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(News Focus) Hallyu seeks opportunities in Iran after sanctions relief

All News 14:48 January 19, 2016

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Jan. 19 (Yonhap) - The South Korean pop culture industry expects to spread the Korean culture wave of "hallyu" in the Middle East with the recent lifting of sanctions on Iran, industry sources said Tuesday.

The U.N. nuclear agency on Saturday certified that Iran has met all of its commitments under last summer's landmark nuclear deal to crimp Teheran's ability to make atomic weapons. For Iran, the move lifts Western economic sanctions that have been in place for years, unlocking access to frozen assets and resuming energy exports.

Though it is hard to expect as many dramatic benefits as there will be for construction firms, refiners and automakers from the world's fourth-largest oil reserves holder, the pop industry is not totally out of the discussion.

Hallyu, which refers to the global boom of Korean pop culture, was once widespread in Iran as well.

"Jewel in the Palace," a Korean cuisine drama that was aired on local TV networks in Iran in 2006 and 2007, created a sensation in Iran and South Korea by surpassing 90 percent viewership.

"Jumong," a drama about the founder of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, was also a big hit in 2008 and 2009, with the highest ratings reaching up to 85 percent.

The local media gave significant coverage to the dramas and actors. Some even visited South Korea to cover the filming locations of the famous dramas. The younger generation in Iran consumed these Korean pop culture content through the Internet.

"Jewel in the Palace" brought the Korean cuisine boom to Tehran. LG Electronics Co. increased its market presence in the country by contracting actor Song il-gook, the lead character in "Jumong," for an advertisement.

In November 2015, Iranian reporters visited South Korea to participate in a new TV show's world promotion event that invited foreign reporters from Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia to the filming site.

The period drama "Saimdang, the Herstory," which stars Lee Young-ae, marks Lee's return as an actress, 10 years after she halted her career to get married and have children.

She led the smash-hit epic series "Jewel in the Palace" and last appeared in director Park Chan-wook's 2005 film "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance."

"Iranian reporters are very interested in the drama due to Lee Young-ae," said Kim Young-bae, an official with Group8, which is producing the drama. "(We) do not know where this interest is heading to, but it will be great for Hallyu in general to have an open Iranian market."

There is a low possibility that the boom of South Korean pop culture will directly lead to financial success as the content has often been exported to Iran at a low cost -- sometimes even free of charge -- to boost hallyu in the region.

Still, the Iranian market holds significance as a possible foothold for the future spread of hallyu in the Middle East. Manufacturing businesses are looking forward to an increase in exports by taking advantage of the popularity of soap operas.

For the K-pop industry, however, Iran is still an unknown territory.

Despite potential fandom in the Middle East, the area has often been ruled out from the artists' scope of activity.

The 2013 concert of popular boy group INFINITE in Dubai or Seo In-young and Nine Muses' participation at the 2011 Yasalam Music Festival in Abu Dhabi are among the very few cases.

"Until now, activity in the Middle East was not impossible but was not actively done as it has poor geological accessibility (from South Korea), and there is a strong perception that the environment is not favorable for business," said an official from a local management agency, who wanted to stay anonymous.

Citing a lack of understanding of the country's politics, diplomacy and culture, an official from FNC Entertainment, which manages K-pop groups, including CNBLUE, F.T. Island and AOA, also said it will be hard to launch its business in Iran in the near future.

While expecting a special effect from the sanctions relief, many remain cautious and say they will keep their eyes on how Seoul and Tehran manage their relations.

"If cultural exchanges improve and conditions are made to open concerts, K-pop singers could consider (Iran) as one of the countries to visit during their world tours," said an official with S.M. Entertainment, South Korea's leading management agency.


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