The K-drama “Crash Landing on You,” which gained immense popularity among soap opera fans and Korea watchers, continues to draw attention to some of the important questions regarding the now-75-year-long division of the Korean peninsula.
The drama, produced by South Korean company tvN and distributed by Netflix, has prompted audiences inside and outside of South Korea to ask just how different — or similar — life in the North is.
So is the drama’s depiction of North Korean society accurate? And did South Koreans feel a sense of hanminjok — an affinity with compatriots in the North — after watching the series?
NK News spoke to experts on the two Koreas, defectors, the South Korean government, and fans of the show to unravel some of the themes and implications of the show’s popularity.
Note: This article contains spoilers.
THE REAL NORTH KOREA?
“Crash Landing on You” is the story of a romance between North Korean soldier Ri Jeong Hyeok and South Korean businesswoman Yoon Se-ri.
Se-ri ‘crash-lands’ on the other side of the military demarcation line (MDL) after a paragliding accident. North Korean soldiers then help Se-ri safely return to the South.
Many in South Korea said that they have learned new things about the North through the show, especially the episodes featuring Pyongyang and a North Korean village.
Korea experts and defectors told NK News that the series was a mix of accurate depiction, some exaggeration, and notable omissions.
One defector and a North Korean economy expert said that the North Korean markets shown — which, in the series, featured many South Korean products — were, overall, very accurately portrayed.
“Yes, there are a lot of South Korean products in the North Korean jangmadang (the Korean word for the DPRK’s unofficial markets). There’s Sulhwasoo, Dove shampoo, ReEn shampoo, Perio toothpaste, and many types of coffee mix,” said Kim Young-hui, a defector who researches the North Korean economy at the Korea Development Bank (KDB).
“Rice cookers are 300 dollars, and Korean frying pans are 70 yuan. It is also true that the North Korean jangmadang has people who do short-distance trade and take orders. Coffee beans can be delivered, like Jeong Hyeok did for Se-ri in one of the episodes.”
North Korean elites, such as party and military cadre and the donju (North Korea’s entrepreneurial class), were also portrayed in the series as enjoying Pyongyang cafes, hotels, extravagant clothes, and smartphone apps such as Kiltongmu and the mobile game “Boy General.”
The North Korean village was depicted as lacking stable electricity and warm water, with villagers occasionally enjoying South Korean products they bought from the market — and bribing officials when they were caught with those items.
The illicit trade of items and people through ship-to-ship transfers is also shown as commonplace and often done through bribes.
Despite being a rare and fascinating look into North Korean life through a South Korean TV drama, one expert noted that there were some inaccuracies and omissions.
Fyodor Tertitskiy, an expert in North Korean politics and the military, told NK News that the creators of the series appeared to have made the decision to avoid mentioning the names of the North Korean leaders in the series — even in instances in which it would be mandatory in the DPRK.
“For example, Stelas of Eternal life, erected in the memory of Kim Il Sung, naturally, mention his name – but not in the series,” he said. “This is a very odd decision indeed.”
He also noted that, despite what was shown in one episode, the original works of Karl Marx are far from commonplace on bookshelves in the DPRK.
“People are supposed to read the Kims, not their predecessors.”
However, the military uniforms of North Korean officials appeared to be generally accurate, he said, aside from that of the character that played Ri Jeong Hyeok’s father: the General Political Bureau Director.
“It was a wise move to make a powerful chief of staff a Vice-Marshal, but his uniform seems to be slightly obsolete – it looks like something from the 1990s.”
DEPICTION OF THE NORTH KOREAN MILITARY AND PARTY
One of the running themes of the series is an elite coalition in the North Korean leadership — with Jeong Hyeok’s father, the General Political Bureau Director, engaging in a murderous rivalry with the Military Department Director.
Jeong Hyeok, a captain and a company commander, is also portrayed as secretly enjoying the privilege of being born in a high-ranking family. He rides a car only available to high-level officials that guarantees unrestricted travel through the streets of Pyongyang, and is not afraid to seek justice against higher-ranking officials.
Experts say that while the General Political Bureau Director (Vice-Marshal) is indeed powerful in the North Korean leadership hierarchy, some depictions may have been unrealistic.
The General Political Bureau Director “ranks as the second-highest in the Korean People’s Army (KPA), after the KPA supreme commander, which is Kim Jong Un,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean military official who defected to the South in 1979, told NK News that the plot point where Jeong Hyeok’s father shoots the Military Department Director dead to protect his son is also a little far-fetched.
“As powerful as the General Political Bureau Director can be, the only people who have the license to kill without trial are the Ministry of State Security agents,” he said. “In terms of how powerful the General Political Bureau Director actually is these days, Kim Su Gil, who fills the current role, ranked somewhere around 20th… Kim Jong Un has in recent years been disempowering the military.”
North Korean soldiers are often depicted as innocent and benign, especially those who assist Ri Jeong Hyeok in helping Se-ri return to the South and fight the “bad” North Korean official who tries to kill her.
One expert, however, argued that such portrayals were simply “good fiction” and imaginative but not in keeping with reality.
Sandra Fahy, an associate professor of anthropology at Sophia University, said that North Korean soldiers “absolutely” do not feel a sense of kinship towards South Korean soldiers.
“Years ago… I sat with two Korean men… one from each side of the DMZ,” she said.
“The one from the South said, jokingly, ‘We have a saying here, if war breaks out, we will wait in the trenches until the Americans come and save us.’ The North Korean’s face expanded with shock. ‘Really? We’re dressed and ready within 30 seconds to come down and kill you.’”
NORTH KOREA SLAMS “ANTI-DPRK” CULTURAL PRODUCTIONS
In early March, North Korean externally-focused state media outlets the Uriminzokkiri and Meari slammed South Korean “anti-DPRK” drama and films, though did not directly mention “Crash Landing on You.”
South Korean films and dramas were, Meari claimed, “distorting reality and slandering the DPRK… infuriating our people.”
“It is a daydream if one thinks that such an anti-DPRK clown show… could justify their ‘North Korea policy’ after screwing up North-South relations,” the two outlets said.
When asked if the South Korean government was involved in the production of “Crash Landing on You,” such as the filming of the Inter-Korean Transit Office featured in one of the episodes, the Ministry of Unification (MOU) said that requests were rejected due to public health concerns.
“The production company of the drama requested cooperation regarding the filming venue, but after discussing and reviewing with relevant departments, we conveyed our response that this would have been difficult due to swine flu and the COVID-19 situation,” an official told NK News.
While “Crash Landing on You” showed the portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung and the Kim pins multiple times, it appears that, on the whole, South Korean authorities did not see the series as violating the country’s National Security Law, which places restrictions on activities deemed to be promoting communism and the ideology of the enemy in the North.
The Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) told NK News that there had been no reports or requests for deliberation regarding the series.
However, the Christian Liberty Party — a right-wing fringe political party in South Korea — did refer the show to the authorities, alleging it “propagandized the South Korean people” by depicting the North Korean military as “peaceful” when North Korea is the “enemy.”
SOUTH KOREANS REACT: “WE’RE MAYBE NOT THAT DIFFERENT AFTER ALL”
South Korean fans who watched the series said that the drama offered some food for thought on what it means to be a “Korean” — and that the series helped break common stereotypes about North Korean people.
“The drama made me feel that maybe we and the North Koreans are not that different after all,” Somi Park, a 26 year-old woman living in Seoul, said.
“When I meet relatives on Seollal or Chuseok, I am always a little surprised at how different our culture, dialect, and thoughts are, even based on different regions inside South Korea. This is just how much different I felt North Koreans were.”
Another striking similarity between North and South Korea portrayed in the series was the gap between the rich and the poor, said Park.
“It seemed that in North Korea some are orphaned without a home while some wear brand-name clothes and use high-tech smartphones. Isn’t there a similar problem here?” Park said.
“I thought the movie on South Korean economic disparities, ‘Parasite,’ may as well become popular there, if the North Koreans ever watch it.”
“But overall, I was sad while watching it, knowing that some people — even if they love each other dearly — cannot meet until they die because of the division.”
John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University who refers to himself as a “huge fan” of the series, also noted that the show made good use of the theme of family dynamics, drawing parallels between the powerful elite family in the North and a chaebol [conglomerate] family in the South.
“That’s a valid insight that’s often missed. There’s a tendency to just focus on that one family, the Kim family, and not see the whole constellation of families. Most people don’t know to what degree the family networks control power, which is similar to South Korea,” he said.
“You’ve got a communist system in the North, and capitalist system in the South, but the overlay of family power structures is a point of similarity and the show teases that out in a satirical way, which was very well done.”
There “should have been more moments of the inconsumerability,” he added, “where you see the ways in which [the two Koreas] are now really profoundly unalike and separated.”
Some fans noted the similarity in cultural attitudes between the two Koreas.
“The villagers in the North, in the series, seemed that they love pretty clothes and cosmetics — I could totally connect with them,” said Young-hee Kim, a 55 year-old woman in Daegu, South Korea and a relative of the author.
“They also seemed to really enjoy drinking soju. Maybe we, Koreans, still share the same taste in food and drinks — and also a sense of burning solidarity when a Korea-Japan soccer match is on TV.”
Kim also noted that mothers’ passion for their children’s education — and the obsession over college entrance — was “just like us,” adding that the drama appeared to seek to break South Korean stereotypes on North Korea, “in line with the current administration’s political view.”
“The plotline where Se-ri and Jeong Hyeok reunite in Switzerland was interesting,” she said. “A third country — maybe that is the most realistic alternative we can find for the lovers at the moment, sadly.”
IMAGINING NORTH KOREAN SOCIETY: A “HUMANE” PICTURE
One fan, who watched the series in the U.S., said that “Crash Landing on You” provided an opportunity for South Koreans and the international community “to witness a more humanistic side of average North Korean people while simultaneously displaying the harsh reality of the human rights situation.”
“Exposing the abhorrent crimes committed by the North Korean regime against its own people is just as necessary as showing the vast differences between the regime and average North Korean residents,” said Jason (Jaemin) Bartlett, a North Korean human rights activist and an M.A. in Asian Studies from Georgetown University.
“The Kim Family was not voted into power; therefore, automatically demonizing average North Koreans isn’t an appropriate approach to understanding North Korean society.”
Yonsei’s John Delury said that “Crash Landing on You” made “smart choices” by humanizing North Korean society while leaving out the most routinely-referenced themes on the country seen in the Western media: nuclear weapons and Kim Jong Un.
“I can’t remember a single reference to nuclear weapons in the whole thing,” he said. “I imagine if an American TV producer made anything related to North Korea, the essential plot would be unwittingly carrying a nuclear bomb in a backpack.”
The series never mentions Kim Jong Un by name, although there were few passing references to him, he pointed out.
“There were a lot of smart choices about leaving things out and getting more into a human and a social level,” he said. “It’s not a simplistic we share the same DNA or blood runs in our vein, but a more compelling way how there are deep similarities in language, culture, family structure, between the North and the South — while acknowledging difference.”
“It is a projection of how the creators of the show imagined North Korea… In the end, the fundamental emotion is love, a romcom. The personal love of Yoon Se-ri and Captain Ri is symbolizing that the brotherly and sisterly love that still exists between the North and the South.”
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham