Creative Seoul: A Lesson for Asian Creative Cities

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The creative city discourse has been one of the most popular interpretations of the creative industries policy discourse as the many creative city programs attest such as UNESCO Creative City and the EU Cities of Culture. As with creative industries policy discourse, there have been significant international variants. I argue that these creative city variants represent policy adaptations and innovations to the local and international political economy in which these cities are enmeshed. This Seoul case study facilitates an insight into the multi-layered governance involved in the East Asian creative city variation. The East Asian creative city variant is one that has been defined by the focus on creative content, media and the associated industrial and business elements (O’Connor 2019, Flew 2012, Cunningham 2009). The literature on Chinese creative cities and industries denote the impact of China’s political ideology – with the interpretation of the creative as revolutionary and uncontrollable resulting in the official term, ‘cultural creative industries’ (Gu 2014, O’Connor & Gu 2012, Keane 2006, 2009). South Korea demonstrates a different governance paradigm regarding the cultural and creative industries. There is popular rejection of government content control, as exemplified by the popular negative reaction to the Korean government’s blacklisting of over 9,000 artists resulting in the downfall of President Park Geun-hye (and her government) (Kim 2018). Additionally, Seoul is the centre of an internationally renown creative industrial force, the Korean Wave, encompassing K-pop, K-drama and games among others. (South) Korean creative city policies still demonstrate a similar focus on content and industrial/business elements, especially in its approach to Korean Wave. I identify that these as temporal adaptations to being a ‘second-mover’ creative city. The major creative (business) cities, such as New York and London predate the current popularity of the creative city policy paradigm (Scott 2004, Friedmann 1986). The creative city policy paradigm implies that a creative city can be created anywhere (Landry 2008, Florida 2002, Landry & Bianchini 1995). In a taxonomy of creative industries policies, De Beukelaer & Spence (2019) identified aspiration as a distinct policy category. Aspirational creative industries policy is driven by not just economic factors, but by nation brand and global city ambitions. Richard Florida (2002) famously identified city dynamics as a means of attracting talent. Aspirational creative city policy is Floridian policy considerations writ large, a competition for global acclaim and brand. The unevenness of the creative city characteristics and the wider global cultural economy is one reason for focus on media and digital content in Seoul, resulting in a heavy reliance on the digital technology in policy initiatives of the Seoul Municipal Government around the Korean Wave and Culturenomics (Iwabuchi 2015, Lee & Hwang 2012, Yang 2010, Scott 2004). Moreover, the Seoul Municipal Government is enmeshed within a developmental state governance paradigm, one common in Asia. The result is close interaction between municipal and national policymaking (goals) versus the relative independence common within British and Western European municipal governance (Spence 2019, Kim 2016, Markusen 2014, Lee & Hwang 2012, Comunian 2011). In fact, the Seoul mayoralty is a well-travelled route to national politics, particularly to presidency and prime ministership (Lee & Hwang 2012). The close coordination between the policies of Seoul Municipal Government and the Korean National government is illustrated in machinations behind the aforementioned World Design Capital and Korean Wave initiatives such as K-Star Road (Kim J 2016). This Seoul state case study critiques the overall creative city paradigm within the current context of global city competition branding. The creative city competition results in the paradoxical exclusion of the concerns and participation of its citizens, here the inhabitants of Seoul (Kim S 2010). Korean Wave initiatives are focused at either attracting more tourists and/or providing marketing opportunities for those within the industry (Spence 2019a, 2019b, Lee & Hwang 2012). Emerging evidence from other creative cities point to similar issues (Collins 2019, Spence 2019c, Williamson 2019, Iwabuchi 2010, 2015, Comunian 2011). This Seoul case study illustrates a more nuanced analysis of the creative city reality (as a centre of international creative business) and governance, one that questions the creative city paradigm as a whole and identifies the importance of temporal and local political economies in its (future) international variants, thereby advancing the discussion of creative cities from ahistorical one that centres the European and American experiences. Seoul therefore provides the possibility of a new (or different) paradigm for creative city policymaking in the Non-West.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRe-Imagining Creative Cities in Twenty-First Century Asia
EditorsXin Gu, Michael Kho Lim, Justin O'Connor
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-46291-8
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-46290-1
Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2020
Externally publishedYes


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