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TV Dramas in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-05-17

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ KBS News

South Korean TV series are becoming increasingly popular in various parts of the world, including North Korea. Many North Korean defectors say that they have watched South Korean television dramas in their home country. Under a new law on “rejecting reactionary ideology and culture” enacted by North Korea in 2020, citizens caught watching South Korean dramas face heavy punishment. North Korea also reportedly adopted the “Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act” in January this year in an apparent move to discourage locals from imitating South Korean-style language after watching cultural content from the South. 

Television dramas reflect what a society is like. Today, we’ll examine North Korean TV dramas with Professor Jeon Young-seon from the Institute for the Humanities and Unification at Konkuk University. 

In South Korea, there are many TV channels dedicated to soap operas as well as various over-the-top or OTT streaming services that offer media content such as films and TV series directly to viewers via the Internet. In North Korea, however, local residents can access TV dramas only in a limited way. 

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television is the only TV channel that is accessible in the entire nation. There are movie and education channels in the capital of Pyongyang, but they produce a limited number of programs. So, viewers have little choice. North Korean TV channels’ schedules mostly consist of news programs, and there aren’t enough time slots for soap operas. Citizens in Pyongyang may watch foreign TV series from time to time, but it is hard for residents in local regions to see such content on TV, due to various reasons including copyright issues. 

Globally popular South Korean TV series cover a wide range of genres, including romance, courtroom dramas, crime series and horror stories about zombies, ghosts or deadly viruses. Romantic dramas, in many cases, include the same old topics such as birth secrets, incurable illnesses and a typical Cinderella story. An attractive company executive often appears to help out a heroine. It is said that birth secrets and some figures similar to “Daddy-Long-Legs,” from Jean Webster’s novel of the same name, also appear in North Korean television dramas. 

Every North Korean TV drama shows the growth of the protagonist, who understands the party’s policies only superficially in the beginning but eventually realizes what the party really wants from him. In the process of growing from an immature person to a mature one, the protagonist receives help and political support from a secretary or a mentor. 

Many North Korean dramas have an orphan as the main character, stressing that the party and the state raised the orphan. In one North Korean theory called “Socialist Grand Family,” all citizens in the socialist regime comprise one large family and share the same spiritual life bestowed by the supreme leader. Therefore, they should help out people in need including sick people and those who lost their parents. North Korean movies and TV series often show a lead character who discovers his mother is not his biological mother but she still devotedly looked after him, even missing the opportunity to get married. 

In South Korea, TV series have a tremendous impact on the economy and society. “Squid Game” is a good example. It is a survival drama depicting what critics say is a realistic display of class conflict and social inequality. 

Some items from the drama generated buzz worldwide. They include the iconic green tracksuit worn by the games’ participants, the pink jumpsuit and masks worn by the guards and the golden masks for the VIPs. They inspired various Halloween costumes. Also, the old school metal lunch box given to the participants and melted sugar candy (dalgona) kits sold like hot cakes. 

When a television drama gains popularity, it is common for the outfits, bags and accessories worn by the main character in the drama to sell out. Many people go as far as to visit the shooting site of the drama and take photos there. On the back of the worldwide popularity of Korean TV dramas, the shooting locations of the shows have been developed as tourist spots. 

In North Korea, on the other hand, the impact of local dramas is insignificant. 

In South Korea, the clothes worn by the lead character in a hit drama often sell well. But it’s hard to find such a scene in North Korea. Some North Koreans imitate the way of talking or behavior of the characters in a popular show. North Korea restricts locals from traveling, so it is hardly imaginable for the shooting site of a popular drama to become a tourist attraction. 

Under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule, product placement advertizing has appeared in TV series. A TV drama titled “Ginseng Diggers in the Year of Imjin(임진)” is about ginseng collectors who fight against Japan to protect Goryeo ginseng. In the last scene portraying the diggers returning home after the war, a wild ginseng appears, along with advertisements of trading and pharmaceutical companies. These days, it is common for not only TV series but also science fiction films to add product advertisements to show how great a particular product is. This is new trend found in the Kim Jong-un era. 

In 2007, a TV drama produced by North Korea’s Korean Central Television was aired on South Korea’s KBS. 

The historical drama “Sayuksin” tells the story of six government officials in the Joseon Dynasty, who were executed after their unsuccessful attempt to restore King Danjong, the grandson of King Sejong, to the throne. The period drama portrays an actual historical event in a hyperrealistic way. The drama drew special attention as a joint South-North production, which was planned by KBS and produced by North Korea’s Korean Central Television. 

At the time, a popular North Korean actress named Cho Myong-ae(조명애) starred in the drama to attract attention. North Korean actors and actresses used acting styles found in theatrical performances, so their acting was rather unfamiliar to South Korean audiences. 

Historical dramas are quite popular in North Korea, just like in South Korea. In the South, a new genre “fusion historical drama” is immensely popular. It refers to a period drama that mixes historical facts with fictional people or events. But there is no such drama in the North, because the country stresses that historical films or dramas should be rooted in historical facts only. A period drama with a modern touch is inconceivable in North Korea. Some North Korean defectors say it is absurd to deal with imaginary events in a historical drama. 

The professions of main characters in North Korean TV dramas have changed for each generation. During the era of regime founder Kim Il-sung, the anti-Japanese guerrilla army and farmers often appeared as the lead characters, which were replaced by soldiers, Youth Assault Troops and construction workers during the years of the next leader Kim Jong-il. In the current Kim Jong-un era, teachers and scientists appear as protagonists, although the number of new TV dramas has decreased, compared to previous eras. 

In another change, the 2016 drama “Value Others” describes a subtle relationship between a man and a woman, although the scene is shown only in part. This is definitely different from previous North Korean TV shows, which were full of political propaganda. 

Another TV series “Young Researchers” that was aired in 2013 revolves around middle school students who prepare for a science fair, engaging in a fair and friendly competition. 

Analysts say that it is a fresh attempt to show teenagers dreaming of the future as the main characters. In the Kim Jong-un era, North Korean TV series have adopted new techniques. This is definitely a noticeable change. 

Overall, the dramas have become more spectacular, incorporating multiple entertaining elements to provide something interesting to watch. Producers have employed different camera movements, compared to the past, while using computer graphics a lot, not only in dramas but in other broadcast programs as well. They often adopted a long take in filmmaking in the past. But these days, they switch scenes pretty quickly and use different techniques such as zoom in and zoom out to create various visual effects. 

It is true that North Korean TV dramas are changing little by little. But their subjects have not changed significantly. A typical example is the soap opera “Northern Sunset” that was aired on Korean Central Television in 2017. 

The TV series describe the conflict between the characters over how to build a smelter. The drama features the theme of mine development, which requires a speed battle campaign aimed at mobilizing labor. In this way, state policies are reflected in many North Korean TV soaps. A similar example is “Platinum Mountain” that was re-aired in 2021. 

“Platinum Mountain” was first aired in 1995, against the background of Ryongyang Mine in South Hamgyong Province, where a huge amount of magnesite is buried. Former leader Kim Il-sung visited the mine in 1961 and named the mountain, saying that magnesite is as valuable as gold. The drama “Platinum Mountain” is based on a true story about nine discharged soldiers who volunteered to work at Ryongyang Mine in the 1970s. When it was aired in 1995, the drama attracted great attention. But why did the country air the drama again after 26 years? 

The TV drama was adapted from a novel written by worker-turned-author Kim Mun-chang(김문창), who depicted the mine scenes in a realistic way. North Korea re-aired the TV series to awaken the public to the importance of resources, including magnesite, which is essential to produce weapons. Another purpose is to encourage young people to volunteer to work in tough areas, just as the main characters in the drama did back in the 1970s. 

Filming techniques have changed in North Korean TV series, but it is still difficult for the country to change the main subject itself in any drama.

In recent years, South Korean TV series, films and even webtoons have employed themes about North Korea, with the background of some works set in the communist state. The stories are mostly about people in South and North Korea, who worry about something and experience conflict but manage to patch things up and join forces for a common goal eventually. 

We hope the two Koreas will reconcile with each other and stay together, just as they do in TV dramas and movies. 

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