South Korean Webtoon Readership Grows

Hyo Kyung Kim, Feb. 6, 2017, 11:22 a.m.

Korean webtoons -- online comic strips -- have in recent years become the basis of various successful drama series, including “Cheese in the Trap” (2016), “The Girl Who Sees Smells” (2015) and “Misaeng” (2014).  Rich in themes and offering timely commentaries on Korea’s current societal issues such as job unavailability and lookism, webtoons are now read by over 10 million readers here out of the country’s 50 million population, according to a report released Friday by the Korea Creative Content Agency.

The report analyzes foreign comics and cartoons industries and suggests ways to export Korean paper comics, called “manhwa,” and webtoons. While overseas exports are essential for the expansion of the webtoon market, many of Korea’s webtoon series enjoy less popularity abroad due to their “cultural specificity,” according to the report. 

“Japanese manga (comics) are able to expand into various fields such as animation, games and merchandising,” the report said. “However, the Korean cultural characteristics of Korean webtoons are so strong that it is hard for them to gain popularity in foreign markets.” 

The report cited the example of the TV-dramatized webtoon “Misaeng,” a story of struggling rookie office workers which enjoyed nationwide success in 2014 and raked in nearly 10 billion won ($8 million) in profits.

Though the show was exported to six countries including China, the US and Hong Kong, its story spotlighting competition within the modern workplace and Korea’s scarcity of jobs did not resonate with Chinese viewers as it did with viewers here, the report said.

Webtoon series “Along With the Gods” by Joo Ho-min, currently being remade as a film starring Ha Jung-woo, also deals with the traditional Korean notions of death and the afterlife.

The report recommended that Korean webtoonists create stories encompassing more universal topics and a wider range of genres, such as superheroes, fantasy and fairy tale. 

Paradoxically, however, cultural specificity may be essential to webtoons’ continued acclaim within Korea.

One reason Koreans enjoy webtoons is because the online strips heighten relatability by reflecting their “daily lives,” according to a report titled “Webtoon, the new icon of popular culture” released by LG Economic Research Institute in January 2016. 

Differentiation and localization are key, other reports said. Leading webtoon provider Lezhin Entertainment expanded its reach into the Japanese and American markets in 2015. Top Comics began its Taiwanese and Japanese services in 2015, and started exporting works to France last year.

Different comics enjoy diverging levels of popularity in each country, according to statistics released by Lezhin Entertainment last year. Korean readers preferred stories of campus romance, while the narrative of a young, end-stage cancer patient was most read in Japan. Readers in the US were drawn to high-school romance.

“We plan to release content that targets the characteristics of readers in each country,” said Han Hee-sung, head of Lezhin Entertainment.

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