Hollywood squeeze

Observations on Korea

Talks are beginning in Seoul to thrash out a free-trade agreement between South Korea and the United States. But one issue will be conspicuously absent from the agenda: the Korean screen quota. Similar to arrangements in force in Brazil, France and China, this required South Korean cinemas to show only home-grown films for at least 146 days of the year, sheltering a domestic cinema industry that has been gaining a worldwide reputation.

The Americans have never liked the quota, which was introduced in 1966, and the reason it is off the table for the trade talks is that the US has already won that battle, or at least half-won it.

Earlier this year, the Korean government halved the quota, provoking outrage at home. Thousands demonstrated in downtown Seoul; the renowned director Park Chan-wook protested at the Berlin Film Festival and some cinema chains spoke of maintaining the quota voluntarily.

Proponents of the cut say the Korean film industry no longer needs protection. They point to its 50 per cent domestic market share and the worldwide success of movies such as Old Boy, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004. Others believe the government's decision leaves South Korea vulnerable to a blitz of Hollywood blockbusters.

Yet what really happened had little to do with these arguments. Hollywood has resented the quota for years but Seoul has always taken a tough line. But when the Motion Picture Association of America saw the trade talks looming between the US and South Korea, it seized its chance, lobbying US delegates to make the removal of the quota a precondition for negotiations.

Trade between the US and South Korea topped $70bn last year, so a free-trade agreement will be a very big deal indeed, for both sides. And when the US duly said the quota was a stumbling block even before talks began, the Koreans knew resistance was futile.

For some, this is another lost battle in the struggle to protect the world's distinctive cultures. "What happened in South Korea is happening all around the world," says Robert Pilon, of the Coalition for Cultural Diversity, an umbrella group that tries to counter the cultural effects of globalisation. "The US desperately needs access to foreign markets and will do anything to convince countries to eliminate limitations on their markets - even if it means treating cultural products as ordinary commodities."

Unesco, the UN's cultural arm, is also concerned, and last year it adopted a convention on cultural diversity, authorising governments to take appropriate steps to protect their national cultures without fear of retribution from trade partners. To come into force, the convention needs to be ratified by at least 30 countries. The United States will not be signing.

But Pilon is sanguine. "There's a strong will to defend cultural policy, especially in developing countries," he says. "And over time a new body of international law will get created, which will seep into trade negotiations."

Supporters of the convention are now trying to persuade countries to ratify it. It could be enacted by September 2007 - which will be too late to save the Koreans from a slew of Hollywood hits.