A few months ago, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power popped out of nowhere as one of the most frequently searched keywords online. Its website crashed for hours because of excessive clicks. What caused the sudden attention? Did the company do something eye-catching or upset the public?
Not at all. The shutdown was traced to someone who had nothing to do with renewable power sources. The culprit was webtoon artist Cho Suk.
In episode 791 of his slapstick webtoon "Maeumeui Sori (Voice Within)," Cho mentions how he lied to his mother about his job as a webtoon artist. He tells her that he is currently employed at KHNP, a company she is unlikely to ever hear about. In the next scene, the two awkwardly watch a TV report that announces that "Cho Suk has been named the new CEO of KHNP."
Throughout the day, thousands of curious readers flocked to the Web to see if the CEO was really Cho Suk.
"Haha, the name of the KHNP CEO really is Cho Suk! Who but me went out to check?" read the top comment just underneath the episode. The comment received over 45,000 likes.
That a simple mention in a webtoon could create such a buzz should not come as a surprise. Cho's smash-hit "Maeumeui Sori," running on Naver since 2006, boasts 2 billion cumulative hits and a new episode normally racks up over 1 million views each week.
And not only Cho's work but webtoons in general are widely loved in South Korea today. Although they have been around for just over a decade, webtoons ― free digital cartoons regularly released, mostly through portal sites ― have taken root as one of the most popular forms of entertainment for people of both genders and all ages here.
Naver, a popular local portal site, currently publishes 128 weekly webtoons. Its rival Daum began its webtoon service in 2003 and features over 85 official webtoons. Every day over 6.2 million users visit Naver Webtoons on their PCs. This is roughly half the number of daily visitors to Naver who use PCs. Add readers using mobile devices and other platforms, and the figure rises considerably.
"With the rise of the Internet age, people's lifestyles and consumer patterns have changed … In this new environment, webtoons are able to flourish," said Park Seok-hwan, a professor at the department of cartoon and comics creation at Korea College of Media Arts.
Then how exactly did webtoons manage to become one of South Korea's signature forms of entertainment?