You can say that on TV

A surprising hit show features singing, dancing and a candid glimpse of the lives of North Korean defectors

You can say that on TV

Matthew Douma

Every Sunday night, South Koreans tune in to a surprising hit TV show featuring a dozen women, all defectors from the North. With its mix of humour and tears, the hybrid talk and talent show, called Now On My Way to Meet You, is hitting all the right notes, blending music and dance performances and gossip over the ideal mate along with serious discussions about life in the autocratic North.

The set features a lit-up runway for performances, mostly singing and dancing. One guest reprised a song-and-dance routine she once performed for Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean leader. Another sang the song she used to teach her kindergarten class—no different, really, it turned out, from children’s songs popular in the South.

Panellists on the show have revealed some surprising cultural tidbits: plastic surgery is apparently popular in the North, particularly procedures that makes women’s eyes appear rounder and which are often carried out by unlicensed people.

But, by highlighting similarities between the two cultures, the show is helping bridge the gap between them. Playing the lottery, as another guest revealed, is popular in the North, just as it is in the South.

The show portrays North Korean women as modern and trendy, as normal, says Korea Times columnist James Pearson, and in this, the show is actually revolutionary. Since the 1990s, more than 23,000 North Koreans have managed to make it to South Korea. But their struggle is far from over when they cross into the South. North Koreans often struggle to adapt and live second-class lives. Fewer than half are “economically active.” As a group they are often viewed by South Koreans as incompetent, like backward country cousins. But the eight-month-old show humanizes their struggle and is helping to dispel negative stereotypes.

After the dancing segments, panellists sit down to share their stories. “In the wintertime, it made me sad when I stepped into a warm apartment,” Lee Seo-youn revealed in one episode. “Thinking of my parents and sister who will be suffering in the cold, I couldn’t bring myself to stay warm. So I turned the heat off and stayed in the cold room, missing my family.” After every show, message boards light up with expressions of concern and sadness for the North Korean guests. One panellist, Shin Eun-Ha, 25, even inspired her own fan club after appearing on the show.

South Koreans often view North Koreans in contradictory ways, says Jung-Sun Park, who researches Korean popular culture at California State University. “They should be welcomed and supported,” given what they sacrificed in defecting, and the risks they undertook to do so. And “as dongpo [co-ethnic], they are “one of us,” she adds. “Yet they are not.”

That these panellists have adapted to life in the South seems to “reduce the psychological distance” between the two Koreas, says Park. “Panellists are both insiders and outsiders, and their in-between position seems to blur the connection between them and the audience.”

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