South Korea's Newest TV Stars Are North Korean Defectors : Parallels North Korean defectors star on talk shows, dating shows and compete in campy challenges. They're giving South Koreans an unprecedented glimpse of the North's experience. But it's not the full picture.
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South Korea's Newest TV Stars Are North Korean Defectors

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South Korea's Newest TV Stars Are North Korean Defectors

South Korea's Newest TV Stars Are North Korean Defectors

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

North Korea is obviously a mysterious place, even to its neighbor. Curiosity has sparked a slew of reality shows on South Korean TV featuring people who have fled the North. NPR's Elise Hu has the story from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

ELISE HU, BYLINE: There are programs similar to "The Amazing Race" featuring North Korean women and South Korean men paired up to take on challenges. There are the chatty talk shows featuring defectors talking about their dangerous escapes and past lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORANBONG CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Moranbong Club.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: And there are the dating shows, where North Korean women are matched up with eligible South Korean bachelors, all part of an emerging genre on South Korean television, the defector reality show.

SOKEEL PARK: So I do think that it's a new approach.

HU: Sokeel Park is research director for Liberty In North Korea, an international nonprofit that works with North Korean defectors. He says North Koreans were previously seen only on the news or documentaries here. Now they're part of more entertainment-driven media offerings.

PARK: And so this stuff is, for the first time, exposing South Korean audiences, mass scale, to other, you know, non-North Korean political people.

HU: People like Han Seo-hee, a former singer who lived in Pyongyang. She's a regular on the talk show "Moranbong Club."

SEO-HEE HAN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: She tells us there's a lot of prejudice toward North Korean defectors in South Korea, so I wanted to show South Koreans that we're living here and trying the best we can.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORANBONG CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Han Seo-hee.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: On this episode, she fields questions about North Korean culture - its bands, its music and what it was like performing in the military's singing troupe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORANBONG CLUB")

HAN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Defector advocate Sokeel Park says the programs are helping South Koreans get a fuller picture of the North Korean experience.

PARK: They're talking about the growth of markets and new technologies in North Korea, for instance, as well. And so gradually, the South Korean audiences are being exposed to new kind of stories and new characters from North Korea that previously, frankly, there was just widespread ignorance of.

HU: But if you watch enough of these, you'll notice a familiar pattern. They feature almost all North Korean women paired with South Korean men.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE UNIFICATION")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Foreign language spoken.

HU: In this scene from the show "Love Unification," (speaking Korean), a North Korean woman is pushed around in a wheelbarrow by her South Korean partner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVE UNIFICATION")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Korean).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DADDY")

PSY: (Singing) Where'd you get that body from?

HU: Lee Yunso took a closer look at the gender dynamics of these reality shows. She watched a month's worth of these programs for the media watchdog group Womenlink.

YUNSO LEE: (Through interpreter) By casting defectors in their 20s, the TV shows emphasize North Korean women's innocence and how little they know. They are used to portray submissive women inside the patriarchy.

HU: She and defectors like Han also fear the programs lack nuance on the differences between North and South. On the talk shows, life in the North is uniformly bad, while life in the South is unquestionably good, ignoring difficulties for defectors in South Korean society. Lee Yunso.

LEE: (Through interpreter). We need to show how North Korean defectors really live in South Korea and try to show North Korea without any of the prejudices in our minds. We need a process of gaining more understanding between each other.

HU: She says it would ultimately make portrayals of North Koreans on reality TV more real. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

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