[Feature] Love without borders, or nuclear threats?

By Ahn Sung-mi

A hit drama reflects South Koreans’ deep-rooted interest in North Koreans, despite military hostility

Published : Jan 20, 2020 - 15:53
Updated : Jan 20, 2020 - 17:38

South Korean Yoon Se-ri, played by Son Ye-jin (left), and North Korean military official Ri Jung-hyuk, played by Hyun Bin, arrive in Pyongyang in a scene from “Crash Landing on You.” (Studio Dragon)


A chaebol heiress accidentally crashes in North Korea while paragliding. She is rescued by a North Korean military officer who ends up protecting her and risking his life to send her back home to Seoul. Despite the differences in accent, lifestyle, culture, upbringing and ideology, they fall in love. 

This is the premise of “Crash Landing on You,” the latest hit drama from tvN. With a top-notch cast led by actress Son Ye-jin and actor Hyun Bin, the rom-com, which premiered Dec. 14, is the talk of the town for its vivid depiction of the reclusive nation that has been shrouded behind a veil for decades.  

Life north of the border has been a source of inspiration for many creative minds in the South.

Often, as in “Crash Landing,” their renditions are a refreshing change from the prevailing depiction of North Korea in the Western media -- more precisely, the US media -- as an international rogue state messing with dangerous weapons. This difference reflects how South Koreans see their northern neighbors: as people. After all, the two Koreas have been separated for only about seven decades now.

“Content that deals with North Korea has been popular for a long time,” Jung Duk-hyun, a culture critic, told The Korea Herald.

“It stirs up a mix of emotions. There is curiosity about something lesser known as well as the fear of war. There is also a longing for reunification. It’s a topic that resonates with many people in South Korea.”

Previous works that depicted the communist regime include films “Shiri” (1999), “Joint Security Area” (2000), “Love Impossible (2003)” and “Confidential Assignment” (2017), as well as TV drama “The King 2 Hearts (2012).”

While all of them were mostly set in South Korea, “Crash Landing” is set in the communist state and most of the characters are ordinary North Koreans. 

In the 16-episode series, North Korean officials secretly watch South Korean drama series, and women secretly shop for South Korean cosmetics and clothes at a “jangmadang,” or North Korean market. The people of Pyongyang enjoy chicken and beer at a sky lounge overlooking the Taedong River, and young people from high-class families study abroad. North Korean military officials sip cups of the South’s famous “stick coffee.”

“I think the attempt itself is very original,” Jung said. “Romantic comedy in North Korea is something that was not dealt with that much as a drama. Depending on the viewers, though, some could think it is unrealistic.”

Kim Jae-hee, a 32-year-old office worker in Seoul, said that the North Korean setting is part of the series’ appeal.

“At first, (the North Korean setting) felt really foreign and surreal to me,” she said. “But the plot and dialogue are fun, but it’s also interesting to get a glimpse of what life is like in North Korea.”

The latest episode of “Crash Landing,” which aired Sunday, garnered a nationwide viewership rate of 14.6 percent, a remarkable feat for a cable drama, with viewers applauding it for its compelling plot and the great on-screen chemistry between the star-crossed lovers.

Poetic license or grave omissions? 

Along with its popularity, controversy is growing over the depiction of North Korea as a peaceful and livable place with likable and humorous characters.

Some say the show chooses to leave out key aspects of North Korean society -- poverty and human right abuses -- and could be tantamount to idealizing the communist state at a time when its totalitarian regime led by third-generation leader Kim Jong-un, who threatens the world with nuclear weapons.

For them, the recently released Korean film “Ashfall,” which depicts camaraderie between the two Koreas to prevent a volcanic explosion, appears to share similar problems.

In the disaster flick, South Korean explosive disposal specialist Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo) goes on a mission to North Korea with the help of North Korean spy Ri Jun-pyung (Lee Byung-hun) to stop the imminent eruption of the volcanic Paektusan, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula.  The film has already drawn more than 8 million cinemagoers since its Dec. 19 debut, and is well on its way to the 10 million milestone.

As to such criticism, the director of “Crash Landing” asks for poetic license on creative works.

“The subject matter on North Korea could be uncomfortable for some. But in the drama, (the North Korean setting) depicts a disconnected space for romance to happen,” director Lee Jung-hyo said at a press conference last month.

He said the series, penned by star writer Park Ji-eun of “My Love From the Star,” tried to be as realistic as possible, enlisting help from writer Kwak Mun-an, who is a North Korean defector, and Baek Gyeong-yoon, an expert in North Korean language.

“The everyday life in North Korea appears a lot in the drama and I hope (viewers) will enjoy it as something that adds entertainment, along with romance.”

South Korean shows depicting the North are of great interest to North Korean defectors here, who have experienced both worlds.  

One defector interviewed by The Korea Herald spoke highly of “Crash Landing” and said it reminds her of her days in the North.

“I watched a lot of dramas and movies that deal with North Korea, but ‘Crash Landing on You’ definitely stands out for its realistic portrayal, especially life in the rural village,” she said on condition of anonymity.

In particular, the show’s depictions of the jangmadang, interactions of North Korean villagers and the exteriors of North Korean homes seem very real, she said. 

Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy North Korean ambassador to the UK who defected to the South in 2016, thinks “Crash Landing” will be very popular when it is smuggled into North Korea.

“Nowadays, it takes about six months at the fastest and a year at the latest for hit South Korean dramas and films to be smuggled into Pyongyang,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

“I hope there will be more love stories between South and North Korea so that inter-Korean relations can be resolved easily, like the love of Ri Jung-hyuk (the male lead played by Hyun) and Yoon Se-ri (the female lead played by Son).”

The unnamed defector also welcomed human-interest approaches to North Korea, as top-level relations are deadlocked. 

“I think this will definitely help many people to be more aware of the lives of people in North Korea,” she said. “Despite everything going on in North Korea, citizens there are human beings too. I hope this will help South Koreans to have an opportunity to understand different cultures and lifestyles and improve their overall understanding of the country.”

The timing of the two productions, which emphasize friendship and love between citizens of the two Koreas, may seem unlikely considering the setbacks in inter-Korean relations since the collapse of US-North Korea nuclear talks in February last year. But this is largely the result of production schedules that go back much earlier, according to an industry official familiar with the matter.

“Ashfall” began planning in 2014, and the production of “Crash Landing on You” was finalized in 2018, a year when prospects for inter-Korean relations seemed bright: The first inter-Korean summit in 11 years took place that year, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump made history in Singapore by holding the first-ever meeting between the sitting leaders of their respective countries.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)

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The Korea Herald by Herald Corporation