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NPR Arts & Life

South Korea's Newest TV Stars Are North Korean Defectors

Han Seohee (right) and fellow North Korean defectors Lee Gwang-sung (left) and Hwang Soyeon (center) are regulars on <em>Moranbong Club</em>, a South Korean talk show featuring North Korean defectors. "There's a lot of prejudice toward North Korean defectors in South Korea," Han says. "So I wanted to show South Koreans that we're living here and trying the best we can."
Han Seohee (right) and fellow North Korean defectors Lee Gwang-sung (left) and Hwang Soyeon (center) are regulars on <em>Moranbong Club</em>, a South Korean talk show featuring North Korean defectors. "There's a lot of prejudice toward North Korean defectors in South Korea," Han says. "So I wanted to show South Koreans that we're living here and trying the best we can."

North Korea is a mysterious place — even to South Koreans. Curiosity about life in the north has sparked a slew of new South Korean TV shows.

There is the Amazing Race-type program, in which North Korean women are paired up with South Korean men to take on various challenges, like trudging through mud carrying a bucket of water on their heads.

There are the talk shows, featuring panels of North Korean defectors talking about their dangerous escapes and difficult lives.

And then there are the dating shows, in which North Korean women are matched up with eligible South Korean bachelors.

It's all part of an emerging genre on South Korean television: The defector reality show.

"I do think that it's a new approach," says Sokeel Park, research director for Liberty in North Korea, an international nonprofit that helps North Korean refugees resettle.

Where people from the North were previously seen only on the news or documentaries here, now they're part of a softer, more entertainment-driven mass media south of the border.

Park says the shows are, "for the first time, exposing South Korean audiences at a mass scale" to North Koreans who aren't their infamous political leaders.

People like Han Seohee. A former singer in Pyongyang, she's a regular on the talk show Moranbong Club.

"There's a lot of prejudice toward North Korean defectors in South Korea," Han says. "So I wanted to show South Koreans that we're living here and trying the best we can."

On a typical episode, she'll field questions from hosts about North Korean culture — its bands, its music offerings. And what it was like performing in the military's singing troupe. But the topics really vary.

"They're talking about the growth of markets and new technologies in North Korea," Park says. "So gradually, the South Korean audiences are getting exposed to new kinds of stories or new characters from North Korea that previously there was just widespread ignorance of."

Park says the programs are helping South Koreans get a better sense of the North Korean experience. But they're also controversial. If you watch enough of these, you'll notice a familiar pattern: They tend to feature young North Korean women paired with South Korean men.

The gender dynamic shows up in research on these programs. Lee Yunso watched a month's worth of North Korean defector shows for her media watchdog group, Womenlink.

"By casting defectors in their twenties, the TV shows emphasize North Korean women's innocence, and how little they know. They are used to portray[ing] submissive women inside the patriarchy," Lee says.

She — and defectors like Han — also say the programs lack nuance on the differences between North and South. On the talk shows, life in the North is usually presented as uniformly bad, while life in the south is unquestionably good — ignoring difficulties for defectors in South Korean society.

"We need to show how North Korean defectors really live in South Korea, and try to show North Korea without any of the prejudices in our minds," Lee says. "We need a process of gaining more understanding between each other."


Haeryun Kang contributed to this story. For a behind-the-scenes look at our reporting in East Asia, check out Elise Goes East.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.