Why do North Koreans love to watch South Korean dramas? North Korea’s elites like to watch historical dramas set during the Joseon period. It’s probably no accident that North Korea still calls itself Joseon, a kingdom founded in 1392. Indeed, many defectors identify with their country being an anachronistic kingdom ruled by a Joseon-style absolute monarch than a totalitarian regime. In this piece, we explain why historical dramas are so appealing to North Korea’s older set while the younger set loves to watch love-comedies featuring South Korea’s latest pop trends. According to defector Thae Yong-Ho, just about everyone watches South Korean dramas and TV shows. In fact, they have infiltrated North Korean society so much that even patterns of speech are changing. South Korea’s “soft power” is a formidable weapon in its showdown with a nuclear North Korea.
North Korea can’t stop its citizens from watching Korean dramas no matter what it tries, according to Thae Yong-Ho (태영호). Thae is the North Korean defector we profiled on December 19th. He is the highest ranking North Korean diplomat to defect directly to South Korea. Thae became a civilian last week and made himself available for open sessions with reporters yesterday (12/27). We learned a lot more about Thae, especially a lot more about how Korean dramas are impacting the cultural milieu of North Korea.
Well, the entire country of North Korea can’t do without South Korean dramas, it seems. Thae says just about everyone in North Korea watches them: “They might say, ‘Viva Kim Jong-Un’ during the day but in the evening, they cover themselves up with blankets and watch South Korean movies and dramas.”
The impact is so far-reaching that everyday expressions of the younger generation are changing. For example, the phrase, “oppaya (오빠야),” an affectionate term used by young women toward male friends (or boyfriends) has become popular, as it is frequently used in Korean dramas. In English, oppaya (or oppa) loosely translates to “honey” or “darling” – it is used by Korean females to address male acquaintances or boyfriends a bit older than themselves. So is the term “jagiya (자기야),” which was never before heard in North Korea.
Now it has the same meaning as in South Korea – i.e., used by couples to address each other somewhat flirtatiously (loosely, “dear,” “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” etc.). Also, among smartphone users, “ㅋㅋㅋ,” which translates to “LOL,” is a popular texting phrase, according to Thae.
Thae explained that ‘Winter Sonata 《겨울연가》‘ was very popular among North Koreans in the past. He even mentioned Bae Yong-Joon by name, the lead actor who gets into a car wreck and ends up with an amnesia as the main character. Drama fans will remember that ‘Winter Sonata‘, which aired in 2002, is the Korean drama which launched the ‘Korean Wave‘ throughout Asia, especially in Japan and Southeast Asia. Thae also mentioned ‘Autumn in My Heart’《가을동화》and ‘Full House‘《풀하우스》 as dramas with a popular following in North Korea.
North Korea still can't get over 'Winter Sonata'
However, for someone older and educated like Thae (he meant this benignly), historical dramas are more appealing. Jeong Do-jeon (JDJ)《정도전》 is an example of the type of dramas enjoyed by Thae and his peers. JDJ was a popular drama series which ran for 6 months in 2014. It received high ratings and critical acclaim for realistically, and fairly accurately, portraying a key moment in history — the birth of a kingdom called Joseon, which heralded the Joseon Dynasty. The central figure in that drama (aside from JDJ), is Lee Seong-Gye, who became the first king (태조) of Joseon in 1392. You might recognize that North Korea still calls itself Joseon, as in Joseon Peoples Democratic Republic (조선민주주의 인민공화국). DPRK is used when using languages other than Korean. As far as North Korea is concerned, the country is still Joseon and the drama Thae liked to watch chronicles its founding 625 years ago.
Thae and NK's elites are fans of 'JDJ,' which chronicles the birth of a kingdom called Joseon. 625 years later, North Korea still calls itself Joseon.
Thae rattled off the names of some of his other favorites: “Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin《불멸의 이순신》, “Six Flying Dragons《육룡이 나르샤》,” and “Jingbirok《징비록》. These are all dramas based on historical figures and key events that take place during (or leading up to) the Joseon period. But the reason why North Korea’s mature audience gravitates to this genre is not so much because they still identify with the kingdom of Joseon — historical dramas do not deal with the complexities of modern life in South Korea, dominated by latest fads, catch phrases, and mannerisms. They are simply much easier for North Koreans to follow and understand.
North Koreans are also curious about the lives of defectors in South Korea, Thae explained. So they are naturally drawn to dramas and movies that treat the subject of defection. “Gentle Breeze¹《불어라 미풍아》” is a weekend drama featuring a North Korean woman whose 2 family members are shot dead while defecting. Upon arrival in South Korea, the drama turns into a love-comedy. ‘Gentle Breeze‘ is a huge commercial success and is now the highest-rated drama in its category, having reached peak ratings both nationally and in the Seoul metro area. Thae is a fan of the North Korean heroine, ‘Mee-Poong (미풍)’, as he can identify with her struggles in adjusting to South Korean life. There’s another reason why Thae may find this particular drama so compelling — the heroine’s dad, who is supposedly killed in the first episode but returns alive later, is also a North Korean diplomat. Art imitates life for Thae and his family.
Thae enjoys watching "Gentle Breeze," still running and now the highest-rated TV drama in its category in South Korea.
North Koreans also avidly watch variety shows starring defectors. Thae followed “Now on my way to meet you 《이만갑: 이제 만나러 갑니다》,” a variety show featuring defectors who discuss how their lives have changed in front of other defectors representing different regions of North Korea. It has been running 5 years strong, rare for shows of this genre. But many similar shows with slightly different formats abound, some of which are reality shows. Thae claims ‘100%’ of North Korean elites watch such shows since they themselves are ‘so curious’ how those who defect fare after settling in South Korea. Thae also cited Moranbong Club 《모란봉 클럽》 and NK Chatter 《몰랐수다 북한수다》 as examples of variety shows that are popular with North Korean elites.
Thae followed "Now on my way to meet you," a variety show featuring NK defectors.
Perhaps there is a reason why Thae may have become such an aficionado of South Korea’s pop culture scene. The economic reality of a North Korean diplomat was so grim that watching dramas and TV shows may have been a form of escape. Thae claimed that a North Korean ambassador in London makes about $47,000 to $57,000 per year and a diplomat makes $36,000 to $42,000. Diplomats scrape by on these salaries by using the embassy as their living quarters, as utilities and other expenses are paid for by North Korea. Squatting at the embassy is de rigueur if you want to save money for children’s educational expenses. Diplomats are also supposed to raise hard currency for the Workers’ Party of North Korea, although there is no strict quota, according to Thae. It is actually those working in economic and export affairs, who are pressured to earn and send hard currencies back to North Korea.
Reporters in South Korea can often be frivolous and contentious. This morning, a left-leaning newspaper began to question Thae’s credibility by pointing out that “Gentle Breeze” didn’t start airing until after Thae had defected. So how could he have known that North Koreans are watching it? ㅋㅋㅋ. Well, look, Thae admitted that he is a big fan as he identifies with the North Korean heroine whose family background strongly resembles his own. But Thae cited that particular drama as an example of the type of shows North Koreans love to watch, not that they actually watched it. In fact, we haven’t even compiled a full list of the shows he mentioned because there are so many – Thae is a veritable walking encyclopedia of Korean pop culture.
Thae’s defection became known to the world around August 2016. At the time, the executive producer of “Gentle Breeze,” Yoon Jae-Moon, was asked whether it was actually based on Thae. Yoon explained that the drama was planned during February to March in 2016, well before Thae had defected. The resemblance is purely coincidental: “We were recently made aware that a North Korean diplomat had defected. The circumstances of his defection are uncannily similar to our drama’s storyline that we were all shocked.” Yoon here is referring to the 4-member family of the heroine, Kim Mee-Poong, as well as Thae’s own family, 2 sons and a wife from one of the well-connected bloodlines in North Korea. Both families belong to North Korean elites and the heads of household happen to be diplomats. However, there are some other similarities that Yoon could not have known at the time. We will discuss that in our next post devoted to Thae. As we will find out, Thae is a complex man and his family background reveals a lot about the elite status enjoyed by North Korean diplomats in the countries they are assigned to.
¹ "Gentle Breeze" is how we would translate, "불어라 미풍아." That's what '미풍' literally means in Korean. The official translation is "Blow Breeze" and some other translations are: "Blow It, Mi-poong," "Blown with the Beautiful Wind," and "Windy Mi-poong." These are all ineptly translated and can even convey indecent implications.