South Korea’s webtoons become first movers 20 years on


In August 2002, the online portal site Daum created a category called “Webtoon” on its platform. Following Daum, South Korea’s largest online portal and search engine Naver launched a similar platform in 2005.

Twenty years after its conception, South Korean webtoons have emerged as a strong multiuse source that creates enormous economic value not only in the country but also globally. Domestically, it has become an industry worth 1.053 trillion won ($810 million) in 2020 in terms of sales, up 64.6 per cent from 2019 and exceeding the 1 trillion won mark for the first time.

Globally, the webtoon market size is projected to reach $26.2 billion by 2028, up from $3.6 billion in 2021, according to market research firm Proficient Market Insights in May.

“Webtoons have become a very important source that can create many other content products in line with ‘one-source, multi-use content consumption methods,” Sung Dong-Kyoo, a media communications professor at Chung-Ang University, told The Korea Herald on Thursday.

A trend of webtoons being adapted into globally popular TV dramas is palpable, with a long list of Korean dramas that gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. They include “Itaewon Class” (2020), “Sweet Home” (2020), “D.P.” (2020), “Hellbound” (2021), “Yumi‘s Cells” (2021) and “Work Later, Drink Now” (2021).

“Webtoon IPs [intellectual properties] are the easiest source for creating other content because they are just like a storyboard. It’s easy to turn them into video content,” Han Chang-wan, a professor at Sejong University, said on Wednesday. “Now the way we consume content has changed entirely.”

First movers

Broadening the spectrum away from the local market, Korean webtoon companies have begun thriving noticeably worldwide.

Eight domestic webtoon platforms have entered the overseas market and 5,500 translated Korean webtoon works as of 2020, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency.

Naver Webtoon, which expanded out of Korea in 2014, now takes the No 1 position among webtoon platforms in 100 countries including the US, Canada, Japan and France. It offers content in 10 languages around the world, and its monthly active users reach 82 million – 75 per cent of whom are foreign users.

More importantly, Korean webtoon companies have developed unique ecosystems in the countries they have made forays into. For instance, “Lore Olympus” on Naver Webtoon’s English platform has recently been given the best webcomic award from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, marking the first such achievement for a webtoon on a Korean platform.

“It is very meaningful that webtoons and web novels made by global creators spread throughout the world on platforms made in Korea, and it is encouraging to witness Korean companies becoming first movers rather than fast followers,” Sung added.

Hurdles ahead

While webtoons are enjoying an era of growth, there are many hurdles to overcome, experts said.

Considered an offshoot of the comic book industry, webtoon platforms are still struggling to be recognised as a distinct industry on their own.

“Webtoons play a role in the broader literary world and make up a de facto industry just based on sheer size, but institutionalisation and promotion policies are facing an uphill battle,” Seo Bum-kang, the head of the Korea Webtoon Industry Association, said on Thursday.

Seo added that the government and the National Assembly should give webtoons independent industry status and foster small and medium platforms and content companies to establish an ecosystem to promote the creation of a greater variety of webtoons.

According to professor Han, Korean webtoons, which suddenly find themselves in the spotlight, are going through a transition period amid a wave of globalisation that neither writers nor readers are ready for.

“The variety of webtoon genres have shrunk somehow, as readers only see what they want and writers only create what readers like. Now, most of the topics are about school life, school gangs, fantasy romance or romantic comedy,” Han noted. “These genres might not appeal to a global audience, and because of that we need more diversity of genres.”

The Korean Herald

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South Korea’s webtoons become first movers 20 years on