K-Webtoons: The Next K-Pop in Southeast Asia?


Deydra Azhara Brahmantya, a graduate student at the University of Indonesia, is engrossed in “I Am Gangnam Beauty.”

The South Korean webtoon, created by an author writing under the pseudonym Kee Maeng-kee, tells the story of an unattractive girl who turns her life around by having plastic surgery to escape incessant bullying at school, and subsequently falls in love with a popular boy. 

Webtoons are online cartoons, a genre that has achieved high popularity in South Korea and Japan.

Brahmantya claims to have read over 20 South Korean webtoons so far. As such, she is one of many avid Southeast Asian readers of a South Korean cultural export that some say has the potential to become as popular as K-pop.

The global webtoon market is set to grow to $8.4 million in 2019, almost double its 2012 figure. The size of the nascent local Southeast Asian market is unknown, but a 2016 report from Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) predicted that growing mobile penetration in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia would prompt the webtoon market to grow rapidly in the region.

LINE, a subsidiary of South Korean internet giant Naver, told Korea Exposé that its webtoons are now available in six languages, including Thai and Bahasa Indonesia. Thailand and Indonesia are LINE’s second and third biggest markets, respectively, after Japan.

LINE launched its webtoon service in Thailand in November 2014. Daum Webtoon, a subsidiary of South Korean messenger giant KaKao Corp, followed on September 2016 by partnering with leading local webtoon provider Ookbee Comics. In Indonesia, LINE established the webtoon platform in April 2014.

Naver PR official Nam Ji-woong declined to comment on the company’s market shares in the two countries. But he made no secret of LINE’s regional ambitions, saying, “We want to grow into the Disney of Asia.”

Localization is one of the biggest challenges faced by South Korean webtoon companies in Southeast Asia, because of the region’s cultural and linguistic diversity. Rather than relying solely on Korean content, the firms are working to recruit local talent in a bid to provide greater choice and draw more readers. LINE, for example, holds various competitions to encourage local creators to upload their work to the webtoon platform, offering monetary rewards.

Regardless of localization efforts, differing social attitudes mean that some Northeast Asian content is off-limits abroad. “Obnoxious Hero-Kun,” a Japanese gay romance webtoon available on LINE’s English webtoon website, is nowhere to be found on its Indonesian counterpart.

But for Brahmantya, cultural difference is something that can be overlooked.

“When it comes to comic books, we can be open-minded,” she said.


Cover Image: A screen grab from “I Am Gangnam Beauty.” (Source: LINE’s Indonesian webtoon site) 

Juwon is a journalist at Korea Exposé covering all things business. She’s previously worked as a TV producer in Channel News Asia in Singapore and has interned for Bloomberg, AP and Google. Juwon is a proud owner of her dog Noah and a graduate of Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.