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Election of New South Korean President Heralds Film Industry Reforms

The election of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s new president heralds multiple changes in the country’s cultural and entertainment industries, including the rollback of a government blacklist of artists and a shakeup of state-controlled funding programs.

Moon, a liberal former human-rights lawyer, was elected with 41% of the vote Tuesday to replace disgraced former President Park Geun-hye. Park was impeached, and now languishes in jail as she faces criminal charges of corruption and abuse of power.

Moon was sworn in Wednesday morning. He says he will reverse policy in many of the areas where Park faces legal proceedings, including in South Korea’s film industry, the world’s sixth-largest.

Supported by her political cronies, including former culture minister Cho Yoon-sun and chief of staff Kim Ki-choon, Park was involved in blacklisting more than 9,000 cultural figures deemed to be anti-government. The list was compiled to exclude artists and companies from state-controlled funding programs.

Moon has pledged to undo the damage of Park’s interference in the arts. “The blacklist is a national violence [against art and artists] that infringed upon the fundamental basis of democracy,” he said in April.

He also wants the resignation of the heads of state organizations, such as the Korean Film Council, that acquiesced to Park’s demands. It was recently revealed that the council had tried to sway public opinion by anonymously submitting a newspaper column justifying drastic budget cuts to the troubled Busan film festival. The council’s chairman, Kim Sae-hoon, is now on the verge of resigning.

The Busan film festival’s woes were sparked by the local mayor’s intervention in the fest’s programming in a bid to protect Park’s image. Moon has gone on record as saying that sitting mayors should not be allowed to serve as festival heads. He has said he would provide an institutional strategy to protect film festivals’ independence and autonomy.

Under Park, a state-controlled fund accessed by nearly 40% of Korean films each year was diverted to give more support to pro-government, nationalistic movies. Critics say that the fund’s manager, the Korea Venture Investment Corp., operated as a de facto censor. Moon says he wants to reduce the size of the profit-seeking fund, currently worth $880 million (KRW 1 trillion), and to support art-house and indie titles.

Moon is also promising to reform the powerful family-run conglomerates, known as chaebols, that dominate Korean industry. Chaebols have long had close relations with government and politicians, and stood accused of unfair business practices, including awarding contracts to affiliates and forcing price markdowns from subcontractors. Korea’s top entertainment firms – Samsung, CJ and Lotte – have all been caught up in Park’s bribery and influence-peddling scandals.

But if reforming the conglomerates is a tough task, so is overhauling foreign policy, which also has implications for the entertainment industry.

In the last year, China has adopted punitive measures against Korean entertainment, tourism and cosmetics companies in retaliation for the installation on Korean soil of a U.S. missile-defense system known as THAAD. Korea-China co-productions have been canceled, and Korean actors have even had their faces blurred out on Chinese TV.

Advocates of THAAD say it is necessary to protect against the threat of a missile attack from North Korea. As a candidate, Moon was circumspect on the issue, saying only that the deployment deal should be “reviewed” and that decisions should be left to the new administration.

On North Korea, Moon wants to end the hard line pursued by Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, and instead revive the “sunshine policy” of dialogue with Pyongyang. Moon says that a decade of confrontation has done nothing to arrest North Korea’s nuclear program.

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