Step by step, Koreans are getting closer.
From reunions of families separated by the war to plans for “unification” soccer and forthcoming film festivals, beyond talk of the nuclear issues lies the Panmunjom Declaration’s commitment to see grassroots interactions between the two countries flourish.
The more these things happen, the thinking goes, the more that animosity from some 70 years of division will melt away like patbingsu in the ongoing summer heatwave.
But a new series on the partially state-owned and government-backed Yonhap News Agency’s “North Korea Now” YouTube channel appears to be going for a different angle: repackaging run-of-the-mill North Korean media with South Korean production values.
But some – under the headline “North Korea Signal” – strike a distinctly amorous tone.
A July 16 video from, for example, tells the story of how “beautiful” kindergarten teacher Kim Gyung He goes about her daily life, describing the challenges she faces and why she chose to enter the profession.
Beyond the often-humanizing stories of daily life for well-connected North Koreans, however, one topic dominates the output.
“Does she have a boyfriend?” the July 16 video asks, claiming her “breathtaking beauty has blown away kindergarten kids’ minds!”
In another, our “beautiful and attractive aerobics instructor” sends a message directly to her fellow Koreans – all to a Kenny G-style romantic saxophone track.
“My fellow countrymen,” the Yonhap-provided translation reads. “When you visit North Korea, please visit our aerobics center – I will do my best to teach you.”
The video material is not taken from South Korean sources, of course, where division still prevents the vast majority of inter-Korean journalistic exchange.
Instead, content in the Yonhap-linked “North Korea Signal” appears to come from the Japan-based Choson Sinbo outlet: the media arm of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, better known as Chongryon.
Choson Sinbo journalists enjoy a great deal more access in-country than many of their less sympathetic counterparts: often scoring exclusive tours of new projects, scoops on matters of importance for Japanese-DPRK relations and even on American prisoners in the North.
But “North Korea Signal” appears to be taking inspiration from another Choson Sinbo initiative: a short-lived but prolifically-produced video series called “Ingi cheonyeo” – “Popular Girl” – which highlighted the lives of well-to-do women in the North.
And Yonhap is not even the first South Korean outlet to see the cross-border appeal of “Popular Girl”: it was also featured by South Korea’s liberal-leaning JTBC outlet when it first emerged in 2015.
What’s motivating this tranche of romanticly-angled human interest pieces isn’t clear, however, with one expert saying it fits neatly with changes in tone in recent media output from North Korea.
“This correlates quite well with the new tone of current North Korean propaganda,” said Tatianna Gabroussenko, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University and a frequent writer on DPRK culture for NK News.
The Choson Sinbo, she noted, “always have been slightly more liberal than original North Korean sources.”
Despite South Korean usage of the video materials, no deal has been struck between the two outlets surrounding the use of Choson Sinbo’s content, a representative of the newspaper told NK News in an email.
Instead, they said, the video was “uploaded without permission,” and that they “strongly hope (the publishers) delete it immediately.”
“If deletion is not confirmed, we will notify the youtube management side,” the newspaper source added.
Inquiries to Yonhap went unanswered at the time of publication.
It’s clear that the video editors have been creative with the source material. One video used by Yonhap – described in promotional copy as featuring “North Korea’s goddess of beauty” – features all the hallmarks of cheesy Southern dating shows: slow-motion scenes, romantic piano music, and overlay text appearing at opportune moments to emphasize important points.
Anyone familiar with South Korean television might see similarities with the Channel A show “Heart Signal,” an ultra-high production dating show in which well-groomed Seoulites court each other and celebrity onlookers guess which ones will ultimately knock boots.
That’s a similarity that one source familiar with “North Korea Signal’s” production says is purposeful – adding a touch of irony to this unusual and taxpayer-funded endeavor.
“I can tell you that the production team there was trying to create a parody of a South Korean drama ‘Heart Signal’, using KCTV footage,” they said, asking not to be named.
Some see inspiration in the South’s popular “Heart Signal” reality show
The old cliche of “Nam nam buk nyeo” – that North Korean women are beautiful and South Korean men are handsome – has reemerged this year, driven by coverage of visits earlier in the year by high profile North Korean singer Hyon Song Wol and a posse of northern cheerleaders to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And one expert said that “North Korea Signal” plays, consequently, into Southern ideas about the DPRK.
“They are very gendered – very feminine (pink text, soft music, all women being interviewed, women interviewers),” said Dr. Sandra Fahy, Associate professor of Anthropology at Sophia University, Tokyo.
“They are focused on women and they are focused on (not surprising) heteronormative dating culture/ love,” she added.
“Because refugee migration to ROK from DPRK is already very feminized (80% women), highlighting women in videos is not in contrast with that trend.”
Another expert said that while the content may ring odd for some audiences, older Koreans might not find the materials that strange at all.
“It depends who they’re targeting as the main audience,” said Dr. Ji-young Song, a senior lecturer in Korean studies at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne, Australia.
“(They’re) certainly distasteful and off-putting for Western-educated people with gender equality in mind, but (they) may work for ordinary elderly traditional Korean nationalists who’re not bothered by these gender stereotypical narratives.”
Song said the more old-fashioned vibe is also reflected in the professions of the women involved in the videos.
“It’s totally out of date, too,” she pointed out. “Aerobics, for example, was popular in the 1980s in South Korea,” while “Kindergarten teachers and athletes are all popular professions for women in the 80s, too.
“I bet the next episode will feature a nurse.”
COLLABORATION IN THE WORKS?
Of course, many of “North Korea Now’s” other videos tie into narratives linked with South Korea’s changing government-to-government relations with the North.
One example, named “Image Transformation! Kim Jong-un’s friendliness emerged,” highlights how DPRK media has recently been emphasizing the leader’s good humor – hardly a new phenomena, but a point that several ROK officials have stressed in recent months.
“There are many changes (in North Korea), but what I consider the most important is that a leader has finally emerged that thinks of the livelihoods of people as being more important than other things,” the country’s Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon told a group of Korean residents in Kenya last month – a shift in tone probably not observed by the hundreds of thousands still believed to be in prison camps in the North.
But with news that several South Korean outlets – including Yonhap – are now interested in setting up bureaus in the North Korean capital, these forms of collaboration between media from the two Koreas may become more regular occurrences. “North Korea signal” therefore could offer an early idea of what inter-Korean TV production might look like in the future, combining DPRK themes with ROK production styles.
“Try(ing to) see how different the two Koreas’ media have become is a worthwhile effort, I’d say,” said Song, adding that continued inter-Korean rapprochement could lead to more direct collaboration between journalists on both sides of the DMZ.
“Engaging with North Korean journalists is a very important aspect of on-going inter-Korean dialogue,” she continued. “North Korean journalists who we all assume are totally controlled by the state have their own eyes and ears open when they meet their South Korean counterparts.”
South Korea’s government in June, too, expressed its desire that Yonhap should work with its Northern counterparts to bridge the gap between the two – using “new imagination and creative wisdom” to play a role in the ongoing peace process.
Whether “North Korea Signal” catches on remains to be seen. As of this article going live the videos had accrued only some 1,899 views in total, hardly a viral phenomenon.
But that they are being produced and likely funded by South Korea’s state-backed news agency, as well as the Youtube account’s promise that “more pretty ladies are to come!!”, suggests similar content may be on the horizon.
Responses to videos in the comments section also hints that there’s an appetite for a more humanized image of North Koreans among viewers, a desire to see glimpses of “ordinary” life in the country that many South Koreans look at with a mixture of apprehension and pity.
That’s a sentiment one expert thinks makes the initiative worthwhile.
“It is a relief to hear North Koreans talk and NOT hear them talk about the leadership,” Sophia University’s Sandra Fahy said.
“There is something about “warmth” here,” she continued.
“I once asked a North Korean defector if North Koreans were as warm as South Koreans – I was comparing them to Japanese who are colder in social engagement – and she told me that North Koreans were much warmer, much more loving. And I think a little of that comes across.”
Featured image: NK Signal, screencap