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The woman who single-handedly turned Korea into a global film and TV powerhouse

Walt Hickey’s book You Are What You Watch examines the vast impact of Miky Lee

Miky Lee and the cast and crew of Parasite accept the Oscar for Best Picture
Miky Lee and the team behind Parasite accept the Oscar for Best Picture on Feb. 9, 2020.
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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Employing a mix of research, deep reporting, and over 100 full-color data visualizations, Walt Hickey’s new book You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything explores how movies, TV, and pop culture affect... well, everything, from what we watch to what we buy to how we live. The following is excerpted from the book, which is available now.

Japan and Britain largely invented the contemporary playbook for investment in soft power through cultural exports, finding ways to cement their cultural wants and desires through those exports. Korea followed, and with considerable success.

South Korea has used soft cultural power deftly for years. When South Korean or American films or television shows made their way into North Korea, they were potent motivators for those who found their stories and the degree of affluence and lifestyle so appealing, it inspired them to escape the country.

After the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung loosened the bans on cultural imports from Japan. Later, in 1999, the government allocated $148 million to cultural production after the passage of a law to fund it.

As an industry, Korea’s pop culture business is dominated by one company, CJ Group, operated by founder and de facto queen of all Korean cultural production, Miky Lee, who basically built the film industry in Korea. An heir of the founder of Samsung, Lee has been the longtime patron and champion of Korean film and culture locally and abroad.

CJ, the vehicle that Lee steered to the top of the heap of culture, is an embodiment of Korean industrialization and globalization. CJ Group started out as a sugar- and flour-milling company. Later it moved into food and beverage production, and then Lee Byung-chul founded Samsung, which went on to compose a very substantial chunk of the South Korean economy.

Lee, a granddaughter of Lee Byung-chul, grew up watching American films. By the time she came into her inheritance, she had decided to invest a little money in a company working in the movie business. Around the same time, other Asian companies were already getting their feet wet in Hollywood: Japan’s Sony bought Columbia Pictures, and for a while Matsushita owned Universal, though they eventually sold it to Seagram.

Lee was intrigued by the potential of a company that was being formed by a number of experienced producers attempting something that hadn’t been accomplished since the founding era of film—making a movie studio from scratch. The founders had talent and skill, but needed money. That company ended up being called DreamWorks and, along with David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Miky Lee put up $300 million in exchange for 10.8 percent of the company and all distribution rights for DreamWorks films in Asia outside of Japan.

Yeong-ae Lee wearing leather and looking frightened in Lady Vengeance
2005’s Lady Vengeance, directed by Park Chan-wook and executive-produced by Miky Lee.
Photo: Tartan Films/Everett Collection

With her resources, access to film distribution and import, Lee was able to build out the Korean market for film. CJ GCV, a subsidiary of the main company, owns 50 percent of the movie theater market in Korea. Partially because when they were built, people came: In 1998, the average Korean saw 0.8 movies per year in a cinema, a figure that now stands at 4.0, one of the highest levels in the world.

And although she started as an importer bringing DreamWorks movies into the country, the company has since become a massive producer in its own right, producing films from Korean standouts like directors Bong Joon Ho and Park Chan-wook as well as local blockbusters. As a result, now Korean domestic films are up to half of the market. As Korea’s only studio with foreign distribution, CJ is now trying to make two to three English-language films a year.

Lee’s accomplishments are inspirational, taking a company from a flour miller to food distributor to film importer to film producer to film exporter, all over the course of mere decades. Besides the 4,187 screens in 189 countries, CJ also owns sixteen television stations and has released 940 musical albums.

And it’s not just CJ: The South Korean national policy of translating and exporting entertainment was logging some bona-fide hits. By 2002, Korea had its first international successes, including domestically popular soap operas like Winter Sonata, which had been translated and exported, and were smash hits in Iraq and Egypt.

Korean music was some of the first Korean culture to penetrate internationally, both with regional rivals—EXO, a combined Chinese- Korean pop band—as well as globally, whether with Psy and “Gangnam Style” becoming a YouTube juggernaut or BTS, an unstoppable pop phenomenon. Internally, the global adoption of Korean pop culture—at first in a few other countries in their region, then in countries in the Middle East and Africa, and finally breaking into niches in the United States and other rich, developed Western countries—has been called Hallyu, or the “Korean Wave.”

And in recent years, that wave has grown massively, and that success has gone from niche to mainstream. BTS became one of the best-selling acts on the planet, accounting for $4.65 billion of Korea’s GDP in 2019.

Korea is influencing American culture in more subtle ways as well. Daniel Dae Kim—an actor best known for roles on Lost and Hawaii Five-0—operates 3AD, a production company that repackages television concepts that were hits in Korea for export to the United States. South Korea developed and tested—and Kim subsequently imported—concepts like The Masked Singer, a competitive singing competition of disguised celebrities, and The Good Doctor, a drama about an autistic doctor.

North Korean refugee poll infographic from You Are What You Watch Graphic: Heather Jones (art) and Walt Hickey (data)

The insatiable appeal of South Korean cultural exports doesn’t stop at their northern border, though North Korean leadership tries to do just that. In January 2021, sources in South Korea reported a crackdown on people smuggling dramas and music into North Korea, with Kim Jong-un calling it a “vicious cancer” that, if left unchecked, would make the North “crumble like a damp wall.” State media regularly rails against South Korean media making its way into the country. One reason appears to be that it’s somewhat instrumental in revealing the reality of the conditions in the North compared with the relative luxury in the South.

A 2018 study that interviewed 127 North Korean defectors puts some fine detail to it. Defectors had long sought speedy anonymity after arriving in the South, but when one admitted in 2011 that a motivation for their escape was a K-drama, it got researchers wondering just how much of an impact South Korean pop culture had north of the DMZ.

Of the 127 people interviewed who escaped North Korea, 89 percent had seen South Korean media at least twice, despite only 40 percent of them having secret access to the internet. Seventy-two percent of them said they liked South Korean television dramas and films, with fully 26 percent citing their enjoyment of K-pop. Fifty-seven percent said the influence of South Korean media weighed “very much” in their defection, with only 12 percent saying it had no impact at all. Follow-up questions revealed why: The dramas showed a freer lifestyle, introduced fashion and hairstyles unavailable in the North, and raised expectations about what a life in South Korea was really like versus what they’d been told by the State. Some remarked that South Korean women were able to drive; others noted that the power never randomly went out during a K-drama.

As of the early 2020s, South Korean culture is at the center stage of global pop culture. The success of Squid Game on Netflix meant a South Korean program was the most-watched thing on the planet for multiple weeks. Even the white slip-on Vans worn by the characters in the death matches saw sales spike 7,800 percent in the weeks after the show premiered. According to Netflix, the show added $1.9 billion to Korea’s economy.

In 2020, Korean content exports hit $10.8 billion, beating out household appliances and creeping up on computer exports, which were $13.4 billion. Entertainment is one of the fastest- growing industries in Korea, with the number of workers employed in creative and artistic services rising 27 percent between 2009 and 2019. In 2021, BTS’s song “Dynamite” generated $1.43 billion on its own.

CJ Entertainment & Media in August 2006 said that soon, “Everyone will watch at least two to three Korean movies a year, eat Korean food one to two times per month, watch one to two Korean dramas per week, and listen to one to two Korean songs per day, that Korean culture will be a part of everyday life.”

Even in Korea, many thought that was a ridiculous goal. A decade and a half later, it seems altogether reasonable. After the Best Picture and Best Director wins for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite at the 2019 Academy Awards, Korean productions experienced an immediate halo effect. After Parasite won the award, Bong and his producing partner spoke, giving thanks and expressing appreciation to Korean film fans and the woman who produced it, who of course was Miky Lee.