April 17, 2020

Article at Washington Post

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Amid lockdown binge watching, U.S. viewers savor story that puts a human face on North Korea

A South Korean heiress-slash-business executive crash lands in North Korea after her paraglider is caught in a typhoon, and ends up falling out of a tree, straight into the arms of a strait-laced and taciturn North Korean army captain.

But, in South Korea, the Netflix series "Crash Landing on You" also has found an improbable niche in the tricky world of outreach between the two Koreas. The popular series — whose writers include a defector from the North — has earned praise for its nuanced portrayal of North Koreans that challenges the drab uniformity often depicted in South Korean pop culture.

Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps people fleeing the North, said the show “crashed the South Korean zeitgeist on North Korea” by portraying a three-dimensional country with relatable — even lovable — people.

Television and films have often blasted through cultural stereotypes, bridging political divides such as India and Pakistan, and Israelis and Palestinians. But few places are more estranged — but also bonded by language and traditions — than the Korean Peninsula.

“Crash Landing on You” was inspired by an actual event, when a South Korean actress and three friends accidentally strayed into disputed waters between North and South Korea on a boat trip in 2008, even talking to North Korean fishermen after getting lost in a fog.

The Washington Post asked three defectors for their views about the show, what they liked, what was accurate — and what was not.

Without giving too much away, the show centers on the far-fetched romance between the South Korean business executive and North Korean captain — and the incredible sacrifices and risks each take to stay together.

Kang Ha-na fled North Korea as an 18-year-old, sheltering in China for five years, before eventually chatting with a South Korean soldier online and falling in love with him.

“At school, I was taught to detest enemy South Korean soldiers as violent and hostile,” she said. “I never imagined I would meet one of them.”

Their online friendship turned into love, and then into a risky gamble to buy a dead person’s identity to obtain a Chinese passport. Kang used it to travel to South Korea to be with the soldier. They eventually got married.

“I had to take terrifying risks at each stage of my journey to South Korea to meet him. It was love that got me through the impossible borders,” she said. “People dismiss ‘Crash Landing on You’ as an unrealistic drama. But I was totally feeling [the North Korean army captain character] when he lied to his family and forged a Chinese passport to save his South Korean lover. Would a North Korean man do something as crazy as that just for love? Well, look what I did.”

Kang, who now lives near South Korea’s border with the North, recently watched the show with her husband. He kept asking her about what he was seeing on TV, she said.

“He couldn’t believe that was the life I lived before meeting him, but yeah, I also made kimchi out of seawater and showered in a makeshift steam bath under plastic sheets,” she said, noting scenes from the series.

Kang said she used to avoid watching South Korean films and dramas that involved North Korea, because the North was depicted as “so dark.”

“My life in North Korea had hardships, but it was not just suffering,” she said. “There are real people living in the country, and all kinds of things happen there. What I liked about this series is that it showed different kinds of people living in North Korea.”

Plunking a wealthy South Korean woman into a North Korean village provides endless material for comedy in the show. But it also provides an eye-opening account of village life, featuring a group of women who initially come across as busybodies but eventually prove to be loyal to each other.

“After the state-led economy broke down, people were left on their own to survive,” she said. “There’s not much room left for such neighborly support.”

In the show, the army captain character enjoys a close and informal relationship with four soldiers under his command, and these men also become central characters.

Jung Ha-neul joined the Korean People’s Army fresh out of school as a 17-year-old and was stationed as a guard along the heavily militarized southern frontier, just like the characters in the show. He said it brings back many old memories, calling the show a step forward from the typical one-sided portrayal of North Korea as an emotionless place.

“The border guard unit I experienced was much more rigid and hierarchical,” he said, adding he has “hardly any happy memories” of the 15 months he spent in the army.

Jung sneaked across the heavily mined front line in 2013, when a typhoon knocked out some of the electric fences — just as a typhoon does in the TV drama — but he said he never would have risked his life to run away if the army had been as warm as it is portrayed.

“When the soldiers first come to Seoul in the show, the sense of surprise and marvel they feel is real,” he said. “The burgers I tasted for the first time in Seoul were amazing.”

The show satirizes the elite of Pyongyang, whose children study abroad and are constantly trying to one up each other. They also scatter English words into their conversation in attempts to sound cosmopolitan.

“The European designer goods in Pyongyang department stores, the trendy fashions of North Korea’s study-abroad students, those are all real lives that I experienced myself,” Kim said. “People who had the rare chance of going abroad will try to show that off by mixing broken English words into their speech. There are people like that in North Korea, just like anywhere else in the world.”

“All kinds of people live in North Korea, but the media reduces the country to flat and negative images,” he said. “I am happy to see this show that helps people look at the country in a new light.”