that Japan has "untrustworthy motives," says Jun Young-jae at the culture ministry.

"They can use those channels for political propaganda," says Choo Kwang-young, a professor at Seoul National University. By portraying Japan in a good light, or omitting facts in documentaries as it has in its history textbooks, programs can misinform Koreans, a concerned Professor Choo says.

Many Koreans over age 60 speak Japanese, a leftover from the days of occupation when they were forced to drop their Korean names and serve Imperial Japan's empire. Today, young people voluntarily copy Japanese clothing and music style as their fathers copied Japan's economic model.

They are still nationalistic, but more moderate. "Many young people also hate Japan, but they like Japanese animation," says Han Jin at Shincine, a film producer company.

He cites as an example a highly popular comic called "Slam Dunk." The strip is drawn in Japan, translated into Korean, and names and places are changed so it can be imported legally. "Many [social circumstances] are similar in Korea, so it's easy to adapt the plot," he says.

Given such similarities, Japanese media moguls see a great opportunity for expansion. But they realize that they must move slowly lest they upset Koreans. The first Korean language channels have small initial investments, and will show reruns of old South Korean-made shows. "This is a really good strategy. If they are aiming for people's living rooms, this is the way to get there," says one longtime foreign resident of Seoul.

Meanwhile, the government is caught between conservative Koreans and more liberal ones who predict the ban will be lifted in a couple years. The latter say the ban is out of pace with reality as stifled cultural ties with Japan contrast starkly with extensive economic ones.

The official line is that nothing can be done until Japan acknowledges its war crimes, returns Korean artifacts, compensates Korean wartime sex slaves, and drops its claim to the disputed island of Tokdo.

But personally, government officials may be more liberal than that. One official says a common view is that "the problem is not whether we should block those channels or not, but if we can improve our standards to match the quality of foreign TV." That may be the only choice. Even the culture ministry's Mr. Jun concedes the permeability of the ban: "It's just the reality, and there's nothing we can do about it."

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