The visit by South Korea's President Moon Jae-in to North Korea in September was the latest in a series of steps aimed at defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But despite the increasing talk of reunification, South Koreans don't know as much about their northern neighbours as you might think. Most of what they do know comes from the testimonies of those who have sought asylum in South Korea.

Those testimonies have become the basis for a unique genre of television programming, one that's being called 'Defector TV'. The formula takes a reality TV approach - putting asylum seekers on the air, exploring what their lives were like before defecting and even setting them up with romantic partners from the South.

The producers involved say they're out to improve understanding and pave the way to the reunification of countries divided since the end of World War II, but sceptics aren't buying that. They say the shows are heavy on misrepresentation, sensationalism and sexist stereotyping.

In December 2011, South Korea's Channel A launched a programme with defectors from North Korea. It was part talk show, part talent show, part beauty contest - and it was the beginning of a trend.

There's never been a programme about North Korea before ... North Korea was only ever seen through the news, which kept talking about nuclear issues, the North Korean army, how poor North Korea is ... that was it.

Kim A-ra, defector and broadcaster of Channel A

"There's never been a programme about North Korea before," explains Kim A-ra, defector and broadcaster of Channel A. "North Korea was only ever seen through the news, which kept talking about nuclear issues, the North Korean army, how poor North Korea is ... that was it."

South Korean channels, eager to find a different lens through which to present North Korea, can finally break away from the usual portrayals of famine and human rights abuses and add an element of entertainment.

"The question of whether they break down prejudices or reinforce them is difficult," says Christopher Green, co-editor of Sino-NK. "The fact of the matter is they mostly do both simultaneously. They certainly seek to convey information about North Korea ... [and] they have the tendency to reinforce some prejudices as well."

For instance, well over 70 percent of North Korean defectors are women, and the ones that find themselves on TV often end up reinforcing a cultural stereotype: that beautiful North Korean women are the best partners for South Korean men.

In shows like 'Love Unification', young North Korean women are paired with South Korean men who proceed to instruct them on the ways of the modern, developed country in which they now live.

The messaging is less than subtle and it conforms to the South Korean nationalistic narrative that North Korea is the "weaker" nation that needs protection by the stronger South.

"The concern is that such a caricatured, immature and objectified image of these women is then extended to all North Korean defectors and the North Korean population in general," explains Park Hyun-sun, sociology professor at Ewha Womans University. "So South Koreans may end up looking down on North Koreans or thinking 'We can treat them carelessly.'"

In a situation where stories about North Korea remain politicised, and by their very nature speculative, defectors are a rare source of news. The fact that the information they provide gets turned into infotainment says as much about the South Korean television market as it does about their neighbours to the north.

 

Contributors

Kim A-ra - defector and Broadcaster, Channel A

Christopher Green - co-editor, Sino-NK

Park Hyun-sun - sociology Professor, Ewha Womans University

Kim Ji-young - defector and Broadcaster, TV Chosun

Source: Al Jazeera News