Representations within the South Korean media paint a picture of a negative relationship between the governments of North and South Korea. However, the South Korean media does not represent a negative paradigm of the people of North Korea.
Tensions between North Korea and South Korea are quite high currently, and have been high for the past couple of decades. It makes sense why South Korean media would place North Korea in so many of its films and K-Dramas with all of this tension. Rather than ignore it and pretend like it doesn’t exist, K dramas instead find ways for the tension with North Korea to be a motivation force in some of their blockbusters and television shows.
The tension comes from both the negative relationship between the North and South Korean governments as well as the human dilemma of those who have lived in North Korea but find love and potential for new life in South Korea. South Korean media does not paint those who are from North Korea as wrong (like they do with the North Korean government). Rather the media shows that these are good people who are associated with a bad government. City Hunter, Shiri, and Spy Myung Wol are three forms of South Korean media (two television shows and one movie) that each exemplify a different component in the representation of the relationship between North and South Korea.
K dramas are one of the most useful sources of media because they are so integrated in the South Korean culture. Lee Min-ho is an ultra star in South Korea, largely because of his fame in K-dramas such as City Hunter. Because of this, we know that the South Korean media’s view on the North Korean government in a show like City Hunter is being watched. Especially now, when K dramas are no longer just for South Korean viewing, but instead are exported around the world so that more people understand South Korean media view on the North Korean government. In a show like City Hunter which when it first premiered almost had twenty percent of Seoul watching, we can deduce that South Koreans will understand the negative view of the North Korean government.
City Hunter is a K-drama that came out in 2011 staring Lee Min-ho and Park Min-young. The general genre of City Hunter is a revenge drama, paired with the development of the love interest of the two protagonists. In one of the first scenes of City Hunter a South Korean delegation is bombed in Burma and the North Korean government immediately take responsibility.
Within a series of cut scenes to show the passing of time, the audience is then introduced to a council debating what to do about the attack on South Korean officials. For political reasons that involved South Korean relations and foreign nations, their plans to assassinate North Korean officials in Pyongyang must remain between the five of them. The show never exactly specifies why they cannot let the current president know about the black ops mission, but never-the-less it is decided to send a team to retaliate against North Korea.
The scene in which the bomb goes off is incredibly bloody. The President’s body guards are shown walking through the wreckage and the audience sees bloody body parts everywhere. We also see people in incredible pain, shaking, clearly burnt from the blast. The production team at City Hunter was clearly trying to make a point about the brutality of the attack. Innocent cameramen and women were hurt rather than simply the officials the North Korean government was aiming to get. Compare this to the South Korean attempt at retaliation which was meant to retaliate against officials only in a special black ops mission that hopefully, no civilians would get hurt. As an audience, we can already see a negative perspective on the North Korean government being exemplified in the South Korean media.
This attack, while sparking outrage in South Korea did not seem to surprise those on the council in South Korea. They were outraged of course, but there was no sort of despair or shock in the actions of the North Korean government. This also exemplifies a representation of a negative relationship in the North Korean government via the South Korean government because it is shown that North Korea’s attack wasn’t completely unfathomable. Any two nations that are so willing to go back and forth with attacks clearly do not have a very strong relationship, and City Hunter portrayed this very clearly.
Shiri is a blockbuster that came out in 1999. It stars Min-Sik Choi, YunJin Kim as the female antagonist. North Korea’s special forces steals a shipment of CTX, high volitile liquid explosive material and two South Korean special agents are tasked with tracking it down. This is partnered with the fact that one of the main snipers for the North Korean special ops team, is a ruthless woman who has tricked one of the special agents into falling in love with her. One of the important things in this movie is to remember that this takes place during the Cold War, and the motivation of North Korea stealing CTX is to turn the Cold War into a hot war.
One of the most important reasons to remember that Shiri takes place during the Cold War is because it simplifies who the good guys are and the bad guys. In Shiri, the North Korean government (as represented by their military) are seen as basically evil. “The troops are in ragged uniforms and eat a communal meal of what we can only assume to be gruel. The troops use their bare hands and knives for much of their training. Their targets are other humans, and are dispatched with methods that are pre-modern in their savagery.”
The state of North Korea is shown to be desperate while compared that to the South Korean shots in which Seoul looks like almost any western city filled with fast food and stylish and beautiful people. This is important to note because the makers of Shiri are already painting a negative picture of North Korea before the film even gets into the grunt of the action.
If North Korea is that horrible of a place filled with brainwashed and desperate military, the government is clearly not a place that should be trusted, especially with the CTX, so South Korea is completely within its rights to chase it down in whatever way possible. Shiri also pushes the negative view of the North Korean government because of the sheer amount of South Korean bodies the North Korean special ops unit takes out. Clearly, these North Korean military personal are so brainwashed and cruel that they have little humanity left. The only person we see a sparkle of humanity is the main antagonist Yoon Gin-Kim who we do not know her true alliance for most of the movie.
While it may initially seem like the South Korean media is painting a negative picture of the North Korean people, that is not what they are doing at all. In the initial scenes where people are used as target practice for the poorly supplied military, the audience feels sympathy for the people. North Korea is shows to be a basic desolate depressing place, and that causes further sympathy for those who have to live constantly in those conditions.
Furthermore, those who are the cruel and bad North Koreans are a part of the North Korean military, essentially representing the North Korean government. Shiri does a very good job at showing the level of brainwashing that occurred in North Korea for the agents who have stolen the CTX, especially the female antagonist. In this way, Shiri further serves as a tool for the South Korean media to show that the relationship between the South and North Korean governments are strained but there is still sympathy for the people of North Korea.
Finally, a K drama called Spy Myung Wol came out in 2011 that paints an incredibly human picture of a spy from North Korea. Myung Wol and her partner are sent to kidnap a K-pop star to interrupt the Hallyu wave that is finding its way into North Korea. While Myung Wol is incredibly capable as a spy, she has one very critical weakness: she is incredibly curious. Things get further complicated when she falls in love with the K-pop star Kang Woo instead of remaining emotionless as she has been taught to be. Her job was to marry Kang Woo and have him defect to North Korea, but instead she ultimately allies herself with South Korea because of her allegiance to Kang Woo.
This show was an incredibly poignant view of the state of the human dilemma facing many North Koreans. The South Korean media did not paint Myung Wol as a cruel spy who wanted nothing but vengeance for her country. No, instead they show her as a beautiful girl who is in some ways more vulnerable than most girls because she has never experienced love the way that Kang Woo shows her.
The audience’s heart breaks for Myung Wol when she first experiences a gift from Kang Woo and she expresses that this happens so rarely in her life and she is very close to tears. Myung Wol is not looked upon as the enemy by the audience at any point in this show, in fact she is the shows protagonist. In a way, it seems as if the South Korean media is reaching out to the North Korean who may see this show and tell them that they are not blamed and in fact, are still family.
They are still family. We see this in Spy Myung Wol when she actually marries Kang Woo at the end of the series and there is love and support from the friends and companions she has made along the way in South Korea. In Spy Myung Wol the South Korean media is showing a clear difference between citizens of North Korea and the government of North Korea. In Spy Myung Wol there is still an underlining theme that the North Korean government is not to be trusted, however the citizens are just people forced into a tough situation and are still metaphorically and literally, family.
Myung Wol wedding Edit. Online video clip. Youtube. Apr 29 2013.
(Marriage of Myung Wol and Kang Woo, edited to highlight the romantic parts)
The reason that Myung Wol was sent to South Korea was to interrupt the Hallyu wave. One of the most important components of the Hallyu wave is music, and interestingly enough there are reports that North Koreans are listening. In 2002 South Korea began broadcasting Korean Pop music over the border through the airwaves.
While North Korea has promised to destroy any speakers near the border, it is rather difficult to monitor and there are reports that North Korean people and officials actually enjoy K-pop. By broadcasting K-pop across the border, the South Koreans are sharing a part of their culture and showing their support for the North Korean people. South Koreans are trying to connect with their North Korean counterparts in any way they can, and this is one of the most ingenious methods to date. The media is not representing a negative relationship between the people of North and South Korea because on South Korea’s side, there does not seem to be any negative relationship.
The relationship between the North and South Korean governments portrayed by the South Korean media is rather negative. In both City Hunter and Shiri, the North Korean government is shown to be ruthless and cruel, and South Korea is always trying to retaliate but never starts the battle, just ends it. However, the people of North Korea are exempt from the negative view of the South Korean media. In fact, the South Korean media seems to go out of its way in shows like Spy Myung Wol or broadcasting over the boarder to attempt to connect with the people of North Korea and to show them as victims rather than like their government.
In this way, it is clear that while the government of North Korea is represented in a negative light the people of North Korea are not.
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