SEOUL—Authorities in North Korea are intensifying a crackdown on imports of South Korean popular culture, especially television dramas, but the South’s “Korean Wave” may already have taken a strong hold in the isolated Stalinist state.
South Korean music, soap operas, and movies have already taken the rest of East Asia by storm, and, according to North Koreans now living in the South, the South's arch-rival North Korea is no exception.
One of the smash-hit TV dramas to emerge from South Korea in recent years has been “Winter Sonata,” a delicate and emotional love story that has spawned its own fashions as people seek to imitate details from the story.
“I watched ‘Winter Sonata’ in North Korea and I even recall the name of the leading actor, Bae Young Joon,” said a defector to South Korea identified only by his surname, Kim.
There have been two or three reports of public executions of North Korean young people in major cities including Chungjin, as punishment for having illegally copied and distributed South Korean visual material.
“North Koreans enjoy South Korean TV drama because it is interesting and realistic,” said Kim, who arrived in the South in 2002. “North Koreans love the fact that South Korean TV drama is not about politics, but about love and life, the fundamentals of human existence anywhere in this world,” he told RFA’s Korean service.
Kim said nowadays, so many North Koreans cross the border into China in the hope of buying food that they are easily exposed to South Korean video material sold in the border regions of northeast China.
The Korean Wave is already lapping on the shores of the communist North, where cultural productions inevitably praise the ruling Korean Workers’ Party and glorify leader Kim Jong Il, he told reporter Young Yoon Choi.
“A lot of people get together in groups and watch South Korean drama on DVDs. DVD players are available at foreign currency stores in North Korea,” he said, adding that in some parts of North Korea people have good reception of Chinese TV signals and watch South Korean drama directly.
But such apparently innocent pleasures can carry a high price tag.
“There have been two or three reports of public executions of North Korean young people in major cities including Chungjin, as punishment for having illegally copied and distributed South Korean visual material,” said Kang Chul Hwan, vice-chairman of the Seoul-based Committee for the Democratization of North Korea.
“It is not an overstatement to say that the Kim Jong Il regime is waging war on the South Korean TV drama,” he said, adding that the North Korean authorities have intensified surveillance and searches to prevent South Korean videos from entering North Korea.
But the effectiveness of these efforts is questionable, he said, pointing out that even the politically upright officials who carry out raids on anyone hoping to surf the Korean Wave aren’t immune.
Kang said the agents of the North Korean National Security Agency who conduct the searches for South Korean visual material often end up watching the DVDs they confiscate.
“Can the North Korean authorities prevent people from watching South Korean TV drama? If the people really want to watch it, they will find a way to watch it,” he said.
Movie director John Woo said he believed the Korean Wave would bring change in its wake.
“Culture is always the vanguard of understanding other cultures,” Woo told a recent panel discussion on Korean culture. “The Korean Wave is beginning to reach the North Korean people as well, and they are becoming aware of what South Korean culture is about. I believe that culture has the potential to invite changes in North Korea.”
The Korean Wave found its biggest fan base among East Asian women in their 20s and 30s, before spreading out into the wider population, according to U.S.-based Korean culture expert Ji-Hong Lee.
“[It] has by now won the hearts of entire families, and consequently it has tremendous economic value and it boosts the image of Korea,” he said.
Meanwhile, Michael Shin, professor of modern Korean art and literature at Cornell University, said a distinctive feature of South Korean TV drama is that it emphasizes women’s role in society, particularly as mothers, transcending previous male-centered patriarchal stereotypes.
“The South Korean TV drama ‘Winter Sonata’ is the first classic example of this newly emerged matriarchal view of society,” Shin told a recent meeting of the U.S.-based Korean Society in New York.
“The main character doesn’t know who his father is, but his mother is still by his side. This is the key to understanding the popularity of Korean dramas. East Asians sense that they’ve somehow lost their stable identity and seek comfort in the mother figure.”
The Korean Wave of TV drama, movies, and music first made its impact in China in the late 1990s, quickly spreading across the region as broadcasters were quick to buy slick, high-quality productions at bargain prices.
The themes, which embraced love, family and Confucian ideals, were easily embraced throughout North and East Asia. South Korea has one of the world’s largest film industries, with top stars now commanding as much as U.S. $5 million to appear in a movie.
In May 2007, Hwangjini became the first South Korean movie ever to be publicly previewed in North Korea.
The main character, an artistic and learned woman of great beauty known as a kisaeng , is played by Song Hye Gyo, one of the most popular Korean Wave stars of the moment. The story is based on a novel by North Korean author Hong Seok Jung, and it was previewed at Mount Kumgang in North Korea.
Original reporting in Korean by Chang-Kyun Lee, Jinhee Bonny, and Young Yoon Choi. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translated and researched by Greg Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.