(News Focus) Diplomatic row over THAAD hurts Chinese market for hallyu stars
By Shim Sun-ah and Youn Go-eun
SEOUL, March 5 (Yonhap) -- The management agency for Lee Kwang-soo, Kim Beom and Kim Ji-won, Korean stars who are all popular in China, experienced a huge drop in sales in the second half of last year.
That was because their profits from the Chinese entertainment and advertising markets have effectively vanished since October when Beijing restricted Korean entertainers from working in the country in protest against Seoul's decision to deploy a high-tech U.S. anti-missile battery on its soil.
"The company has earned not a penny from China due to the political row over THAAD," Lee Jin-seong, chief of King Kong by Starship, told Yonhap News Agency on Sunday. "We did occasionally receive inquiries for advertisements until the end of last year but no contract was actually signed."
The promotional poster for the TV series "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God." (Yonhap)
China has been one of the top consumers of Korean pop culture. But it has denied permission for Korean entertainers to perform or appear on television shows in China since October, three months after Seoul agreed to host a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) to better defend itself against North Korea's constant military threats. Beijing has long voiced opposition to THAAD, saying its deployment on the Korean Peninsula threatened Chinese national security interests.
After the ban, some of the popular singers, such as Psy and Hwang Chi-yeol, appeared on Chinese shows with their faces blurred out. In some cases, their appearances were edited out altogether. Most recently, China blocked access to newly updated clips of South Korean music and dramas on the country's online video sharing platforms, according to industry sources in Beijing.
There are, of course, a tiny number of A-listers who remain unaffected from the hallyu ban like Jun Ji-hyun, Song Hye-kyo, Kim Soo-hyun and Park Hae-jin. They appeared in outdoor billboards and printed media and renewed advertising contracts until recently, even though none appeared on television.
Lee said the ban is dealing a huge blow to most of the Korean stars who have given their all in the Chinese market.
Among other top-tier stars who remained active in China over the past few years were Kim Tae-hee, Song Seung-heon, Rain, Kwon Sang-woo, Son Tae-young, Lee Joon-gi, Kim Ha-neul, Park Si-hoo and Kim Beom. They received at least two to three-fold more TV appearance fees in China than in South Korea.
The ban has deprived many smash-hit Korean TV shows and their stars a chance to make big money in mainland China.
For instance, KBS 2TV's hit romantic drama "Uncontrollably Fond," broadcast simultaneously in South Korea and China from July to September last year, has chalked up more than 4.1 billion views on China's largest online video portal Youku as of last year's end. The figure is catching up to the 4.4 billion view count of the runaway hit series "Descendants of the Sun" aired via iQIYI, also an online video service.
The promotional poster for the TV series "Uncontrollably Fond." (Yonhap)
But Kim Woo-bin and Suzy, who starred in "Uncontrollably Fond," were unable to come even close to China because of its hallyu ban with the show's promotional activities all being canceled outright.
Gong Yoo and Lee Dong-wook, the male stars of "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God," were more victims of the THAAD fallout.
Though unable to air on Chinese television, the tvN series gained huge popularity in China, as its pirated files complete with Chinese subtitles circulated on the Internet.
Industry insiders speculated the actors would have easily earned some tens of millions of dollars together in China without the hallyu ban.
The situation is expected to inevitably narrow the scope of activities by hallyu stars.
Hwang Ji-seon, chief of Mountain Movement that manages Park Hae-jin, said Korean entertainers need to wisely use this as an opportunity to enhance their competitiveness in the domestic market.
"There was a bubble in the Chinese market," Hwang said. "Korean stars need to take steps to remove the bubble and increase their competitiveness."
Hwang also raised the need to find new markets for Korean dramas, citing the instances of "Guardian" and "Legend of the Blue Sea" that broke their break even points despite the closing of the Chinese market.
Both benefited from the widening global market thanks to the popularity of global online video streaming services, she said.
"We don't see the Southeast Asian markets as being small. They are not as big as China but have high growth potential... If we have good content, we can export them at good prices."