20 years on, K-webtoons have become first movers

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 create enormous economic value not only in Korea, 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 percent 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 drams 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, told The Korea Herald on Wednesday. “Now the way we consume content has changed entirely.”

First movers

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

There are eight domestic webtoon platforms that 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 reaches 82 million — 75 percent 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 here said.

Considered an offshoot of the comic book industry, webtoon platforms are still struggling to be recognized 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 institutionalization and promotion policies are facing an uphill battle,” Seo Bum-kang, the head of the Korea Webtoon Industry Association, told The Korea Herald 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 Sejong University’s professor Han, Korean webtoons, which suddenly find themselves in the spotlight, are going through a transition period amid a wave of globalization which 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 romance comedy,” Han noted. “These genres might not appeal to a global audience, and because of that we need more diversity of genres.”



In commemoration of The Korea Herald’s 69th anniversary on Aug. 15, The Korea Herald has prepared a series of features delving into the phenomenon of Korean-made content influencing global contemporary culture and trends. Is it a one-off occurrence or is it here to stay? Can South Korea claim pride in the works of its creative minds as a nation? The Korea Herald expounds on the past and present of the Korean Wave and its prospects for the future. – Ed.

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