Seoul, South Korea – A new Korean TV series has taken the locked-down world by storm, but the show – featuring an unlikely romance between a North Korean soldier and a South Korean heiress – has not only garnered a legion of fans across Asia and beyond, it has also provided a rare insight into life in one of the world’s most secretive nations.
Crash Landing on You is “Romeo and Juliet” set within contemporary geopolitics and the show makes no secret of where its sympathies lie: in the opening credits a North Korean soldier pastes propaganda signs on a dim street while a South Korean woman walks through a brighter, more vibrantly lit world of glitzy storefronts, office buildings and fancy stone fountains in a luxurious cityscape.
By the end of the sequence, the two walk into the same shot, implying the meeting of two starkly different worlds. And as is the case with most Korean series, the show develops into a whimsical but heartening love story.
“It’s a refreshing story to see – a North Korean and a South Korean meeting and falling in love,” Cindy Woo, a 25-year-old cafe worker from Seoul, told Al Jazeera. “It’s clearly a little unrealistic, but it’s something new, and that’s why I think it became popular [in South Korea] and why I enjoy it myself.”
The plot starts with Yoon Se-ri – the cold, estranged heiress of a giant South Korean conglomerate – accidentally paragliding into North Korean territory in a storm. Caught in a tree’s branches, Yoon (played by Son Ye-jin) fortuitously falls into the arms of a reluctant North Korean captain named Ri Jeong Hyeok (played by Hyun Bin), giving a foretaste of the cheesy romance that will unspool.
Yoon makes a run for it – darting through parts of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) while apparently avoiding its many land mines – but fails to make it across the border. Ri, with archetypal chivalry, strangely loses his unwavering commitment to the North Korean state and risks his life to provide Yoon shelter, promising her that he will help her make it back to Seoul.
While it might seem melodramatic and oozing with romantic cliches, South Korean fans say the series, being distributed globally by Netflix, has opened their eyes to North Korean life and the lives of defectors.
“I learned a few North Korean words and got to see how they’re used in conversation. That was really fun,” Woo said. “I also thought it was fun to see how products from South Korea were being marketed and sold as something special in North Korea, and I learned more about how North Koreans actually escape to South Korea.”
It also draws from everyday realities – wealthier North Korean consumers are known to appreciate South Korean goods, including clothes, shoes and over-the-counter medicines.
The two countries may still technically be at war nearly 70 years after a truce was agreed, but South Koreans’ long-standing antipathy towards people in the North appears to be changing. These days, popular TV talk shows feature North Korean escapees and the first North Korean defector was elected to South Korea’s National Assembly in April.
Seo Jae-pyoung, an activist from North Korea who now heads the Seoul-based Association of North Korean Defectors, finds the drama’s romantic plot “fresh and unique” and a way for people in the South to learn more about their northern neighbours.
“It’s a drama that thinks outside of the box, and it’s inconsistent with reality because a romance like this is impossible with our ongoing division and the North Korean soldier’s character [is] somewhat beautified,” he said. “But I do think the show’s writers put a lot of effort into making North Korea easier to understand for South Koreans.”
From the very beginning, there is no disguising the theme of democracy versus dictatorship. Crash Landing shows the stark contrast between North Korean soldiers who fear being sent to prison camps after making a mistake and a South Korean heiress who worries about losing her promotion to chief executive.
In the first episode, after unknowingly landing on North Korean territory, Yoon smiles comically at the armed Captain Ri and says: “You made a tough decision. Welcome to the Republic of Korea.” In her naivety and inability to grasp that she is in danger, she fails to see a reality that is well-understood by many in the North.
“The drama simultaneously depicts North Korean people having fun, laughing and talking in their daily lives, but I think the show writers also did a good job expressing how painful life can be for them,” Seo said. “There are many parts of the show that accurately portray reality in North Korea – homeless children, illegal market places, power blackouts.”
Boy bands, movies, K-drama
The Korean Wave – also known as “Hallyu” – has arguably reached an all-time high in recent years between K-pop boy band BTS and Bong Joon-ho’s record-breaking film, Parasite. Global exports of Korean cultural products such as music, video games or tour programmes rose more than 22 percent between 2018 and 2019, reaching an estimated $12.3bn, according to the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange.
Hallyu has even touched North Korea. The authoritarian Kim regime harshly punishes those caught with foreign material, but some North Koreans still use the black market to buy smuggled discs or USBs filled with South Korean dramas and music.
While Crash Landing on You is the latest example of Hallyu’s success, it also stands out as an opportunity to humanise the people who live in one of the world’s most isolated, socially controlled countries.
The show has not shied away from the spectre of state-sponsored executions and political gulags, which are believed to hold at least 120,000 people. As Yoon, the heiress attempts to escape North Korean territory, she passes several North Korean soldiers who fail to notice her because they are too busy watching South Korean dramas or crying over letters from their mothers. But once they realise they have missed Yoon, they are filled with fear about what might happen to them and begin to fear the worst.
“I could clearly tell that the South was portrayed much more positively than the North, but there certainly were instances where they showed how similar life actually is – how people ultimately care about their family and friends,” said Sushmita Dhekne, a fan from Bengaluru, India who currently lives in the United States. “[North Koreans] are humans like us and we all have the same basic needs. However, they lead different lives because of the strict regime and poverty.”
She added that the show first “piqued her interest” because it was her “first time being exposed to anything North Korea related that wasn’t in the news.”
Fan pages for the show have hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, whether they be in Vietnamese, English, Korean or French. And while users mostly seem to be sharing screenshots of gushy moments or gifs, some say that Crash Landing on You also highlights the intricate geopolitical forces at work in the two countries’ relationship.
“Who doesn’t love a good ‘opposites attract’ or ‘doomed lovers’ tale? … I have never laughed and cried in such quick succession as much as I did while watching this series,” said Michel Walton, an American fan in Asheville, North Carolina. “The show also definitely left me feeling that I would like to enhance my understanding of the complicated history between North and South Korea and the role that the US has played in that history.”
For Seo, a North Korean defector, it is another small chink in the secrecy surrounding life in his homeland.
“So far, no other dramas have portrayed these parts of North Korean life in such detail,” he said.
Mitch S Shin contributed to this report.