THE WORD “animation” usually reminds people either Disney movies from the United States or anime from Japan. Compared to these two countries, Korea seems to have no place to stand in the competitive market of animations. Even though the animation industry in Korea has the potential to grow as much as its foreign counterparts, lack of governmental support has inhibited its development. For instance, while Korean animation industries receive financial support for about 10% of the production costs, European industries receive support for up to 40~50%. Nevertheless, the business in Korea has continued to grow slowly, yet steadily, and produced a number of successful hits.
1950s: the beginning
The history of Korean animation started with commercial films for drinks, alcohol, toothpaste and medicine. The very first of those films was an advertisement made by OB Beer (Dongyang Beer at the time) in 1956, which consisted of a six-second black-and-white animation where a camel carried two bottles of OB Si-nal-ko (a soft drink produced by OB Beer) on its back while crossing the desert. At the end, the phrase “Drink OB Si-nal-ko when you are thirsty” appeared on the screen. Besides this drink, other products including Lucky Toothpaste and Whal Myung Su (a popular digestive medicine in Korea) were advertised using animations. During the 1950s, Korean animations were still only used for commercial purposes, and were marked by coarse drawings mostly depicted in black-and-white.
1960s: the first animated movie
The most frequently recalled animated commercial film from the ‘60s is undoubtedly the “Jinro Soju Paradise.” In this commercial, sailors arrive at a tropical island where beautiful dancing girls hand them bottles of Jinro soju (a type of alcohol popular in South Korea), which they happily drink together. “Jinro Soju Paradise” was imprinted so strongly in people’s memory that although the commercial film of OB Si-nal-ko was the first animation produced in Korea, many acknowledge the former as the first animated commercial.
Meanwhile, the first full-length animated film created in Korea was Hong Gildong (1967), based on a traditional folktale. Hong Gildong was directed by Shin Dong-heon, an animation director who also made the well-known Jinro Soju Paradise. Even though Hong Gildong was made in adverse conditions with little financial support, it achieved a huge success, attracting an audience of a couple hundred thousand people.
1970s: Robot Tae-kwon V revives the industry
With the success of Hong Gildong, the Korean animation industry was off to a great start. However, a conflict between Shin and Se-gi-sang-sa, the leading production company at the time, resulted in Shin leaving the animated film business. Although the production company endeavored to create another hit, nothing achieved the same level of success as did Hong Gildong. In addition, due to the sudden increase in import of foreign animation TV shows during this period, the domestic animation industry fell into economic depression.
However, the industry soon overcame the slump in 1976 with the introduction of Robot Tae-kwon V, a Korean animation film about the adventure of a hero who controls a giant robot, Tae-kwon V, to fight against evil. Compared to the dominant coarse drawing styles of animations in the ‘50s and ‘60s, animations in the ‘70s showed significant improvement in their illustrations.
1980~1990s: the golden age
The 1980s was the golden age of the Korean animation industry. Even though Korean animations disappeared from the big screen, they began to appear on TVs and achieved a whole new level of success. Classic masterpieces of the ‘80s that are still aired and loved by many fans today include Dooly the Little Dinosaur, Super Board, and Black Rubber Shoes, which targeted children as their main audience. Especially in 1988, anticipation for the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul affected the increase in demand for Korean animations among foreign audiences. With the broadcast of another classic, Dal-ryo-ra Hani in 1988, the Korean animation industry reached its peak. Despite the nationwide success of these animated TV series, however, the industry once again fell into depression at the start of the 1990s due to the low quality of subsequent animation movies aimed at the adult population.
2000s ~ today: achieving global recognition
With the start of the 21st century, the Korean animation industry focused its attention back towards the younger population ranging from infants to elementary school students. The industry rose back on its feet after the change in target. Many famous animation films and TV programs such as Pororo the Little Penguin and Larva were produced during this period. Now, about a hundred Korean animations are aired and sold to a number of countries abroad. In the Licensing Expo 2014, the Korean animation industry made an export contract of $10 million. Not only domestic but also foreign markets are paying close attention to Korean animations nowadays. Due to the high quality of 3D animation production skills and the story-planning ability of Korean animation industries, some foreign animation companies have proposed technical cooperation with Korean companies. However, some also point out that Korean animations now lean too much on contents targeting the young, and lack diversity in genre.
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The largest and most successful animation industries are still mostly in the United States, with Japan following closely behind. And yet, while U.S. industries achieved about 2.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in 2015, Korean industries achieved about 12.7% CAGR. Korean animation’s numerical value of sales may still be behind that of the United States, but the growth rate is certainly higher. In addition, the Korean government has set the goal of funding domestic animation industries up to ₩1.8 trillion until 2017. Even though the Korean animation business has a long way to go, it is catching up to major industries around the world at its own pace.