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South Korea - A nation where artists literally starve

‘If employment insurance was extended to cover artists, they could receive the minimum unemployment benefits needed to survive, and it would raise them out of extreme poverty.’ - Theater Professor Chai Seung-hoon



It was a shock to the nation. The lifeless body of a successful and talented screenwriter was found in her small, unheated home on Feb. 8. Beside her body lay a handwritten note begging her landlord for rice and kimchi. In the short letter, Choi Go-eun repeatedly apologized for failing to pay her electricity bill.

The 31-year-old died of complications stemming from hyperthyroidism and pancreatitis. Her colleagues say her death was avoidable, and Koreans struggled to comprehend how someone so seemingly successful could have led such a desolate life.

Since Choi’s death, she has become something of a martyr for impoverished artists across the country. Professional musicians, writers and actors say they have long suffered from unfairly low wages, while at the same time they are excluded from state-sponsored welfare.

In the wake of the screenwriter’s tragic death, a string of measures have been proposed to protect film industry workers. Sweeping bills covering everything from the entertainment industry’s well-known contractual problems to the extension of welfare provisions to artists have been submitted to the National Assembly by both the Grand National Party and the Democratic Party.

Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Choung Byoung-gug held a roundtable discussion last month aimed at getting to the bottom of the problems that have long plagued professional artists.

Choi’s untimely death brought back memories of musician Lee Jin-won, who went by a stage name that translates to “A Moonlight Fairy’s Come Back with a Grand Slam Home Run.” Lee released seven albums before passing away on Nov. 1 last year at the age of 37.

His death brought to attention the entertainment industry’s profit distribution scheme between major music portals and musicians, which critics have long labeled unfair.

What’s eating artists?

Choi was a nameless screenwriter before her talents were recognized for her piece “Passionate Sonata” (2006), which won the Face in Shorts award at the Asiana International Short Film Festival that year.

Despite her talents, she could not sustain herself. Found near her body was her cell phone, which had been cut off because she hadn’t been paying her bills. When she did land screenwriting jobs, they often failed to pay her on time. In the note she posted on her landlord’s door, Choi indicated that she was owed money for past work and that she would be able to repay debts owed to her landlord once she was paid.

Unpaid wages are an industry-wide problem. According to the Federation of Korea Movie Workers’ Union, overdue wages in the film industry in 2009 totaled 1.7 billion won ($1.5 million).


The death of two artists, musician Lee Jin-won (left) and screenwriter Choi Go-eun, reminded the nation of structural problems in the nation’s music and film industries.

“Investments and the actual movie-making process begin only after the script is finished. So it’s hard for screenwriters to make a profit in this system, even though their work is crucial to any production,” explained Jo Hyun-kyung of the movie workers’ union.

“The contracts are vague in details. Even when a company says they will pay the writer 3 to 5 million won, the terms of the contract are never clarified,” said Jo. “There is a difference in being paid that sum in the course of one year than, let’s say, five years.”

This lack of financial stability leads to another problem. Many writers in Korea think of screenwriting as a stepping stone to directing.
Most recently, screenwriter Park Hun-jung, famous for his screenplays for “I Saw the Devil” (2010) and “The Unjust” (2010), made his directorial debut earlier this month with “The Showdown.” The consequence is that professional screenwriters in Korea have no power to influence their own fates in the way they do in foreign countries.

In 2007 and 2008, the Writers Guild of America went on strike to claim a piece of the so-called “new media” pie. For years, they said, corporations were short-changing them on profits made from new forms of media such as DVD sales and revenue generated over the Internet. Many top television shows and films were put on hiatus during the strike. Eventually, production companies succumbed to the writers’ demands and adopted a fairer profit distribution scheme.

“All I can say is that we’re very envious of the situation in the United States,” said Jo. “We just simply do not have the manpower or the capacity to pull off something like that.”

The Federation of Korea Movie Workers’ Union only consists of five screenwriters. Although the Korea Script Writers’ Association also exists, it is not easy to join and lacks industry-wide influence.

The music industry is no better, which has three major problems, according to experts.

First, music profits are disproportionately skewed toward major content providers
, such as Cyworld or Melon, while the artists who create the content get comparatively little. Singers say they have no choice but to accept unfair contracts since few other outlets exist to distribute music.

Second, subscribers to music portals do not pay per content but rather pay a lump sum for unlimited music downloads.
Ultimately, it’s good for consumers and portals and a raw deal for artists.

The third problem is that content platforms tend to push only a small number of popular songs, making it harder for unknown musicians to break into the industry without the help of big-name publicists, who in turn force unfair contracts on the musicians. Here, both the artist and the consumer lose. Musicians struggle to make it big, and consumers are exposed to a limited number of new artists.

“Most indie artists have two jobs. They get into this business knowing that it’s hard to make money just by making music,”
said Lee Moon-seek, head of the Korea Live Music Culture Promotional Association.

“So the perception that underground musicians have it worse than singers who often appear on television is wrong - the system itself is simply more favorable for content distributors,” he added.

The problem of unfair compensation is also felt by authors.

Baek Heena, an author and illustrator of children’s books, said authors in Korea are treated no better. Baek rose to stardom with her first children’s book “Cloud Bread” in 2004, but the contract she signed with a publishing company stated that the content of the book belonged to the company, which is a widespread practice in the publishing industry.

“The industry is still growing, but I’m really concerned about these kinds of contracts,” said Baek. “For this reason, many authors and illustrators of children’s books often have side jobs to earn a living.”

Not enough money to go around

The director of the Korea Film Producers’ Association, Choi Hyun-yong, explained that production companies paid all of the costs to make a film before 2007. However, funds put up by production companies since then have been cut in half to cover losses from box office flops.

“In 2007, the average investment put up to make a film was about 3.2 billion won. Now, it’s 1.4 billion won,” said Choi. “Although there is a problem in the system itself, we [the industry] need to learn how to spread the risk fairer with all those involved.”


On Jan. 27, almost 100 bands and hundreds of music lovers swarmed the Hongik University area to mark the first anniversary of the death of singer Lee Jin-won.

If the problem is not dealt with, Choi said that the only Korean movies produced in the near future will be from major production companies.

Another problem, said film director Kang Woo-suk, is that too many people want a cut of a shrinking pie. “There are simply too many people who wish to be in the film business. The Korean industry cannot accommodate them all. It started when several colleges started establishing theater and film departments, resulting in this overflow of manpower,” Kang said on the MBC radio program “Son Seok-hee’s Focus” on Feb. 12.

“But the number of films that are made in any given year is now half of what was made 10 years ago,” he added.

As the National Assembly deliberates bills to deal with unfair compensation for artists and to expand welfare benefits for them, grassroots campaigns are afoot to find solutions.

“Because bills and laws take forever to be passed, we have come up with our own resolutions to protect [vulnerable] artists in the industry, such as allowing the provision of unemployment benefits,” said Jo of the movie union. “The news of Choi’s death really propelled the urgency of these laws.”

Veteran artists say the most effective way to prevent tragic deaths like Choi Go-eun’s would be to extend government-backed employment insurance to artists. Under current Korean law, artists are only eligible to receive two of the four types of employment welfare schemes. Artists are cut off from employment and industrial accident welfare.

During a recent meeting between artists and Culture Minister Choung, veteran theater actress Park Jung-ja shared her experience of applying for a credit card.

“I was rejected by a credit card company about 20 years ago because the company thought [theater actresses] could not afford to pay for their credit card bills,” Park told reporters. “We always feel like we are standing on the edge of a cliff.”

An association of theater professors issued a statement urging the central government to pass a law guaranteeing a minimum standard of living for professional artists.

Said Chai Seung-hoon, a theater professor at the University of Suwon who heads the association of theater professors: “If employment insurance was extended to cover artists, they could receive the minimum unemployment benefits needed to survive, and it would raise them out of extreme poverty.”

Source: Sung So-young & Hannah Kim @ JoongAng Daily
Tags: culture, death/funeral, economics, political news
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