KOCIS deals with changing demand for culture
By Do Je-hae
A state-run overseas promotional agency, the Korea Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) has undergone organizational shifts with each new administration, inciting some criticism that its policies have lacked continuity or lasting impact.
The affiliate of the culture ministry was formerly in charge of operating 24 Korean culture centers abroad. But after a reshuffle in February, the ministry has taken over this task so that the KOCIS can focus more on creating quality contents and methods for online and offline promotions of Korea.
The reshuffle appointed Woo Jin-yung as the new KOCIS director, who was wrapping up a two-year tenure as the chief executive of the National Library of Korea. During a recent interview with The Korea Times, Woo said that his foremost vision for the agency is to digitalize contents on Korea.
"This year, we plan to publish an electronic version of "Facts About Korea," one of the most important sources for introducing Korea to the world," Woo said.
The KOCIS first published "Facts About Korea" in 2004. The pocket-sized book, containing 70 color photos with maps, examines the history, people, culture, customs, economy, sports and other aspects of Korea. The English-language book is currently available on online stores like Amazon and the PDF version is available on the website of the KOCIS.
"We are envisioning a version that is much more visual, for example, by incorporating video introductions of major tourist sites," said 52-year-old career bureaucrat. The KOCIS director is an assistant ministerial level post, and is one of the most important positions a culture official can hold.
The former culture ministry spokesman stressed the role of books in introducing cultures and languages.
“When people start to learn about a certain culture, they tend to turn ultimately to books for a deeper knowledge of the culture they are interested in," Woo said. "To read the books, people start to learn the language."
Another important digital project has been "Worldwide Korea Bloggers," which has invited foreign fans of "hallyu" to write about their impressions of Korea and Korean culture.
In light of the increasing popularity in Korea, Woo stressed the need for the nation to help the international community, aside from spreading its culture unilaterally.
"One of the main goals of my tenure at KOCIS is to promote Korea's economic development model as a benchmark for underdeveloped countries," Woo said.
In September, Korea will host a forum for sharing Korea's development tips for 10 CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) members, including the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Korea and Kazakhstan are celebrating the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.
To deal with the rising demand for Korean culture services abroad, Seoul has been adding overseas Korean culture centers at a rather hectic pace. Meanwhile, the number of foreign culture centers here has remained the same for many years.
"So many Korean ambassadors are saying they need new Korean culture centers in their country of residence," Woo said. "These centers are property of the government and government officials are seconded there to run and maintain the facilities. This incurs a heavy budgetary burden, so the government can only build around three to four a year.”
New Korean cultural centers will open in countries like Thailand, Belgium, Brazil and Egypt this year, bringing the total to 28. Last year alone, new centers opened in Australia, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey.
At the beginning of his career, Woo was sent to New York when the Korean Cultural Center had only been in operation for a few years.
"In the mid 1980s, it was a huge deal if the New York Times printed a small article on Korea, and even then, it wasn't about our culture. It was more political," Woo recalled. "The fervor for Korean culture services outside our country now suggests that Korea has started to gain more attention globally," Woo said. He later returned to head the New York Korean Cultural Center in 2005.
Woo holds an MA in Art Management from the City University in London. He formerly served as the director of the Korean Cultural Service in New York and culture ministry spokesman in 2007. Since 2010, he has been a Ph.D. candidate in IT Policy & Management at Soongsil University.