Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Even in the darkest days of the Korean War era, the government struggled to preserve the ancient royal palaces in Seoul. These have now been restored and even expanded to replace buildings removed by the Japanese in the early 1900s and even earlier, by the Korean royal government. There has been an explosion in the publishing of top-quality art books to disseminate an appreciation for Korean art of all kinds. Many of these books have been aimed at foreign consumers in an attempt to win recognition in the world for Korean art, beyond the already-recognized genre of celadon pottery for which the medieval Koryo period is known around the world.“ [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Cities the size of Seoul or Pusan produce limitless opportunities for cultural expression and recreation. Here, as in so much of modern Korean life, traditions mix with newer, often imported, genres. There are plenty of historical sites and artifacts carefully preserved by the government's Cultural Properties Bureau. These range from the collection of the National Museum of Korea, with its rich display of traditional art objects, to private collections such as the Ho'am Museum, many of whose pieces exceed those of the National Museum in artistic quality and importance, to the modern art galleries of Seoul's university districts and the massive Seoul Arts Complex south of the Han River.

“In Korea, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, architects, dancers, and street artists abound. The capital city boasts a number of excellent museums. The Seoul Arts Complex contains theaters, studios, classrooms for advanced studies in the arts, and exhibit space for shows. Several separate theater districts offer original plays and dramatic productions from all over the world. Several universities specialize in the fine arts and there are special schools and classes to train artists. Children in school spend a considerable amount of their time learning traditional arts, such as calligraphy and classical painting styles along with Western painting, which has a different perspective and different techniques. In these ways the Korean art scene is truly international in scope and traditional as well as modern at the same time. Korea's appreciation for different kinds of art comes naturally.

Ban in South Korea on Japanese Culture

Japanese films, videos, television shows, popular music, computer and video games, concerts, comic books and magazines were banned in South Korea until 1998. The only exceptions was the showing at film festivals of Japanese films that had won international awards. Even films with Japanese actors were forbidden.

In spite of the ban, Japanese comic books, CDs and videos were widely available on the underground market, and Korean artist in a number of media were influenced by or outright copied Japanese work. The design of Korean fashion magazines and format for television shows in the 1990s was heavily influenced by Japan.

The ban on Japanese popular culture was a manifestation of anti-Japanese sentiments in South Korea and an effort to create markets for homegrown artists. The ban was ended by South Korea President Kim Dae Jung who described it as unnatural.

End of the Ban on Japanese Culture

The ending of the ban on Japanese popular culture was a step by step process beginning with the first deregulation in 1998 in which allowed acclaimed Japanese films, concert with Japanese pop stars at halls with less than 2,000 seats, some Japanese manga but the sale of CDs by Japanese groups remained prohibited.

In June 2000, restrictions were eased further. Japanese family movies and large concerts were allowed. Many of the restrictions that remained were in place to protect Korean industries. In January 2004, restrictions on Japanese music, video games and movies was almost completely removed and those on Japanese television programs were relaxed.

After the restrictions were lifted, a Korean version of Pokemon games made their way to South Korean television; Japanese women’s fashion magazines became popular with South Korean young women and Japanese mangas became more popular with young Korean males. Interaction moved both ways. Korean television dramas and Internet games started to become very popular in Japan. For a while, a hot topic in Japanese fashion magazines was how to achieve “perfect” Korean skin, regarded as white and unblemished.

Han Style, Korean Wave and K-Pop Culture Emerge in the 2000s

The Korean wave refers to the Korean entertainment and popular culture phenomena mainly in the form of K-Pop music, TV dramas, and movies that has taken Asia and the world by storm. Known as “Hallyu” in Chinese, the term was first used in 2000 to describe Chinese fans’ enthusiasm for K-pop boy band H.O.T. during their concert in Beijing. The Korean Wave began with acclaimed films in the 1990s and popular television dramas that found a receptive audience in Japan, China and Southeast Asia in the early 2000s. It then gained momentum when K-Pop music began to really take hold in Asia and spread its tentacles around the world. Korean popular music, television and film all have carved out large audience for themselves in the international market.

Asian countries evolved through cultural exchanges and trade throughout their history. In recent decades trends spread have throughout the region very quickly. The 80s were a time for “Hong Kong Noir” while the 90s were a time when of Japanese animation and manga pulled in a wide audience. In the 2000s and 2010s, it has become South Korea’s turn with the sharp rise in the popularity of Korean culture, with music and television dramas taking the lead. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Interest in Korea, triggered by the success of leading Korean dramas and popular music, continues to escalated to include a host of other aspects of Korean culture, such as hangeul (Korean alphabet), hansik (Korean food), hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), hanok (traditional Korean houses), hanji (traditional Korean paper), as well as Korean music. In Korea, the aforementioned six cultural symbols are collectively referred to as “Han Style”.

The gigantic Seoul metropolis, home to nearly half of the country’s 52 million population, it remains the focal point of the entertainment industry, despite government efforts to delocalize and relocate state organizations including the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) and Korea Media Rating Board. [Source: Patrick Frater, Variety, December 8, 2020]

9,473 Politically-Active South Korean Artists Blacklisted

In 2018, Yonhap reported: “The former Park Geun-hye government maintained a list of more than 9,000 artists deemed critical of the government and used it to disadvantage them from various state support programs, a civilian-government truth committee said. During a press conference in Seoul, the committee for finding the truth behind the "artist blacklist" unveiled a government document that includes a total of 9,473 names allegedly excluded from various programs to support artists. [Source: Yonhap, April 10, 2018]

“They were disadvantaged simply because they signed at least one of the many joint statements issued to criticize Park's handling of the Sewol ferry sinking that claimed more than 300 lives in 2014 or expressing support for candidates from her rival party in various elections, the committee said. Each page of the document had a date showing it was printed out in May 2015, a month after it was created by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism at the instruction of the presidential office under the Park government.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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