By Toshiyuki Yoshida and Taketo Kudo
The Yomiuri Shimbun
SEOUL, South Korea —
Look out manga, South Korea is stepping up efforts to spread "manhwa" comics to the rest of the world.
South Korea's government is promoting manhwa exports by supporting companies distributing comics online and subsidizing translation of the works into English.
"We want to develop South Korea's manhwa into a global brand and take the place of Japanese manga," a South Korean government official said.
The South Korean government is encouraging domestic publishers with aspirations of selling comics globally to take part in overseas book fairs. The government set up a program to subsidize exhibition costs and even travel expenses for participants in such events.
At an October book fair in Frankfurt, one of the largest in Europe, South Korean publishers and agencies set up a booth among exhibitors of manga and anime from various countries. In addition, South Korea's leading search engine Naver, which also distributes comics online, organized an autograph session with a South Korean cartoonist and introduced "Noblesse," a popular cartoon chronicling a battle among vampires living in the modern world.
"I read manhwa for the first time, and it was better than I expected. As long as it's interesting, it doesn't matter whether it's Japanese or South Korean," said Kathika Neuhaus, 15, a high school girl who attended the fair wearing a costume of a character in "One Piece," a popular Japanese manga.
Many manwha are distributed free, and it's common in South Korea to read them on mobile phones or tablets. Manwha that become popular are often published as books, while some start charging to read them online.
The fantasy manga "Kami to Issho ni" (Together with God), which started online, became a big hit in South Korea, and has since been published in Japan.
Kim Na Jung, manager of Naver's "webtoon" business division, said the firm hopes to penetrate the European market. The firm prepared English editions of 30 manhwa titles, which are distributed online in South Korea, and gave away 3,600 copies at the fair.
"Given the current web environment in Europe, it's difficult to enter the market right now, but we want to start a service in the near future," Kim said.
German publisher TOKYOPOP has produced German versions of about 100 manhwa since 2004. It plans to publish five more between April and July next year.
"Some manhwa are more popular than Japanese manga," TOKYOPOP sales director Sam Fazli said.
With a population of about 50 million, South Korea's domestic market is significantly smaller than Japan's. The South Korean government has been actively supporting exports of Korean pop culture, including music, films and TV, since the late 1990s.
Seoul hopes spreading South Korean pop culture will boost the image of domestic brands and increase exports of appliances, household items and fashion goods.
The strategy also aims to raise interest in South Korea and attract more tourists.
Last year, the number of tourists to South Korea exceeded 11 million for the first time. This year, about 86,000 foreign students are studying at South Korean universities, more than 2.5 times the number in 2006.
South Korea's 2011 sales in pop culture industries reached about 83 trillion won (about $76.6 billion), mainly from music, TV and film, but sales from manhwa-related products accounted for only 1.5 percent. Yet, its "Robocar Poli," a children's cartoon featuring a police car and other vehicle characters called Robocars, has been aired in more than 100 nations.
South Korea's manhwa-related exports were worth about $133 million in 2011, an increase of about 40 percent from 2009.
If South Korea's comic and anime firms intensify their advances abroad, it may change the landscape of the anime and comic market, which Japanese works currently dominate.
"South Korea is trying to muscle in on a field in which Japan has been strong," a Seoul-based Japanese businessman said.