China may lift ban on Korean entertainment content

As the world riffs on BTS, “Squid Game” and “Parasite,” China is eagerly keeping the Korean content wave at bay.

That could soon change after Tencent Video this week began streaming “Hotel by the River,” a 2018 film by art-house director Hong Sang-soo about a poet who meets his estranged sons.

The move has prompted some in the Korean entertainment industry to welcome a “partial lifting” of the Chinese ban. And the President of Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, has already claimed some credit. Yoon met with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last week.

“A Korean film recently aired on a Chinese OTT after the six-year ban,” Kim Eun-hye, senior secretary for press affairs, told reporters on Tuesday. “We hope that this small gesture will lead to big, meaningful advances in the future of bilateral relations between the two countries since the recent summit.”

The ban was imposed due to political-diplomatic concerns, so a government-to-government solution may indeed have been the breakthrough. In 2018, China decided against the deployment of US missile systems for high-level defense in South Korea.

South Korea said the systems were necessary to protect itself from its unpredictable and nuclear-armed North Korean neighbor. China said THAAD’s radar system is capable of spying on its territory.

“That [Korean] The President also stressed the need for growing interaction between the younger generations of the two countries. President Xi agreed with this view,” said the president’s spokeswoman. “China responded positively to Korea when the Chinese OTT released the Korean film.”

The ban on Korean content has had a far-reaching and costly impact on Korean entertainment companies. For some producers and distributors, the lockdown meant losing one of their biggest export markets at a time when K-pop and Korean TV dramas like Descendants of the Sun were huge.

For others in the VFX and production area, this no longer meant the dissolution of the business built up and embedded in China over several years. In the case of Lotte, the hotel and fast-food conglomerate that is also South Korea’s second-largest film company, this meant the dissolution of its Chinese supermarket and cinema chains.

Chinese media conglomerates have also been major buyers of Korean intellectual property and minority investors in a handful of Korean media conglomerates. Huace bought a $52 million stake in Next Entertainment World, Suning bought a stake in FNC Entertainment, an Alibaba entity invested in talent company YG Entertainment, and Huayi Bros and Tencent joined forces to form another publicly traded company check.

Despite the message from their president, Korean companies are likely to view the overture with suspicion. In the last two years there have already been announcements about the reopening. In December 2020, Chinese regulators approved the release of a Korean video game. And in March last year, public broadcasters in the two countries said they would begin a collaboration. However, subsequent activity has been negligible, with the exception of Chinese streamers iQiyi and Tencent, which license or co-invest Korean content for their international operations outside of China.


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