K-pop blueprint: Drawing inspiration from South Korea’s creative industries

An UNCTAD report highlights key lessons from the Republic of Korea’s journey from an exporter of cars and electronics to a cultural powerhouse.


  • Cultural products like K-pop act BTS and the Netflix show “Squid Game” generated $12.4 billion in export revenues in 2021.

  • The strategic embrace of the creative economy shows how innovation can drive economic transformation, job creation and growth.

  • The country’s success offers an inspiring model for countries aiming to turn their cultural assets and creative industries into engines of growth and development.

From chart-topping K-pop acts like BTS and Blackpink to the Netflix phenomenon “Squid Game” and the surprise international culinary hit “kimchi”, a fermented vegetable dish, cultural exports from the Republic of Korea, more commonly known as South Korea, are captivating audiences worldwide.

The global triumph of “Parasite”, the first non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, the growing allure of K-beauty products and Seoul’s rapid rise as top tourist destination have bolstered the country’s economy and global influence.

Its creative sectors, which boast a 4% to 5% annual growth rate and employ over 600,000 people, generated $12.4 billion in export revenue in 2021. In comparison, the Republic of Korea’s consumer electronic equipment exports generated $4.7 billion.

A new UNCTAD report examines the lessons to be learned from the East Asian nation’s journey from an exporter of cars and electronics to a cultural powerhouse.

“The Republic of Korea’s strategic embrace of the creative economy shows how creativity and innovation can drive economic transformation and growth,” says Marisa Henderson, head of UNCTAD’s creative economy section. “It offers an inspiring model for countries aiming to turn their cultural assets and creative industries into engines of growth and development.”

Success by design

The Republic of Korea’s ascent to the global cultural spotlight didn’t happen by chance,” Ms. Henderson says. “It was engineered by a strategic combination of government policy and private sector innovation.”

Key to success was a comprehensive institutional framework led by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which acted as an umbrella organization to coordinate the work of government bodies promoting the country’s creative sectors, such as the Korea Creative Content Agency, the Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange and the Korea Film Council.

Supported by trillions of won in government funding, they helped sculpt the country’s ascent as a cultural titan.

Government financial incentives, including loans and tax breaks, alongside measures such as intellectual property protection, fostered an environment ripe for innovation and technological advancement.

Equally important was the investment in educational institutions like the Korean Academy of Film Arts and the Korea National University of Arts, which played a pivotal role in nurturing a new wave of creators who have adeptly used new digital platforms like YouTube and Netflix to reach audiences beyond national and Asian consumers.

“Through strategic investments and supportive policies, the government and the private sector have cultivated a creative ecosystem where innovation thrives and cultural products reach global audiences,” says Jo Hyun-Rae, president of the Korea Creative Content Agency.

Pivotal policy areas to unlock creative economies worldwide

By spotlighting the success of the Republic of Korea’s cultural exports, UNCTAD aims to inspire governments worldwide to build policy frameworks and promote investments in creative industries.

This is part of the UN trade and development body’s broader efforts to help developing countries unlock the creative economy’s potential – like in Angola, where nascent creative industries could help diversify the nation’s oil-dependent economy.

For countries aiming to nurture the potential of their creative economies, UNCTAD recommends focusing on these pivotal policy areas:

  • Strategic policy development: Craft and implement policies that bolster the entire creative value chain, from content creation to distribution, domestically and abroad.
  • Talent development: Invest in education and training programs to nurture creative talent and entrepreneurship.
  • Investment in digital infrastructure: Ensure widespread access to digital technologies to facilitate content dissemination and consumption.
  • Public-private partnerships: Forge cooperation between government agencies and private sector actors to drive innovation and growth.
  • Intellectual property protection: Strengthen and enforce copyright laws to protect creators’ rights and promote content monetization.

“Adapting these strategies to local contexts can help nations unlock the potential of their creative economies, fostering sustainable development and global cultural influence,” Ms. Henderson says.

This episode of The Weekly Tradecast looks at K-pop and other lessons for success from the creative economy of the Republic of Korea with UNCTAD economist Katalin Bokor.

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