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Saudi Arabia bets big on Hallyu with W1.2tr Kakao investment

By Im Eun-byel

Published : Jan. 12, 2023 - 15:48

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(Kakao Entertainment) (Kakao Entertainment)

Saudi Arabia’s state fund decided to join in 1.2 trillion won ($964 million) investment in Kakao Entertainment, doubling down on its aggressive bet on the burgeoning Korean content industry.

The company, the entertainment arm of Kakao Corp., said it has raised 600 billion won in financing by issuing new shares through third-party allotment each to two global state funds -- Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation.

The capital injection is the largest amount ever received by a content company in the country.

PIF is Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, founded in 1971. It is one of the world’s largest state-owned investment funds with estimated total assets of $620 billion. It is headed by the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, who recently visited Seoul.

The prince has been making investments in new technology industries to diversify the state fund’s portfolio in an attempt to lessen its heavy dependence on oil revenue.

As part of the effort, the fund has been showing great interest in the Korean entertainment and technology market, investing more than 3 trillion won in NCSoft and Nexon, two major game developers.

Through the investment, PIF became NCSoft’s second-largest shareholder in February. It also is the fourth-largest shareholder of Nexon, listed on the Tokyo bourse.

The content and entertainment businesses have proven to be resilient when it comes to economic downturns. The rising global popularity of Korean content -- K-pop, K-dramas and films -- also seems to be appealing to big institutional investors.

Backed by the largest-ever investment, Kakao Entertainment hopes to strengthen its global business -- or in the words of the firm, “solidify its position on the global stage.”

“It’s significant that we were able to secure funds of this scale at a time when both the Korean and global markets face a lot of uncertainty and investment sentiment is weaker,” said Kakao Corp.’s Chief Investment Officer and Executive Vice President Bae Jae-hyun, who led the deal, in a statement.

“This is a testament to the global competitiveness and future growth potential of Kakao Entertainment’s unique (Intellectual Property) value chain, which spans multiple categories in the entertainment industry,” Bae said.

The investment will be funneled into diverse areas including stories, media and music, paving way for the growth of global business.

Kakao Entertainment has been working on expanding its business globally.

Last year, the firm acquired US storytelling platforms Tapas and Radish to expand its service in the North American market. It is also set to release shows “Gyeongseong Creature,” “The Match” and “The Worst of Evil” on global streaming platforms Netflix and Disney+.

Encouraged by the funding, Kakao Entertainment may be able to get a boost in its preliminary initial public offering plan.

The entertainment firm has been suffering from high debt, which has surpassed its profit. Though it earned a net profit of 80 billion won in the third quarter last year, its total debt is worth 1.7 trillion won following aggressive mergers and acquisition deals in North America.

“It is hard to say whether Kakao Entertainment will definitely go for an IPO soon, encouraged by the investment,” said Yoon Ye-ji, an analyst at Hana Securities. “But still, the 1 trillion-won funding can show that Kakao Entertainment is worth the money and has the potential for more growth."

"As there are not many companies with such big assets, Kakao Entertainment will have an edge in the industry," Yoon said. “Also, Saudi Arabia has been making big investments in the Korean entertainment industry recently. This can be good news for the whole sector.”