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Unexpected AlliancesIndependent Filmmakers, the State, and the Film Industry in Postauthoritarian South Korea$

Young-a Park

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780804783613

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804783613.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Unexpected Alliances

Young-a Park

Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

By interweaving an ethnography of the Pusan International Film Festival, the author’s personal accounts, an overview of Korean modern history (with a focus on the emergence of the “democratic generation”), and a review of relevant anthropological literature the Introduction sheds light on the question, What is the role of independent filmmakers in the “explosion” of Korean films in the postauthoritarian/reform era? The Introduction argues that the “explosion” of Korean film is a product of a wide range of new alliances among social actors and that independent filmmakers played a key role in creating this critical alliance. It asks whether this alliance can be characterized as “co-optation,” and goes on to engage social theories of state, activism, and media in order to establish the significance of the “explosion” of Korean films and the social and political context in which it occurred.

Keywords:   Korean history, postauthoritarian/reform era, democratic generation/3-8-6 generation, Korean Independent Filmmakers Association (KIFA), alliances, state, activism, co-optation, media anthropology

Since 1999 South Korean films have drawn roughly 40 to 60 percent of the Korean domestic box office, matching or often even surpassing Hollywood films in popularity. Before this period of success, from 1988 to 1998 the domestic market share of Korean films was only around 15 to 25 percent. It skyrocketed to 40 percent in 1999, and has stayed around the 50 percent mark since then, peaking at 64 percent in 2006.1 During the first half of 2013, the market share of Korean films reached 56.6 percent.2 This represents one of the highest rates of consumption of domestic films in the world. Since the late 1990s, the Korean film industry has become a successful poster child for various anti-Hollywood movements around the world. How did this “Korean film explosion,” a recent phenomenon, come about?

This book examines the Korean film industry’s success story from the viewpoint of a group of unlikely social actors—Korean independent filmmakers. I say “unlikely” because the success of Korean cinema is usually attributed to film auteurs, who are credited with having created “New Korean Cinema”: innovative in style, socially engaged, yet widely appealing to the public.3 Although the mainly auteur-focused, (p.2) text-based analyses (Choi 2010; Kyung Hyun Kim 2004, 2011) of the current New Korean Cinema have been immensely important in the study of the Korean film industry, I believe the discussions of new film institutions and spaces opened up by independent filmmakers are equally consequential in completing the story of the “Korean film explosion.” This book is an anthropological exploration of the social and political contexts in which this explosion of the late 1990s to mid-2000s occurred. In the literature, some attention has also been paid to the socio-political contexts of the rise of Korean films (Shim 2005, 2008; Shin and Stringer 2005; Paquet 2005, 2009), but this book is the first of its kind in its ethnographical investigation of the people and social webs that created this explosion. I argue that the explosion was a product of a wide range of new alliances among social actors. In this book, I present a case in which independent filmmakers played a key role in creating these critical alliances.

The “Korean Film Explosion” and New Alliances

I left Korea in 1997 for graduate studies in the United States and missed the chance to experience in person the excitement surrounding the election of Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident and the first president elected as an oppositional party candidate since the establishment of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in 1948. Therefore, when I returned to Korea in 2000 to conduct my dissertation research at the Pusan International Film Festival, I was at once surprised and overwhelmed by the greatly transformed political atmosphere encapsulated in the festival. Korea was not the same place that I had left a couple of years before. When I wrote my dissertation prospectus in the United States, I had intended to research Korean film festival fans and their interest in art films as expressions of their cosmopolitan aspirations and upward social mobility. As I participated in the Pusan International Film Festival as a volunteer/interpreter in order to conduct my ethnographic research, however, I discovered more than a mesmerizing fan culture: an unexpected convergence of political energy and cultural fervor. At the center of such convergence stood minjuhwasede or the “democratic generation” filmmakers and cultural producers whose historical and political consciousness was largely (p.3) shaped during the 1980s radicalized student culture. As a member of this “democratic generation,” I was intrigued by the fresh intersections of postauthoritarian politics and culture. The following story presents my encounter with a newly formed social alliance at an emerging filmic space.

On October 6, 2000, I was standing with other young volunteers, dressed in matching grey uniforms, at the opening ceremony of the fifth Pusan International Film Festival (hereinafter PIFF), which epitomized newly emergent film institutions/spaces. Pusan, a port city on the southern coast of Korea, became the focus of national attention when PIFF was being promoted as the “center of the Asian film industry.” The Pusan Yachting Center Outdoor Theater, the site of the opening ceremony, was on the waterfront, which made the film-watching experience at the festival “appealing and romantic,” a point emphasized by the local media, PIFF officials, and municipal authorities (PIFF 2000; Pusan Metropolitan City 2003b). Approximately 3,500 people filled the beautifully lit outdoor theater, gently stroked by the autumn breeze from the sea.

The climax of the ceremony came when President Kim Dae-jung’s face was projected onto the huge screen in the outdoor theater, followed by a taped video message from the president. As part of Kim’s congratulatory on-screen remarks, he solemnly emphasized the importance of the Korean film industry as a “strategic national industry,” stating that “the film industry will be the most profitable sector in the twenty-first century.” As his words echoed throughout the jam-packed theater, the audience gave a prolonged standing ovation. His statement reminded me of an oft-quoted finding made by the Samsung Economic Research Center: “Profits generated by exporting 1.5 million Hyundai cars hardly match the profit the U.S. made from the movie Jurassic Park” (Kim Hong 1994). This observation, which I heard many times during my research, pointed to the public’s imagination of Korea’s place in the global economy: a strategic shift from a manufacturing stronghold to a nation at the forefront of information technology and the culture industry.

President Kim called himself the munhwa taetongryŏng (culture president), alluding to the contrast between former presidents, who came from military backgrounds, and himself, a civilian leader. The Chinese character mun, as in munhwa, means “writing”; therefore, Kim’s sobriquet was meant to point out that he had once been a powerless civilian under military dictatorship, and would now rule by the letter of the law (p.4)


Figure 1. At the fifth Pusan International Film Festival opening ceremony, President Kim Dae-jung’s congratulatory speech is being televised.

Photo by author.

(and, by extension, culture), and not by force. In addition to championing the pen over the sword, President Kim also promised to promote the cultural sector and artists who had suffered from strict state censorship and restrictions under the former regimes. This title of “culture president” took on a whole new meaning as Kim Dae-jung had to manage the financial-crisis–stricken economy. Starting in Thailand in July 1997, shortly before Kim took office, the Asian economy experienced a shockwave, affecting its currencies, stock markets, and other asset prices.4 In response to the financial crisis in Korea, the International Monetary Fund (IMF hereinafter) provided $57 billion to stabilize South Korea’s troubled economy (Byung-Kook Kim 2000: 35). The government under Kim’s leadership began emphasizing the profitability, and thus the importance, of the “culture industry” in the fight against the overall lethargy of the Korean economy.

Pusan was not the only site of the so-called film festival fever (yŏnghwaje yŏlpung) that had been spreading in South Korea since 1996, the year the Pusan International Film Festival was launched. Until 1996 there were no international film festivals hosted in Korea that were put in such a grand national spotlight. Following the huge success of the (p.5) first PIFF, eight prominent international film festivals were successfully launched in South Korea in 1997. Film festivals became a source of excitement both in the media and in the consciousness of Korean citizens. In 2000 PIFF drew 182,000 patrons, by which point it was featuring 211 “art films” from 55 countries during a nine-day span, claiming to have become one of the biggest film festivals in Asia.5 Film festivals in Korea have maintained and even increased their allure in the last two decades. Currently there are 28 film festivals hosted in Korea, 14 of which bill themselves as “international film festivals.”6

A Pusan local cynically noted that it looked as if South Korea’s cities and counties were replacing the “Hot Pepper Queen competitions” or “Apple Maid contests,” local beauty pageants to promote local produce, with “so-called international film festivals.” The craze with which Korean cities promoted their international film festivals instead of local produce was reported extensively by the media at the time. Many people I met expressed bewilderment over the sudden mushrooming of international film festivals hosted by local governments. Their bewilderment was often spiked by cynicism: “Success breeds imitators. But in places like Korea, imitators will spring up until everybody fails,” noted a PIFF staff member who had grown up in the United States and had worked in Hollywood. This kind of response was shared by the majority of the festival staff who were aware of the escalating competition.

PIFF became a significant cultural event, and local and national politicians did their utmost to gain visibility by attending. In 2000, PIFF’s opening ceremony, for example, attracted Lee Hoi-chang, head of the conservative Grand National Party (Hannara Dang). As Lee made a grandiose entry into the outdoor theater where the ceremony was held, I noticed a large entourage trailing his every step. Lee’s entry created a scene that rivaled the film community’s walk on the red carpet, as he and his followers climbed the stairs to their second-floor VIP seats. Among the 3,500 film fans who came to see the opening film The Wrestlers, by Indian economist-turned-poet Buddhadeb Dasgupta, sat local politicians, bureaucrats, and central figures in the Grand National Party, in addition to a number of reporters and anxious festival staff. When Mayor Ahn, a prominent Grand National Party member, announced that the festival had officially begun, cheers filled the outdoor theater. Mayor Ahn also made a lengthy speech about Pusan’s many attractions and its four million welcoming citizens. The mayor did not forget to (p.6) express his appreciation of GNP leader Lee for attending the opening ceremony.

What I subsequently observed at the film festival, however, suggested not just the national obsession with films, but also the seemingly unexpected alliance between many different social groups in manufacturing such a national obsession. At the opening ceremony, volunteers were holding hands, cordoned off along the red carpet to make room for the entry of mostly recognizable faces: national and international movie stars, film directors, politicians, and local bureaucrats. Camera flashes went off incessantly as fellow volunteers and I were struggling to hold back the photographers who pressed forward with their bodies and cameras to break through the “photo line.”

Several times, however, people’s eyes turned from the well-known actresses clad in glittering gowns to people who were so casually dressed that they stood out from the rest of the guests. I noticed one man in his early thirties, dressed in a worn brown corduroy jacket and wrinkled khaki pants, carrying a large leather messenger bag that looked weathered. A volunteer standing next to me—a perceptive overseas Korean American woman who had flown in to take part in the festival—rolled her eyes and whispered, “That’s just too much.” She was shocked to see such a casually dressed man on the red carpet. Other spectators at this red carpet event kept clapping, obviously with diminished enthusiasm, as he and other occasional unknown and underdressed guests arrived.

The man who violated the dress code was Bae Ho-yong*, a college classmate of mine. I knew him to be a devoted student activist talented in calligraphy and painting. These skills came in handy when writing radical political slogans and drawing stylized political graffiti, which became Ho-yong’s forte. I used to see Ho-yong in the college lobby, sweating over huge banners that seemed to diminish his already modest stature.

From time to time, my brother—also a classmate of ours—would talk about Ho-yong. He had heard rumors that Ho-yong left the activist scene after graduation in the mid-1990s to join a documentary-film production outfit called the Uri Film Collective*. This happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which, to some of the activists, translated into the collapse of an alternative political vision for South Korean society. Many activists altered their career paths, as niches for labor-movement-oriented activists were rapidly shrinking (Cho Haejoang 1994). Unlike other activism-oriented documentary film groups that were still struggling, (p.7) the Uri Film Collective was quite successful in transforming its identity. This group, which in the 1980s had produced newsreels for workers unions, was since 1995 producing “socially engaged” documentaries that circulated among film festivals, including PIFF. Uri had also received funding from the Korean Film Council for kineko, a costly process for transferring video to film. Some of its video documentaries—transferred to film and thus regarded as more prestigious—had been released at an art film house in Seoul before they were screened at the fifth PIFF. Hoyong’s appearance on the red carpet, when Kim Dae-jung was in office (1998–2003), was a reminder of the changing times, as well as a pleasant surprise for me: the works of independent filmmakers, such as those of Ho-yong and others whose political militancy had lost its currency after the onset of civilian rule and the collapse of the Soviet Union, were now shown at proliferating international film festivals.

I recognized Ho-yong and other independent filmmakers at the film festival because I was familiar with several anti-state underground films they had produced in the 1980s and early 1990s. Their radical films addressed oppressive state violence and oppositional movements and were condemned by the state. In the past they were distributed only through social movement networks. But now, sanctioned public screenings were opening up new opportunities for viewership.

I became intrigued by how the films produced by this group of film-makers—repackaged as “independent filmmakers”—were being circulated and celebrated at PIFF, where national and local politics, film fans’ cosmopolitan aspirations, and the film industry intersected in complex ways. I latched onto this group of independent filmmakers, who operated under an umbrella advocacy group called the Korean Independent Filmmakers Association* (hereinafter KIFA), and this organization became the field site for my research. Over the course of that research, I realized that many of these one-time anti-state activists not only had gained freedom from the state, but had become influential actors recognized by the state, elite film institutions, and corporate sponsors. They entered a much more ambiguous institutional and cultural terrain as their films were circulated at film festivals, art houses, and galleries, catering to an emerging upper-middle-class audience. This book is based on the eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork I conducted at KIFA in Seoul, mostly between 2000 and 2005. Brief follow-up fieldwork was conducted in 2008, 2011, and 2013 for updates. I use KIFA as my entry (p.8) into understanding how this network of filmmakers opened up new institutional and cultural spaces for film production and consumption in postauthoritarian South Korea.

My first encounter with KIFA made me ask, How do we conceptualize the complex interplay between the postauthoritarian state and the network of independent filmmakers (with their strong activist legacies) at these new sites of cultural production and consumption? As I conducted my research, I came to understand that these new cultural sites/spaces such as PIFF in which KIFA had a strong presence signaled a fundamental change in the nature of socially and politically engaged cultural production. In this book, I intend to deepen readers’ understanding of this transformation and invite readers to reflect on the new meaning of activism in South Korea. Furthermore, one of the important goals of this book is to discuss the role of activism and its cultural production in the sudden rise of the Korean film industry. But before I get to the point of discussing contemporary Korean film activism and film industry, let me first examine the historical context in which the practices and ideologies of film activism unfolded.

Political Transitions

Recounting several thousand years of Korean history does not suit our purpose here. I will, however, start this summary of Korean political transitions with the fact that Korea has maintained relatively stable territorial borders accompanied by an enduring state bureaucracy and linguistic unity since the establishment of the United Shilla dynasty in the mid-seventh century.7 This aspect of Korean history is critical to understanding Korea’s strong cultural identity. And when this collective identity came under threat during the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula (1910–1945), it was mobilized into ethnic nationalist independence movements by various social groups in Korea and Korean exile communities. At the end of World War II, after defeating Japan, American and Soviet forces entered Korea and the Allies divided the country. Therefore, the collapse of Japanese colonial rule was not experienced as the kind of “independent future” many Koreans had long fought for. Concurrently, the leaders of independence movements with vastly different political orientations consolidated their power and became the (p.9) founders of the two Korean states, one in the south and the other in the north, backed by the U.S. and USSR respectively. In 1948, the two Koreas were established as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south. In 1950, the Korean War broke out and lasted for three years, resulting in the total devastation of the land and a civilian death toll of more than two million (Cumings 1997: 290). The Korean War is often described by Koreans as a fratricidal conflict that was mainly instigated by foreign powers. After the war, South Korea became a beneficiary of international economic assistance, especially from the United States, which exerted a great deal of economic and military influence. The continuing American presence in Korea, both economic and military, has been perceived as a sign of an enduring neocolonial legacy, especially by revisionist historians and those who came of age during the radicalization of social movements in South Korea in the 1980s. Being cognizant of this historical consciousness will assist readers in fully appreciating the nationalist sentiments expressed in public protests in the late 1990s and the 2000s against Hollywood lobbyists who pushed for undermining and ultimately abolishing Korea’s protectionist film policies, which will be discussed in the chapters that follow.

After the Korean War and until the early 1990s, South Korean history might well be portrayed with key words such as authoritarianism, state-driven developmentalism, and suppression of dissent. For readers who are unfamiliar with Korean history, the following summary might provide a useful context. I limit my discussion to political transitions that will come to light in the upcoming chapters.

Rhee Syngman, who obtained a Ph.D. from Princeton, was elected the first president of ROK/South Korea in 1948. As an exiled activist during the Japanese colonial period, he had long been an advocate of Korean independence. However, he vastly diverged from other militant strands in the independence movement by focusing more on lobbying foreign governments through diplomatic channels. He came to power based on his conservative allies, a majority of whom were members of the landlord class and were pro-American. Rhee was successful in obtaining direct U.S. grants, which “accounted for five-sixths of all Korean imports” by the end of the 1950s (Cumings 1997: 306). Corruption under his twelve-year rule was widespread as was political oppression. Under Rhee’s administration a National Security Law (NSL) was (p.10) passed by the National Assembly in 1948. “Armed with the NSL, Rhee embarked on a campaign of anticommunist witch hunts. … All major organizations, including the military, the press, and educational institutions, were subjected to scrutiny and purge” (Eckert et al. 1990: 349). Due to the NSL’s ambiguity, the government was able to use it as a “political tool” to crush any oppositional voices (Eckert et al. 1990: 348). The public, already disheartened by continuing election fraud, became infuriated with the murder of a student protestor by the police in the spring of 1960. The protests that ensued culminated in mass struggles later called the April 19 Uprising, in which 130 students were killed and 1,000 wounded in Seoul alone (Eckert et al. 1990: 355). The legitimacy of the Rhee regime evaporated with the brutal suppression of the April 19 Uprising, and Rhee resigned and left for Hawaii by late April 1960. The public euphoria over his ousting was short-lived, however, since General Park Chung-hee seized control of the government through a coup d’état on May 16, 1961. The Park regime’s legacy is complex, because although student, labor, and free press movements came to a halt under his brutal authoritarian rule, the Korean economy took off. When Park took office, Korea’s annual per capita income was less than $100; during his tenure it grew twentyfold. However, this economic growth, often dubbed the “Miracle of the Han River,” was built on maintaining low wages for industrial workers. Corporations, which grew exceptionally large under Park’s rule, often achieved this by brutally suppressing labor activism and political mobilization with the full assistance of the authoritarian state. However, Park’s grip on Korea did not last forever. Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his right hand man, the Korean National Security Agency director Kim Jae-kyu, on October 26, 1979. The assassination was welcomed by political dissidents who had protested Park’s Yushin Reforms, an intensified and institutionalized form of military dictatorship enacted toward the latter part of his regime.

The period following Park’s assassination, often called “the Seoul Spring,” however, was cut short by Major General Chun Doo-hwan’s coup d’état and the bloody repression of the Kwangju Uprising (1980) in which approximately five hundred citizens demanding the repeal of martial law were brutally killed by elite paratroopers, allegedly with the endorsement of the U.S. government.8 The Kwangju Massacre marked a watershed in Korean history as it became a crucial turning point in the Korean public’s view of the American government. Eckert et al. (1990) (p.11) note that many student activists believed that the United States played a major role in Chun’s seizure of power by approving Chun’s dispatch of troops to the city of Kwangju. Eckert and his coauthors, however, add that “although a 1978 agreement creating the U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) Combined Forces Command gave operational control of selected units of the ROK regular army to the commander of American forces in South Korea, there is no evidence that the U.S. conspired with or directly supported Chun during this period, and the dispatch of the savage paratroopers who provoked the Kwangju Incident was outside the operational control of the US forces, a fact generally unknown or ignored by the students” (Eckert et al. 1990: 379). In contrast to this viewpoint, historian Bruce Cumings rightfully asks, “The United States maintained operational control of the ROK Army; Chun violated the agreements of the joint command twice, in December 1979 and May 1980: why did the United States not act against those violations? With his service in the Vietnam War and his position as chief of Korean military intelligence in 1979, Chun had to have a thick network of ties with American counterparts: had they stayed his hand, or did they even try? Above all, why did President Reagan invite this person to the White House and spend the early 1980s providing him with so many visible signs of support?” (Cumings 1997: 384–85).

This recurring theme of anti-American sentiment in Korean politics is worthy of attention. As it was with the American “occupation” of southern Korea after World War II, the alleged American involvement in the Kwangju Massacre largely shaped how Koreans viewed the enduring American influence in the peninsula. Koreans’ shifting view of the United States is relevant to understanding the discussions of anti-Hollywood movements that will follow in the chapters of this book.

Chun Doo-hwan’s attempt to hand power to his long-time friend Roh Tae-woo in 1987 was met with heightened resistance, which led to Roh’s announcement that he would accept a direct presidential election, one of the main demands the Korean public made in a series of mass protests later called the June Uprising. The successful mobilization of the public was an outcome of a better organized social movement and the general public’s discontent with the ongoing military dictatorship since 1961.

How does film figure in this broader political landscape? In the 1980s and early 1990s, activist filmmakers used film as a means of bringing about radical social change, declaring their film projectors “guns (p.12) shooting 24 bullets a second,” a conscious reference to Argentine guerilla filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (Seoul Film Collective 1983, 1985; Yi and Yi 1994; for the original quote, see Solanas and Getino 1976). In the 1980s and early 1990s, this group of filmmakers, who identified themselves as yŏnghwa undonga (film activists), was tightly connected to the Korean minjung (popular masses) movement, especially a sector of the movement called minjung munhwa undong (masses’ cultural movement) (see Chapter 1 for a detailed account of the complex relationship between film activism and the minjung cultural movement). People who subscribed to yŏnghwa undong (film activism) used the film medium to fight political oppression and the colonial legacy embedded in the mass media and Korean society as a whole. Throughout the 1980s, filmmaker activists’ films and videos were distributed to labor unions, peasant associations, and student movement organizations, and were shown at mass political demonstrations. These films were meant to mobilize the public.

The weakening of political radicalism in the post–Cold War global order and the election of Kim Young-sam (in office 1993–1998), a new civilian president after thirty years of military dictatorship, signaled a new era in South Korea. Set in this historical context, alternative spaces—that is, outside the state-controlled film industry—for film production and consumption created by activist filmmakers in the 1980s shrank as the appeal of political radicalism diminished.

In 1997, however, the election of Kim Dae-jung, the first democratically elected president from an oppositional party, altered the political atmosphere. President Kim, a symbol of the democracy movement under three decades of military dictatorship, gave new meaning to the legacy of the 1980s social movement and its participants. Media reports in 2000 extensively covered the efforts of Kim Dae-jung and his kukminŭijŏngbu (people’s government) to restore the honor of the victims of the repression of past democratic movements. Some nine thousand people were officially recognized as “pro-democracy fighters” and victims of past military regime. Throughout that watershed year, this “rectification of the past” was extended to the rhetoric of the “democratic generation” or the “3-8-6 generation” in the political and cultural arena as “agents of change” under the postauthoritarian state. The term “3-8-6 generation” was coined in the late 1990s by the media to describe people who were in their 30s, hence the 3; entered college (p.13) in the 1980s, hence the 8; and were born in the 1960s, hence the 6. The term generally refers to people whose political consciousness was shaped in the 1980s radical political environment discussed earlier.

South Korea’s accelerated modernization, propelled by a strong military-state initiative, turned out to be flawed as the Korean economy and society seemed to be crumbling in front of people’s eyes during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Kim Dae-jung’s government foregrounded the 3-8-6 generation as an agent to carry out its postauthoritarian/reform agenda while under enormous trade-liberalization pressure after the financial crisis and subsequent intervention from the IMF. Many Koreans regarded the IMF’s intervention as a threat to Korea’s sovereignty, and understood it as a foreign, especially American, attempt to subjugate Korea’s economy. The emergence of a postauthoritarian rhetoric coincided with the need of both the new administration and the public for a new model of modernity and development in response to a kind of a neocolonial governance represented by the IMF. In this book, I use the term “postauthoritarian” (or “reform”) to refer to the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations’ conscious efforts to mobilize the 3-8-6 generation to heights never achieved previously. The administrations that came after 1987 can all be described as “postauthoritarian” in that 1987 is often seen as a watershed year marking the peaceful transition from a military regime to a democratically elected government. No political leader, however, had appropriated the discourse of the redemption of the oppressed as did Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. This book focuses on this particular brand of postauthoritarianism.

The narrative foregrounding the 3-8-6 generation was used in the Kim Dae-jung administration’s attempt to win the support of the public for its plans to restructure the Korean economy and society. As a result, many people who came from activist backgrounds entered governmental or took semi-governmental positions. In the Korean film sector especially, the reorganization of the existing film institutions and industry under the new political and economic environment resulted in the ascendance of filmmakers of the 3-8-6 generation. The 3-8-6 generation continued to retain its symbolic value under the subsequent Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003–2008).

Reflecting on both social and political changes that I observed early in my research, I began to think about how the 3-8-6 generation narrative at the political level was also carried out in the emergent cultural (p.14) field—new film institutions and spaces, such as film festivals, art houses, state-sponsored film agencies, and anti-trade-liberalization protest sites in which independent filmmakers, whose leadership was often referred to as members of the 3-8-6 generation, gained a strong presence.

This book is about the reconfiguration of activist/independent film-making networks in reform-era South Korea (under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations) and the emergence of the cultural field constituted through this reconfiguration. I especially focus on the emergent cultural field in the film sector, which exists as a nexus between the state, mainstream film industry, and social activism. This emergent cultural field reflects a foundational shift in South Korean society, especially in its cultural production, in that the rigid boundaries that separated the state and political activism, corporate conglomerates and independent artists, filmic spaces of resistance and spaces of upwardly mobile, middle-class consumption, and local and global cultural realms have become increasingly blurred. Now, I will shift the discussion to the main informants of my research.

Independent Filmmakers

KIFA, an organization which in 2001 had about 250 members, encompassed thirty-five “individual members” (filmmakers and film producers who joined the association on an individual basis) and thirty-one “group members” (independent film groups, film houses, and film festivals that joined the association collectively). Nearly everyone in KIFA was in their early twenties to late thirties, with the exception of five members who were in their forties. Approximately 30 percent of KIFA participants were women—a number that was on the rise. In addition to these members who paid a membership fee, ten independent film festivals were also affiliated with KIFA (the names of these film festivals were listed on the KIFA website). Although these film festivals were not formal members, many of the festivals and KIFA had overlapping staff members who worked for the festivals during certain times of the year and at KIFA for the rest of the year.

KIFA was established in September 1998 as a concerted response to the arrest of director Kim Dong-won (who later became KIFA’s first chairman) in June 1996 while he was filming North Korean prisoners of (p.15) war who had been incarcerated for long terms in South Korea. Unsurprisingly, the arrest of Kim, an iconic figure in the activist independent filmmakers’ circuit, provoked in many independent filmmakers a need to voice their concerns and grievances, and that need materialized in the launching of KIFA.

The founding of KIFA, however, did not mark the very beginning of the organization of dissident filmmakers. Numerous organizations of activist filmmakers had existed since the early 1980s, and most of the leaders of KIFA-affiliated film groups had been involved in activist film organizations dating from that time. Some of the film groups at KIFA were actually established much earlier than KIFA. For instance, the film group of the earlier-mentioned Bae Ho-yong, the Uri Film Collective, which had the longest history, was founded in 1982. Purŭn Yŏngsang (Docu Purŭn), headed by director Kim Dong-won, was founded in 1991, and Labor News Production, which specialized in labor protest documentaries, was founded in 1989 (for detailed history of film activism of this period, see Seoul Visual Collective 1996, and the documentary On-line: An Inside View of Korean Independents [Seoul Visual Collective 1997]).

Therefore, although KIFA, the largest umbrella advocacy group for independent filmmakers, became the entry point for my research, the scope of my inquiry goes beyond the study of this specific organization. Independent film groups, convened under the banner of KIFA, were mostly led by those whose political consciousness and aesthetics were largely shaped by their shared experience with the radical social movement and its spin-off movement—film activism—which had a much longer history than KIFA.

Although KIFA was my main research site, my focus was not on KIFA itself as an organization, but rather on the network of people related to KIFA. Since I followed the KIFA people wherever they went, rather than sitting in the KIFA office, I observed and interviewed people whom I met through the KIFA members’ network. KIFA’s network enabled me to reach out to filmmakers of various orientations within the group as well as in the mainstream Korean film industry: 1) filmmakers who were involved in using films as a means to bring about radical social change in the 1980s and who still consider themselves film activists; 2) filmmakers who were active in the 1980s film movement but are not interested in any current activist agenda; 3) people who had no direct experience in (p.16) the 1980s social activism but for many reasons—personal, financial, strategic—convene under the banner of KIFA, but are interested in current activist agendas; 4) KIFA newcomers who share the characteristics of (3) but are not interested in activism of any sort. Of course, it is hard to consistently cast people with whom I worked into these four types. People’s current commitment and ideas change frequently, and the meaning of activism in the present moment in South Korea is multiple.

To research KIFA and its network, I used a combination of participant observation, interviews, collection of life histories, documentary and library research. Ethnographic data collection involved engaged participant-observation at KIFA, accompanying the members of this organization while they conducted their routines in the following settings: yearly gatherings, weekly board meetings at the organization’s headquarters, individual meetings or gatherings with their co-producers or peers, and filmmaker workshops. In addition to participating in these routine activities, I became part of the organizing committee for a KIFA film festival which enabled me to observe how the venues were planned and organized. I also followed KIFA members who participated in other film festivals and observed their Q&A sessions and interactions with audiences. In addition, I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer translator at PIFF and through that gained insight into the relationship between KIFA and international film festivals. Therefore, I spent most of my time in Seoul, where KIFA was located, but also spent significant time accompanying members to screenings at numerous film festivals held in other South Korean cities, such as Pusan, Chŏnju, and Puchŏn.

In addition to this network of filmmakers that has certain ties to film activism and/or current KIFA activities, I interviewed Film Council officials, film industry advocacy group administrators, art house or art film theater administrators, film festival programmers/administrators, organized fans/supporters of KIFA film groups, and film festival fans that KIFA members interacted with through various venues and activities. Therefore, my informants encompassed people who were loosely connected to KIFA’s members through “formal and informal networks” (Trotter and Schensul 1998: 711).

Following KIFA’s network enabled me to reflect on the complex web of the Korean film industry and institutions from an initially marginal viewpoint. At the same time, KIFA served as a productive vantage point (p.17) for understanding the alternative practices of film production and consumption in the new cultural field.

Reconceptualizing the State, Activism, and the Film Industry

In order to better understand the transformation of KIFA and the changing environment for activist cultural production, I draw on theories that reconceptualize the complex relationship between civil society and the state. KIFA and its social milieu are part of civil society, in the sense of civil society as “the realm of organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of rules” (Diamond 1994: 5, quoted in Armstrong 2002: 2). The relationship between the strong state and civil society in South Korea has been characterized as extremely contentious under the authoritarian regimes (Koo 1993c). However, as South Korea transitioned to democracy starting in the late 1980s, scholars of Korean history and politics have called for the reconceptualization of this relationship (Armstrong 2002; Kim Ho-ki 1995, 1999; Sunhyuk Kim 2002). The following captures this call for change:

The opposition between “state” and “society,” in which the latter was often conceptualized in the 1980s as the minjung or “popular masses,” is no longer a useful framework for understanding Korea today. In the era of postauthoritarian politics, the key dynamic lies not in the tension between the state and society as such, but in the increasingly complex and rapidly changing constellation of forces within, as well as between, the government and various kind of social groups.

(Armstrong 2002: 2)

The Korean case has relevance in a comparative perspective, as scholars of social movements have looked at “how the boundary between civil society and the state often becomes blurred” (Alvarez et al. 1998: 18) in new democracies in Latin America and Asia (Alagappa 2004; Alvarez et al. 1998; Schild 1998; Slater 1998; Paley 2001). The social spaces in which civil society and the state interact lie beyond rigid categories, such as “the center” and “the margins” (Alvarez et al. 1998). In order to analyze these complex social spaces, scholars of Latin American social (p.18) movements argue for the usefulness of the concept of “social movement webs,” which “conveys the intricacy and precariousness of the manifold imbrications and ties established among movement organizations, individual participants, and other actors in civil and political society and the state” (Alvarez et al. 1998: 15). By applying this concept to the analysis of the entanglement between civil society and the state, these scholars examine the impact of movements as they gauge the extent to which the movements’ “demands, discourses, and practices circulate in weblike, capillary fashion (e.g., are deployed, adopted, appropriated, co-opted, or reconstructed, as the case may be) in larger institutional and cultural arenas” (Alvarez et al. 1998: 16).

Sunhyuk Kim (2004) argues that South Korea does not fit into the general trajectory of democratic consolidation in which the locus of politics shifts from civil society to (party-based) political society. Although I do not agree with Kim’s view of Western democracy as a normative model for Korea, I share his observation that “as civil society bypasses the polarized, petrified, and problem-ridden political society, the principal locus of politics continues to consist of direct—sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative—interactions between civil society and the state” (2004: 160). It has been said that South Korean politics is made on the streets rather than in the parliament. The relationship between the film sector and the state examined in this book is precisely a case in point. We also observed such unique politics on the streets during the height of anti-American candlelight vigils in 2002 (Kang 2009), the anti-U.S.-beef demonstrations that swept the nation in 2008 (Kang 2008), and public protests criticizing the National Intelligence Service’s smear campaign against oppositional presidential candidates in 2013 (Choe 2013). During these ongoing street protests, I witnessed how the rhetoric—interpellation of the “democratic generation” as urgently needed agents of change—and protest repertoires of the past democracy movements often became foregrounded. Those who are familiar with the rhetoric of the 1980s democracy movement often use their symbolic capital, which they gained as the result of the deepened nexus between the postauthoritarian state and civil society under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. The political spaces that are created, however, are frequently not controlled by those who mobilize the past symbols. But without understanding the historically particular nexus which equipped them with social and (p.19) symbolic capital, our assessment of the present political configuration would be only partial.

Especially under the Kim Dae-jung administration, the discourse of the 3-8-6 generation enacted and mobilized a prominent political rhetoric, and the generation’s network and symbolism became resources in accessing power. Following Nancy Abelmann, who pays attention to “the discursive production of social movements not as secondary concerns, but as constitutive of all activisms” (1997: 252), I closely trace the narrative production of the 3-8-6 generation in this book. I propose that the South Korean social movement’s social network and “discourse of moral privilege” (Namhee Lee 2005: 922–23) operated as “social and symbolic capital” (Bourdieu 1977, 1986, 1990, 1991) in the emergent cultural field under the postauthoritarian regime. The South Korean social movement’s “discourse of moral privilege” is constructed as follows: the Korean social movement during the 1980s represented a moral critique of Korean society and was framed in terms of moral righteousness. This ethical discourse enabled the agents within the movement to structure it as a counter–public sphere against the military regimes that “wronged history,” a relatively “safe” discourse considering the hegemonic anti-communist ideology at the time (Namhee Lee 2002). Students and intellectuals, active producers of this discourse, “persistently projected their future vision in the narrative of nation-state, portraying themselves as patriotic, nationalistic, and true inheritors of the nationalist legacy, seekers of truth uniquely endowed because of their purity, sincerity, and devotion” (Namhee Lee 2002: 136).9

Here, I use Bourdieu’s concepts of “social capital” (1986) and “symbolic capital” (1977, 1990, 1991) in analyzing the networks and symbolism of 1980s activism that were enacted as the 3-8-6 generation became a central term in politics and media, especially in the Kim Dae-jung era. “Social capital” is defined by Bourdieu as the “sum of the resources, actual and virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 119). “Symbolic capital” consists of the prestige and honor that become critical elements in reproducing the structure of social class (Jenkins 1992: 85).

I have to note, however, that my use of Bourdieu comes with certain caveats. First, while Bourdieu’s examination of extra-economic factors (p.20) is tightly connected to the reproduction of social class, my use of his “social and symbolic capital” is about obtaining a certain social mobility that is not defined necessarily in terms of social class. For instance, the social actors that I describe in the following chapters obtain a forceful voice within the mainstream film industry, or gain access to power in cultural institutions, through their use of social and symbolic capital. This does not necessarily mean that they climb up the social class ladder, although it might entail class mobility. Second, for Bourdieu the types of extra-economic capital (social, cultural, and symbolic) are those that are inculcated and inscribed in bodies—thus, “unconscious dispositions towards practice”—and are not necessarily based on conscious calculations (Johnson 1993: 17). In contrast, my informants consciously made strategic use of their social, cultural, and symbolic capital. In short, in my case, people’s drawing on these forms of capital is performative and self-conscious.

As the 3-8-6 generation was mobilized into the ranks of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, the moral authority of those who participated in the 1980s social movement began to emerge as an important form of symbolic capital, especially in cultural institutions. For instance, the pre–Kim Dae-jung–era officials of the Korean Film Promotion Committee (the predecessor of the current Film Council) were deemed “immoral” by the 3-8-6 generation members of KIFA— “parasites” of the former military regime, which subsidized the “morally corrupt” film industry. After the enactment of the Motion Picture Law under the Park Chung-hee administration, the film industry was under tight military control and film production companies produced films that promoted the military governments’ ideology (see Chapter 1). In critics’ eyes, the dependence on the military state implied moral bankruptcy. According to the head administrator of KIFA, the “movers and shakers” of the pre–Kim Dae-jung–era film industry sustained a legacy of “dictatorship patronage.” A former high-ranking official of the Korean Film Promotion Committee, a well-known actress who was one of the most powerful persons in the organization for several decades, often was rumored to have gained “special access” to congressmen of the previous ruling party through “inappropriate” relationships with them. Whether these salacious rumors were true or not is beyond the scope of my work, but it was clear to me that KIFA members expressed intense disdain—even disgust—mainly phrased in terms evocative of strong (p.21) reactions in private interactions with me: “moral bankruptcy,” “corruption,” and “immorality.” I will later examine in detail how the moral authority and social network of the 3-8-6 generation were deployed in the social spaces between the state and social activism in South Korea. Ganti (2012) argues that part of the “Bollywoodization” of Hindi cinema was about Hindi filmmakers accruement of cultural legitimacy through cultivation of a middle-class domestic audience. Although Ganti’s book and my book examine vastly different film traditions, I find many parallels in our works in terms of addressing the construction of legitimacy in both film industries.

In this book, as I trace how KIFA members have mobilized their social and symbolic capital in accessing key positions of power in the reform-era administrations, I ask the following questions: How do we characterize these spaces of entanglement of the state and activism? Is the emergent symbiosis between KIFA and the burgeoning cultural realms in which KIFA has a market share an example of “co-optation”?

Critics of KIFA often comment that it has been “co-opted” by the state, as if the word itself connotes condemnation. My book intends to shed light on the complexity of the “co-optors”’ ideologies and practices and examine their meanings and consequences. In an analysis that is particularly relevant to this book, Jesook Song (2009) examines the ambivalent relationship between “progressive social actors” (who politically came of age during the democratization process) and the Kim Dae-jung administration. She discusses how intellectuals and social workers, “many of whom were progressive actors …, unwittingly became rank-and-file engineers of an intensifying neoliberalism” during the 1997 financial crisis. Song argues that this is due to leftist intellectuals’ misleading separation between “good” liberalism—represented by liberal values such as political liberty—and “bad” liberalism (neoliberalism/market-centered liberalism). Song thinks that this separation is a fantasy and that in South Korea “leftist and progressive intellectuals in the democratized era, particularly during the crisis, found it difficult to distill liberal democratic ideas and actions from the structure of the market economy and private property” (2009: 123). To a large extent, Song and I are looking into the period of Korean history in which the government made a turn that is best described as both “democratic” and “neoliberal.” I do not believe, however, that the Korean left’s complicity in the state’s creation of neoliberal subjects is the whole story. In my ethnography, I try to portray a sense of opening and a space of resistance that emerged, (p.22) even if they might seem fleeting at times. Song might argue that these new alternative spaces and sensibilities are only ephemeral as they ultimately serve “multiple coordinations behind capitalist production” (2009: 139), but I think it is worth capturing those moments that emerge from the contingent nature of the hegemonic structure and narrative.

I also hope that my discussion in this book will add to the broader anthropological conversation on media industries and globalization. For the past few decades, anthropologists of media, informed by fieldwork, have looked closely into the cultural and historical patterns of media production, consumption, and interpretation (Askew and Wilk 2002; Dickey 1993, 1997; Ginsburg 1993, 1994; Ginsburg et al. 2002). Tyrrell points out that “theorization around cinema and globalization has largely been structured in terms of a basic opposition between Western commercial and cultural imperialist cinema, and Third World non-commercial, indigenous, politicised cinema” (1999: 260). But what about commercial, non-Western film industries? Tyrrell (2008) implies that film literature has overlooked commercial, non-Western film industries, which do not register in this dichotomy. There is, however, a growing body of ethnographies on non-Western film and television industries and their consumption/subject construction (Abu-Lughod 1993, 1997, 2005; Armbrust 1996, 2000; Fischer 2004; Ganti 2002, 2012; Mankekar 1993, 1999; Rofel 1994; Sullivan 1993; Yang 2002). This book is deeply informed by this body of literature in that the South Korean case presents another counterpoint to the almighty power of Hollywoodization. My case, like others, illustrates how a nascent native film industry has claimed its space in an increasingly homogenized film environment in which Hollywood is dominant. Korea’s success, however, is based on the unique relationship between the commercial mainstream film industry and its noncommercial independent counterparts. The Korean film explosion cannot be explained without discussing the role of independent filmmakers who have transformed Korean film into a medium through which the Korean nation has been imagined. Such a semiotic transformation points to the unique “cult” qualities of Korean film.

In this regard, contrary to Walter Benjamin’s (1969) argument about an artwork’s eroding aura and art’s disenchanted quality in the age of mass production of art, the sites of circulation for Korean independent films call for investigating the re-enchantment of media. Here, I find Christopher Pinney’s (2002) dialogue with Benjamin (1969) productive in analyzing how activist/ independent films have been consumed as rituals, not as film texts devoid (p.23) of aura: I draw on Pinney’s critique of Benjamin. Benjamin argues that the mass production of art erodes a work’s “aura” (“unique existence at the place where it happens to be”) as mass production of art “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (quoted in Pinney 2002: 356). In contrast, Pinney argues that aura is not eradicated in mass production of images. Instead, he contends that the cult value of image springs from what people do with it, not from the idea of an original.

With this insight, I examine how Korean films acquired ritual and cult qualities of different sorts from the 1980s to 2000s. I trace the process in which Korean independent filmmakers and their audience re-enchanted the film medium. Not the film texts themselves but what these films provoke and evoke takes central stage in my analysis.

Organization of the Book

Chapter 1 provides historical background on the transition from the film activism of the 1980s and early 1990s to the new environment in which independent filmmakers produce and circulate their films. I present the story of Kim Dong-won, the chairman of KIFA, which parallels the transformation of the wider film activist community. The chapter then explores the process through which film activism opened up alternative ideologies and practices for film production and circulation in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Chapter 2 examines the emergence of “independent” film and KIFA’s negotiations with newfound contributors of capital (e.g., conglomerates and venture capitalists), the state, and new cultural venues. New cultural spaces where untrodden political sensibilities were expressed emerged as a result of such negotiations and compromises. I analyze how activist cultural production and consumption has been reconfigured in the postauthoritarian context. This chapter sets up a backdrop against which a new crop of independent filmmakers and their fresh narrative strategies have become visible.

Chapter 3 examines independent filmmakers’ participation in the struggle to maintain the screen quota system (a protectionist film policy against the “Hollywood invasion”) in Korea.10 I explore the screen quota struggle as a critical event (Das 1995), a catalyst for the transformation of the independent filmmaker community from being marginal social dissidents in the 1980s to becoming a symbol of Korean cultural nationalism. KIFA members’ potent symbolic connection to the 3-8-6 generation (p.24) became the uniting trope of cultural nationalism; they portrayed the screen quota struggle as a legitimate offspring of the Korean social movement against American influence both political and cultural. This chapter picks up the themes explored in the discussion on the ideologies and practices of film activism (from Chapter 1), which became a cultural repertoire that KIFA members used for strategic political purposes.

Chapter 4 expands the discussion of the changed “independent” environment and its new possibilities by examining the narratives of two female independent filmmakers. I look at how the postauthoritarian cultural environment—which resulted from the symbiosis between the KIFA leadership and the state—has created space for female independent filmmakers to contradict and challenge gendered activism and its representations. By critiquing and negotiating with the elite and male-dominated activist filmmaking world, women filmmakers with distinct political and artistic sensibilities and visions have emerged.

Chapter 5 analyzes the consumption and circulation of the works of independent filmmakers at Korea’s burgeoning international film festivals. New activist cultural production and consumption take place in the film festival venues created by the unprecedented alliances among the postauthoritarian state, new media capital, and the independent film circuit. And these venues, in turn, operate as platforms where festival audiences express their upwardly mobile class identity and individuality, which were not expressed through the consumption of either mainstream or traditional activist films. Here, the audience is an important element in understanding how activist cultural production and consumption have been reconfigured in Korea.

The Epilogue comes back to the question probed throughout the book: Can the alliances in contemporary South Korea described throughout this book be characterized as the “co-optation” of social activism? This chapter argues that this characterization does not help us to fully grasp the complex practices of the putative co-optors, and further asserts that the relationship between power and resistance in contemporary Korea should be rethought.

In the chapters ahead, I encourage readers to compare the agents, filmmaking practices, venues, and audiences of 1980s “activist films” with those of current independent films. Following such a trajectory will help us to understand not only current independent/alternative cultural production and consumption, but also the role of independent filmmakers in shaping Korean cultural landscapes.


(1.) KMDb (Korean Movie Database), http://test.kmdb.or.kr/statis/statis_04.asp, accessed Jan. 8, 2013.

(2.) “South Korean Box Office Hits Record High in First Half,” Screen Daily, www.screendaily.com/news/south-korean-box-office-hits-record-high/5058024.article, accessed Jan. 8, 2013.

(3.) The term “New Korean Cinema” has been used by many authors including Shin and Stringer (2005) and Paquet (2009). According to Vick (2009), the term is “often invoked to describe the Korean film industry’s rather sudden rise to domestic and international prominence” and is “less a moniker for a coherent artistic movement than” the product of the post-1990s social and political transformation. Vick notes that “in contrast to movements like the 1980s Hong Kong New Wave, which is primarily associated with the specific genre of action movies,” New Korean Cinema’s “main characteristic is its diversity, the way its filmmakers combine styles and genres, and incorporate influences from around the world and throughout film history” (2009: 38). I agree with Vick that the term has been used in this broad sense and that it is more of a reference to films produced in the postauthoritarian context than anything else.

(4.) Reader’s Guide to the Social Sciences (London: Routledge, 2001), s.v. “Asian crisis, 1997–98,” http://ezproxy.knox.edu:2099/entry/6780820/, accessed Jan. 31, 2009.

(5.) Festival Director Kim Dong-ho, opening remarks at the Pusan International Film Festival press conference, Sept. 4, 2000; also in the “Forward” by Kim Dong-ho in PIFF (2000). For a more detailed report, see Pusan Metropolitan City (2003c).

(6.) IndieStory, www.indiestory.com/English/html/indie_Resources.asp, accessed May 27, 2014.

(7.) The question of “When did Korean history begin?” is not easy to answer, but I start with United Shilla because although its borders by no means reached as far north as those of the current-day North Korea, it still unified the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Before the establishment of United Shilla, various kingdoms existed throughout the peninsula, but discussion of this (p.172) history is not within the scope of this book. The unique aspect of Korean ethnic nationalism is well charted in Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy by Gi-Wook Shin (2006).

(8.) The number killed in the Kwangju Uprising has been disputed for a long time but in his carefully researched volume, Gi-Wook Shin estimates that there were five hundred civilian deaths and over three thousand injuries (2003: xvii).

(9.) Namhee Lee also acknowledges that the discourse of moral privilege is not unique to the South Korean social movement, and can be found in other contexts such as the 1960s New Left in the West and China’s Tiananmen protests (2002: 137).

(10.) The “screen quota” is an anti-trust regulation to prevent Hollywood films, which currently control 85 percent of the global market, from dominating the Korean film market, according to Shim Kwang-Hyun (2000), one of the most ardent advocates of the screen quota system in Korea. This regulation required Korean theaters to screen domestic films for at least 146 days a year, with a possible 40-day reduction to 106 days (30 percent of the year) available by petition. The temporal scope of my research does not cover the drastic reduction of the screen quota after the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (2006), which reduced the required number of days to 20 percent of the year.