The talk/talent show is a familiar genre on the giant flat-screen TVs that seem to twitter from every branch in South Korea. Sprinkled liberally with canned laughter, sound effects too cutesy for Western ears, and snarky commentary delivered by subtitles in egregious typefaces, the shows seem odd to a Westerner, but are popular fare on public TVs in restaurants, coffee shops, and spa locker rooms.
A new iteration called “Now On My Way To Meet You” (이제 만나러 갑니다) puts North Koreans on the screen, seeking to offer grounds for common connection between South Korean audiences and the North Koreans living among them as defectors.
It’s a tough mission; the 23,000 or so North Korean defectors currently living in the South are notably marginalized in South Korean society. In a culture where social currency is minted by qualities like height, looks, fashion, social media engagement, and a top university education, these refugees from an impoverished country have a steep uphill battle to earn respect and understanding.
The South Korean government does what it can to help close the gap; long-time readers of this blog will remember that the Ministry of Unification provides significant assistance to help defectors resettle, including a three-month orientation and stipends for housing, job training, and health care. They receive help setting up bank accounts, registering with the town office, moving in to apartments, finding furniture, and learning how to work a computer.
Lee Jin-Min, the show’s producer, hopes to break down these barriers of misunderstanding and resentment by sharing the individual stories and faces of North Koreans. The show interweaves lighter fare like singing, dancing, and comedy with more serious talk from the participants about life inside North Korea and the difficulties of adapting to the South.
The Korean website of “Now On My Way To Meet You” introduces the panelists, otherwise referred to as “the beautiful women”. To give you an idea of who ends up on the show, I’ll reproduce a few of their introductions for you in English in my best emcee voice:
- “The singer, dancer, comedian, and actor, nothing-she-can’t-do jack-of-all-trades… Kim Jin-Ok!”
- “Trilingual in English and Chinese, the perfect girl-next-door… Lee Hyeon-Seo!”
- “The nightingale of the North, their answer to Son Ye-Jin [she’s a famous “nice girl” South Korean actress]… Lee Seo-Yoon!”
- “The beautiful, smiling-eyed ideal of a North Korean woman… Shin Eun-Ha!”
- “She sang in front of Kim Jong-Il… Han Seo-Hee!”
And so on.
There’s a saying in the South: “South Korean men, North Korean women”. It describes the gender stereotypes for beauty between the two countries. “Now On My Way To Meet You” seems to do its part to uphold them: the participants—as one might gather from the introductions above—are all attractive, talented female refugees in their twenties. The show gains viewership and spreads its message by featuring attractive “panelists” to participate.
Viewers are fascinated by this personal introduction to North Koreans who are both more similar and vastly more different from South Korean women than they’d imagined. Park Dong-Hoon, a 52-year-old man, watched it at a train station in Seoul, and said, “I think South and North Korea must be reunited as soon as possible.” Other viewers have written in to the show with encouraging comments about seeing North Koreans in a whole new light. They had imagined North Koreans must be drawn, gaunt, haggard figures; seeing these bright young women has forced them to take a new perspective, and hearing their stories adds to the complexity of the picture. One woman wrote in, “I wept for the first time in ten years.” Some of the participants even have growing fan clubs comparable with those of native South Korean stars.
In one episode, Lee Seo-Yoon, who had lived in a town near the North Korean border with China, describes her new life in Seoul: “In the wintertime, it made me sad when I stepped into a warm apartment. Thinking of my parents and sister who will be suffering in the cold, I couldn’t bring myself to stay warm. So I turned the heat off and stayed in the cold room, thinking of and missing my family.” Stories like these drive home the realization that hardship and separation are ongoing facets of life in the north of the peninsula; in this way the show takes impersonal and stereotypical conceptions of North Koreans and makes them concrete, personal, and immediate.
The gap between North and South Koreans is wide. It is good to see new efforts to bridge it.
For more information, see: