SEOUL » As a math professor in North Korea, Jang Se Yul was among the nation’s relatively privileged classes; he got to sit in special seats in restaurants and on crowded trains, and more important in a country where many go hungry, was given priority for government food rations. Then he risked it all – for a soap opera from South Korea.
The temptation in this case was "Scent of a Man," an 18-episode drama about the forbidden love between an ex-convict and his stepsister. A graduate student had offered him the bundle of banned CDs smuggled into the North and, too curious to resist, Jang and five other professors huddled in one of their homes binge watching until dawn. They were careful to pull the curtains to escape the prying eyes of neighbors taught to turn in their fellow citizens for seditious activities. But they were caught anyway and demoted to manual labor at a power plant.
Jang said they most likely escaped prison only because they paid bribes, but facing a lifetime of social stigma – and having had a glimpse of the comforts of South Korea in "Scent of a Man" – he decided to defect. He now leads a defectors’ group that sends soap operas and other entertainment to the North to try to empower people to demand an end to authoritarian rule.
"I am sure these soaps have an impact on North Koreans, and I am the proof," he said. "In the future, if they spread, they can even help foster anti-government movements. That’s why the North Korean authorities are so desperate to stop them from spreading."
The decidedly lowbrow dramas – with names like "Bad Housewife" and "Red Bean Bread" – have, in fact, become something of a cultural Trojan horse, sneaking visions of the bustling South into the tightly controlled, impoverished North alongside the usual sudsy fare of betrayals, bouts of ill-timed amnesia and, at least once, a love affair with an alien.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has issued increasingly pointed warnings to his subjects about the "poisonous elements of capitalism" crossing China’s border with the North, tempting even his communist elite. Defectors say there has been a severe crackdown on smugglers, and in the fall, South Korean intelligence reported hearing that Kim was so shaken by the spread of the soaps that he ordered the execution of 10 Worker’s Party officials accused of succumbing to the shows’ allure, according to lawmakers who had been briefed on the matter at a parliamentary hearing.
Few people outside North Korea think the TV adventures of the lust-driven and lovelorn could lead to the overthrow of the Kim family dynasty, which has survived for decades despite international isolation and sanctions. But the infiltration of the dramas into even elite circles, despite the threat of prison or worse, is a potent indication of the challenges Kim faces in a globalized world. (The swift arrival in the North of at least some bootleg copies of "The Interview," the comedy that North Korea viewed as an "act of war," is another.)
Since he came to power in 2011, Kim has struggled to open the North just enough to keep his top loyalists happy, plying them with imported goods, while maintaining control in a country where government-installed intercoms in every home still blare reminders of required ideological education classes. He allowed an estimated 2 million people, close to 10 percent of the population, to own cellphones, but ensured they could not call abroad. And, despite a crackdown, the country has seemed unwilling, or unable, to fully dismantle the smuggling networks that bring in not only banned soap operas, movies and K-pop videos, but also much-needed trade.
Defectors say the soaps have had an outsize impact, less for their often outlandish plots than their portrayals of the creature comforts of South Korea – a direct contradiction to decades of indoctrination about the inferiority of the South, and capitalism. It was those portraits of wealth, Jeon Hyo Jin said, that inspired her to make the dangerous decision to flee in 2013 at the age of 18.
"The kitchens with hot and cold tap water, people dating in a cafe, cars clogging streets, women wearing different clothes each day – unlike us who wore the same padded jacket, day in day out," said Jeon, who lives in Seoul. "Through the dramas, I learned how strange my own country was, how full of lies."
North Korea is one of the last frontiers for South Korea’s soap operas, which have found growing audiences worldwide, including in the United States and in such unlikely places as Cuba. The reasons for the widespread appeal are not entirely clear. Some people credit their emotionally charged plots; others the enviable fashions that are part of the "Korean Wave."
But in North Korea, defectors say, the reasons are obvious. The two Koreas share an ancient culture and language. And what counts as entertainment north of the border is severely limited, especially since all TVs and radios are preset to receive only state broadcasts.
"In North Korean movies," said Jeon, "it’s all about loyalty to the leader and the party; the state before love. You should be ready to die for the leader, blah blah. In South Korean dramas, it was different. I found a whole new world there."
Most of the border trade is driven by money, defectors said, not ideology, but some defectors and pro-democracy groups also help arrange for the contraband material to be smuggled into the North.
The flow of entertainment began in the 1990s with the first real fissures in the North’s almost impregnable information blockade. In the face of a devastating famine, desperate North Korean authorities began turning a blind eye to people crossing into China to seek food and other goods to sell at home.
Foreign video tapes, CDs and DVDs, as well as cheap Chinese devices to play them, quickly became black market best-sellers.
Recognizing the danger, Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, set up swat teams that barged into homes, cutting off the electricity before entering to prevent viewers from removing discs from their DVD players. But defectors say the suppliers have worked hard to foil inspectors, importing battery-powered DVD players as well as more easily hidden flash drives.
"It’s a cat-and-mouse game," said Chung Kwang Il, another defector, who runs a smuggling operation. "These days, they call me to ask for specific soaps and K-pop music videos so they can beat competition in the markets. It’s not a one-way flow anymore."
Analysts and defectors alike say there are limits to how much outside entertainment can accomplish. A recent study by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification of 149 recent defectors showed that more than 8 in 10 had been exposed to South Korean movies or songs before fleeing the North. But most of them lived in areas close to China, where it is easier for smugglers to maneuver, and it is unclear how widely such entertainment has spread.
Still, the defectors say that the soaps are a potent tool for exposing North Koreans to the outside world after years of mixed results from official psychological warfare that included shortwave radio broadcasts.
For some North Koreans, the emotional tug of the soaps was enough to change their lives, forever.
Kim Seung Hee, 24, is one. She watched her first drama, "Stairway to Heaven," courtesy of soldiers who asked to use her home for safe watching, and was hooked immediately, drawn not only to South Korea’s freedoms, but also to the promise of love in a more open society.
"South Korean men in the films had such good manners toward women, unlike North Korean men who like to order us around," she said. "It made me yearn for South Korea, dreaming of meeting such a man."
Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times