South Korea to exert “soft power” internationally through books

By Maya Jaggi

Paju Bookcity, a 21st-century hub for the South Korean book trade less than an hour’s drive from Seoul, appears oddly deserted under limpid blue skies. But amid its understated eco-architecture are keys to understanding not just this harmonious, riverside industrial estate but also moves by South Korea to turn hardbacks into soft power.

At the library of Youlhwadang Publishers, designed by London-based architect Florian Beigel, an alcove holds authors’ portraits alongside sepia cameos of the publisher’s ancestors. Yi Ki-ung, Youlhwadang’s president and Paju Bookcity’s chief visionary, wants neglected values reinstated as guiding principles in industry.

“Korea has such a painful history,” Yi, a youthful man in his seventies, tells me in his office, where visitors leave their shoes at the door. “So much of our cultural heritage has been damaged. We have to rebuild it.”

A print workshop nearby is a museum for hot metal presses. Visitors are gifted a metal character – a reminder of the moveable type Koreans invented in 1377, more than half a century before the printing revolution of the Gutenberg Bible in Europe.

Korea’s long history of the printed word is a source of immense national pride. Hangeul, the phonetic alphabet invented by King Sejong the Great in the 1440s, is now sported on designer ties. Paju Bookcity flags a pillar of Korean identity to a world more familiar with K-pop and kimchi (pickled cabbage). Located beside the river Han (of the tiger economy’s “miracle on the Han”), the city is designed to recover not only a heritage suppressed during Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945 but also values eclipsed in the rush to growth after the Korean war of the early 1950s. This national self-questioning was brought to a head by the Sewol ferry disaster this April, which president Park Geun-hye blamed on “long-running evils”.

When Paju Bookcity was dreamt up around the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics by seven publishers who went hiking in the capital’s peaks, the government had little interest in investing in books. As construction began in 1999, aid for the private initiative was limited to tax breaks, infrastructure and “demilitarising” the dirt-cheap swampland 30km north of Seoul – close to the North Korean border – that was all the publishers could afford.

“This was the promised land,” Yi says with a gleam in his eye. “Nobody wanted to come. I had the foresight.” The city has grown to some 300 publishers, printers and related businesses, employing about 10,000 people. Paju Booksori, its literary festival, declares itself Asia’s biggest, with 450,000 visitors a year. A children’s book festival is thriving. Both receive government funds. “When we first wanted to build Paju, the government wanted to make money off us,” Yi says. “Now it approves.”


A statue in Seoul of King Sejong, who invented the Korean alphabet in the 15th century

This change of heart accords with today’s policy of “cultural prosperity”, as manufacturing and export-led growth have faltered. “In the 21st century, culture is power,” president Park declared in her inaugural speech in February last year, vowing to “ignite the engine of a creative economy”. In 2013, South Korea recorded a trade surplus in cultural products and services for the second year running – and around double that of 2012, according to Bank of Korea. This is largely down to the hallyu , the South Korean cultural wave that engulfed east Asia at the turn of the century (not least as an alternative to Hollywood dominance) and rippled across continents. At the crest were TV serials such as Dae Jang-geum (Jewel in the Palace) of 2003. Just as the government poured funds into film then, it has now woken up to literature’s soft-power potential – for a fraction of the outlay. The South Korean book industry – the world’s 10th-largest by number of titles, and supreme in children’s books – is experiencing an export push.

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“Korea is renowned for the Korean wave. But there is less interest in traditional culture,” Yoo Jin-ryong, South Korea’s minister of culture, said ruefully on an official visit to the UK in early April. He spoke to me after a recital by South Korean soprano Sumi Jo for guests from the London Book Fair. South Korea was this year’s market focus, following government drives at book fairs in Frankfurt in 2005, Beijing in 2012 and Tokyo in 2013.

“Building an economy without culture is like building a house on the sand,” Yoo tells me. “Korean society developed economically far too quickly. In our spiritual foundations, we have experienced a huge sense of loss.”

A thoughtful man and a former civil servant, Yoo points out that in past centuries, Korean officials were chosen for their skills as poets. “There is a fallacy in the west that Korea is only about economic development,” he says. “We decided that our long history and cultural traditions are important for the world to get to know.”
. . .
One motive may be to reclaim human values after the putative “Asian” ones touted by authoritarian regimes. But it is also a pragmatic strategy for extending the Korean wave, with its “spillover” effect. For every $100 of cultural exports, the government calculates there is a further $412 of knock-on consumer spending. Incoming tourists reached a record 12.2m in 2013, through a hallyu effect among fans of K-pop and K-drama. Amid fears that the wave is flagging, literature is gaining credit as a fount of “creative content”: the TV dramas that began the wave were based on historical novels. “For hallyu to be sustainable,” Yoo says, “we need to create new stories that are entertaining. That is why we promote literature.”

Soft power stems from the attractiveness of a country’s culture and values, according to Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the term in 1990. In getting what you want, he wrote, “seduction is always more effective than coercion”. Such use of literature is not new. Frances Stonor Saunders’ book Who Paid the Piper? detailed a covert US Central Intelligence Agency books programme during the cultural cold war. The agency distributed 10m books behind the Iron Curtain from the 1950s to the 1990s. Among its secret weapons was Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, published by the CIA in Russian and smuggled into the Soviet Union – as revealed in The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée.

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Soft power can allow tiny but talented players with beefy neighbours to punch above their weight. “For a country as small as Korea, boosting economic power and military forces will be of limited success,” the culture minister says. “So pursuing cultural power is a very important goal for us.” Other small Asian powers, including Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, are watching Seoul’s book strategy keenly.
. . .
Gangnam, Seoul’s flashily affluent southside district, is best known for “Gangnam Style” by K-pop star Psy, the first pop video to score 1bn YouTube hits. But I went south of the river in search of the quieter arts of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI), created by the Ministry of Culture in 2001 from an existing translation fund. A training institute for translators, the LTI has seen its annual budget rise from $5m to $8m in two years. The institute’s president, Kim Seong-Kon, says hallyu paved the way for “K-lit”. The LTI gives $2m a year in grants to translators and foreign publishers, so far supporting 930 titles in 30 languages. More than 100 Korean titles a year are published around the world as a result. Kim, whose father was an interpreter on a US military base, says the main target is English – a global lingua franca.

The national prestige accruing from recent international successes has caught the attention of Seoul in the same way that the “Pamuk effect” galvanised Turkish translations after novelist Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel prize in 2006. Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother (“Mom” in the US edition), the tale of a country woman who goes missing in Seoul train station, has been published in 34 countries. It was bought by publisher Knopf for six figures, became a New York Times bestseller and won the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2011. Sun-mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, a philosophical tale for all ages about breaking free of the battery farm, has also taken off, and its Korean anime spin-off was released in the UK in March. These two women join a posse of Korean authors who have found acclaim in English, including Kim Young-sam, Yi Mun-Yol, Gong Ji-young, Han Kang and Jung-myung Lee.

“I feel I have been drilling for oil for 10 years, and my gusher just came in,” says Barbara Zitwer, the New York-based literary agent who, together with her Korean co-agent Joseph Lee, spotted many of these writers. “Please Look After Mom was the breakthrough book.” Although she credits the LTI with providing sample translations, Zitwer sold the novels on her own synopses with short extracts and uses her own stable of translators.

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It is a reminder that government agencies, which tend to measure quantity rather than quality, are seldom the best judges of literary potential. Commercial literature might even clash with the image a government wants to project. Popular genres such as crime fiction, surprisingly, are still scorned in Korean literary circles, despite the global respect for Scandinavian works.

“The best thing the government can do for the literary world is to keep supporting it and leave it alone,” Hwang Sok-yong, the revered Korean novelist, tells me in a café in Insadong, the old Seoul district of calligraphers’ suppliers. Hwang, whose novel The Shadow of Arms dissects the black market in arms during the Vietnam war, in which he fought, says: “Every time we have a new administration, they interfere in culture. They change the personnel and try to impose their political colour.”

Hwang Sok-yong

Purist: novelist Hwang Sok-yong opposes government interference in culture

As building work continues at Paju Bookcity, to incorporate the film industry, the hope is eerie calm will give way to a cultural buzz. There is government help with infrastructure. But Lee Sang, director of the Paju book festival, wants regulations stifling the industrial complex to be lifted. Burgeoning bookshop cafés, made legal only last year, can still “serve drinks but not food”.

Culture minister Yoo knows “the Korean wave wasn’t created by government” but “flowed organically”. Music and drama gained an edge precisely when censorship was lifted. As the government wakes up to the power of the book, it also needs to keep its distance. “Too much government help spoils you,” Paju Bookcity’s Yi nods sagely. “I’d like them to give us a fishing rod, not fish.”

When soft power backfires

One literary thriller making waves illustrates both the potential and limitations of literary soft power.

The Investigation by Jung-myung Lee is set in a Japanese prison in 1944. It focuses on a fictitious friendship between a Korean prisoner and a Japanese guard, but it alludes to real atrocities, including Japanese medical experiments on prisoners of war. The novel was acquired by a Japanese publisher more than a year ago, but cool relations between Seoul and Tokyo, and caution over the mood of Japan’s reading public, have, says Lee’s agent in Seoul, suspended publication indefinitely.

Lee had hoped his novel could be “a bridge to bring Japanese and Korean people closer”. “Japanese children don’t study their history, and politicians try to remove historical guilt from textbooks,” he says. “But they can’t apologise before they know what happened. Knowledge is the first step.”

The case may highlight the danger of a backlash abroad following too strenuous a push. Yoo Jin-ryong, the South Korean culture minister, puts his faith in reciprocity: “We want to go to countries where the Korean wave is prominent and introduce their cultures into Korea too.”

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