Can South Korean TV Shows Really Bring Change to North Korea?

Smuggled dramas have great resonance in the repressive culture of the North—and could even be subversive.

As reports abound of the large and growing underground demand for South Korean TV dramas in North Korea, there has been much breathless speculation on the possibilities that such cultural infiltration might spawn social unrest and political change. Indeed, anecdotal evidence indicates that watching smuggled dramas has helped inspire thousands of North Koreans to defect to the South. But whether it is likely to inspire rebellion within North Korea is a completely separate question.

Just how subversive are South Korean dramas, really? A closer examination of several South Korean dramas popular in the North reveals some uniquely Korean themes that are not at all incompatible with North Korea’s ruling ideology.

A few years ago, the drama Secret Garden attained such an underground following in North Korea that a cottage industry sprang up in China producing and smuggling knockoffs of the lead actor’s trademark sequined tracksuit for sale on the black market. In this drama, the main character is the spoiled, arrogant young scion of a major conglomerate, with an expensive foreign education but a playboy lifestyle and zero work ethic. Before he is transformed through the love of a good woman, he comes close to losing control of his family conglomerate to the scheming of his ambitious right-hand man, the hardworking underling who has been running the actual day-to-day operations of the company for years.

This same essential plot has been repeated (sometimes with gender roles reversed) in many of the most popular South Korean dramas, including My Lovely Sam Soon, History of a Salaryman and Boys Over Flowers. The underlying message: No matter how vile his initial character, any man is worth saving—provided the laws of primogeniture place him first in the line of succession at his family’s company. The villains in these dramas are often relatives who fall somewhere further down the line of succession, the child of a younger son or daughter of the original chairman, gunning for the top spot that rightfully belongs to our flawed hero, the first-born son of the first-born son. It doesn’t matter that the rival is harder working, more experienced or more business-savvy than the hero; the effort to disrupt the natural line of succession is inherently corrupting.

The practice of hereditary chairmanship is a common feature of South Korean conglomerates (chaebol) often associated with Korean traditional values. As David Kang writes, “The family-based nature of Korean society survived the transition to modernity and extends, naturally enough, to both politics and the economy… Firms are family-run and owned and passed on from generation to generation.” The same Korean values have been cited by Byoung-Lo Philo Kim in explaining the persistence of the DPRK’s hereditary rule, unique in the Communist world: “Family-based politics, the succession to rule of the leader’s son, and the extraordinary veneration of Kim Il Sung are the Confucian legacies.” North Korean viewers, lacking experience with South Korean-style chaebol, may naturally associate such characters with the closest equivalent in their own country—the hereditary ruling Kim family. Kim Jong-un naturally takes on the role of rightful heir and hero (most North Koreans are unaware that he has at least two older brothers), and any would-be usurpers or overbearing regents ipso facto become the villains.

Doubtless, the writers of Secret Garden and similar dramas did not have North Korean viewers in mind, nor did they ponder Confucian ethics in their plot outlines. The same narrative recurs year after year because it makes for a compelling story, and one that can only be told in South Korea. The chaebol norm of hereditary succession allows for a unique twist on the classic rags-to-riches fantasy. Similar Cinderella stories told in the West usually start out with an already virtuous prince; consequently, the Cinderella character often seems useless or weak, having no part to play in the prince’s success. Introducing the princeling initially as a deeply flawed character allows the writer to create a more empowered female romantic lead, since she has an important role to play in correcting her prince’s character flaws and, ultimately, saving the kingdom/conglomerate from falling into the hands of ambitious subordinates—a prospect which is implicitly more distasteful to a Korean audience than leaving the flawed but rightful heir in charge.

Historical dramas similarly draw upon the justness of hereditary rule. The 2009 historical drama Queen Seondeok reportedly achieved great popularity among North Koreans desiring to learn about more distant Korean history not covered in the Kim-centric standard school curriculum. At its heart, the convoluted story is about an exiled princess, Deokman, fighting her way back to her rightful place as ruler of the Shilla kingdom, which has for years been ruled by the ruthless and ambitious Lady Mishil. A common theme is that only the “true owner” (jinjunghan ju’in) of the nation can do what is best for its future, because only s/he can truly love the nation more than herself. It is implied that the “true owner” is the one who is most directly descended from the nation’s founder.