NKNews.org has a new feature called “Ask a North Korean”; Kim Jae Young, who recently escaped from the DPRK and now lives in South Korea, is the correspondent. Every week, a reader’s question is chosen and Kim answers it with a short essay about life in North Korea.
It’s just one person’s perspective, but it’s an amazing resource. Details from a person’s life and simple stories do so much more to teach us about a foreign place than do news reports about the latest rocket launch. She covers diverse topics, including typical holidays, romantic relationships, how propaganda is experienced, South Korea’s confusing coffee culture, and North Korean perceptions of South Korea.
A screenshot from the Ask A North Korean feature at NK News. Image via nknews.org.
I want to talk about her first post, which answers the question: “What do North Koreans really think about South Koreans?” Kim says that it really depends on where you are in North Korea; citizens who live near the borders with China, for instance, “know a lot about South Korea.” She goes on to explain that most of this is from foreign media smuggled across the border (a topic covered in a previous OneKorea series). But far from the border—that is, for most of North Korea—foreign media has made much slower inroads, so most North Koreans probably know less about South Korea than is indicated by the reports of defectors, who comprise so much of what we know about the country and are mostly from the border regions.
Kim was in high school before she had any non-state-mediated exposure to South Korea, and—like many people all over the world—that first exposure was through a Korean drama. Korean dramas have become popular internationally (want to see one? Hulu.com has a whole category dedicated to Korean dramas), and they’re a big part of North Korean foreign media exposure to their southern neighbor. Kim’s first Kdrama, “Stairway to Heaven”, opened her eyes to the differences in material welfare between North and South Korea, and forged an emotional connection as the death of the drama’s heroine sent her into a three-day depression.
A promotional image for the Korean drama “Stairway to Heaven.” Image credit kpopgayo.com.
It was a gateway drug; after the Kdrama, Kim soon began searching out Korean radio channels. She would alter the family radio by means of a matchstick, so she could listen to the foreign broadcasts, tuned “not louder than the whisper of an ant.” Soon she realized that her state-fed perceptions of South Korea were often wrong, and this seems like it must have been a major factor in her eventual decision to go to South Korea.
Her story proves the power of cultural exchange. Governments are wise to pour money into programs that inform, like Radio Free Asia: that’s what would-be defectors turn to eventually. But programs that entertain are often most powerful at offering an initial point of access to something we know little about. It’s a critical link in the acquisition of information—it gets us interested. If we want more North Koreans to understand foreign nations, they need more access to our culture’s entertainment.
And if we want more Westerners to understand North Korea better, we need more entertaining points of access for more people. That’s why movies like “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”, or books like The Orphan Master’s Son, are so important. Still, they don’t substitute for media actually produced in North Korea.
So, go read the stories at Ask a North Korean. Be informed and entertained. If you find something you like, share it with people you know—you are a critical link to a greater understanding of North Korea.