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Korea seeks screen quota reduction

Korea Times

Korea Seeks Screen Quota Reduction

By Kim Sung-jin, Staff Reporter

20 January 2006

The government Friday launched a campaign to reduce the screen quota in exchange for starting bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) talks with the United States.

Strongly denouncing the Korean film industry’s unyielding standing against the reduction of the screen quota, Vice Finance and Economy Minister Kwon Tae-shin Friday blamed the film industry hard for what he calls ``collective selfishness.’’

Under the screen quota system, instituted in 1967 in an effort to protect the local film industry from the aggressive foray of Hollywood blockbusters, Korean movie theaters are required to show local films 146 days a year.

Pointing out Saemangum reclamation project and freight labor union as typical examples of collective selfishness, Kwon said ``We need to resolve conflicts in a democratic manner.’’

``There was an accord made during Kim Dae-jung’s administration that the government would reduce the screen quota of Korean films if domestic movies’ market share exceeds 40 percent. Now Korean films’ domestic market share rose as high as to 59 percent,’’ Kwon stressed.

``They only care about not losing what they possess,’’ Kwon said.

Kwon’s remarks made at a forum hosted by the CEO Network at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Seoul, are taken as a signal that the government will resume its attempt to slash the screen quota.

To date, given the sensitivity of the screen quota issue, bureaucrats have avoided mentioning it at public occasions.

Kwon even presented specific figures, saying the Korean population amounts to 48 million but the number of people engaged in the film industry stands between 10,000 and 20,000. He added that Korea’s gross exports stands at $280 billion whereas foreign film imports amounts to $100 million.

Kwon’s rare remarks came just days after President Roh Moo-hyun said his administration plans to start FTA talks with the United States.

The U.S. government, lobbied by the Hollywood film industry, demanded Korea scrap or reduce the number of quota days first before sealing the Korea-U.S. bilateral investment treaty (BIT).

Eager to attract more greenbacks into the country by clinching the Korea-U.S. BIT and FTA, Seoul tentatively agreed to Washington’s request to reduce the compulsory Korean cinema showing days from 146 to 73 days a few years ago.

However, the proposed Korea-U.S. BIT talk has been deadlocked over the screen quota since 1998 with the Korean film industry not budging an inch.

Korea removed another obstacle to commencing the Korea-U.S. FTA negotiations by accepting Washington’s offer to resume U.S. beef imports, and the Ministry of Finance and Economy (MOFE) now seeks to eliminate the only remaining hurdle: screen quotas.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) announced in its gazette that the ministry will hold a public hearing on the Korea-U.S. FTA on Feb. 2.

Kim Pyung-hwa, a manager of the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images, the screen quota advocacy group, dismissed vice minister Kwon’s remarks as a sheer nonsense.

``As far as I am aware, even Finance and Economy Minister Han Duck-soo admitted the importance of diversity of cultural products, including the screen quota. I believe that Kwon’s remark was just a comment, not a policy direction,’’ Kim said.

``Protecting cultural diversity is a global trend. Canada has legislated a bill on protecting cultural diversity last December and Korean lawmakers are also moving to adopt a similar bill this year,’’ he said.

Kim said there is no change in the film industry’s stance that the current screen quota should be kept intact, but the coalition would still closely watch the government’s announcements.

As the World Trade Organization (WTO) obligates countries seeking to launch official bilateral FTA negotiations to hold a public hearing, at least two weeks before the official announcement of the commencement of the talks, it is highly likely that the two countries will announce a beginning of the Korea-U.S. FTA negotiations sometime around March 16.

Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon’s current visit to Washington to meet U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is adding credibility to speculation that the official launch of the Korea-U.S. FTA talks is imminent. However, Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong Friday denied there were discussions about the screen quota between Minister Ban and Secretary Rice.

In 2005, the U.S. was Korea’s third-largest export destination after China and the European Union.

The Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, a state-run economic think tank, previously estimated that Korea’s exports to the U.S. would grow as much as 15.1 percent after the Korea-U.S. FTA takes effect.