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South Korean TV shows embolden defectors

Popular variety shows are changing the way defectors view their identity.

By Elizabeth Shim
South Korean TV shows embolden defectors
A North Korean defector resettled in the South makes an appearance on Channel A's "On My Way to Meet You," Sunday evening. Screenshot by Elizabeth Shim/UPI

SEOUL, March 11 (UPI) -- South Korean television shows that feature North Koreans have transformed defectors' attitudes toward speaking publicly about their experiences and identity, a defector who resettled in 2010 said.

Ken Eom, who learned to speak English and raise graduate school funds with the help of Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees, has been studying fellow defectors and their relationship to South Korean media.

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Eom said after three similar television shows gained widespread popularity, defectors shed their old habit of silence. North Koreans on television are emboldening others to speak out.

"After the TV shows [began to be watched], defectors were no longer afraid to talk about their story in public," Eom said Saturday during a presentation of his thesis.

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The defector, who is in his 30s, added the shows, sometimes geared to bringing on the laughs with light-hearted tales, are far from perfect; they're also not well liked by the defector community, he said.

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Eom asked his interview subjects what they thought about the shows.

"It was very surprising," said Eom, who once made a "very brief" appearance on one of the shows. "They really hate those TV shows, but they also say it's necessary. Without TV, nobody knows of the North Korean refugee."

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Eom said South Koreans "really don't care" about North Koreans. Stereotypes about the regime's abysmal human rights record, its prison camps and nuclear weapons program, deeply hurt defectors.

But the shows, despite their flaws, provide many North Koreans with a rare opportunity to present their stories and to "just talk about their normal lives."

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"It's better than nothing," Eom said.

Stiff competition

According to a recent survey from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, less than 6 percent of defectors said they completed university education in the North. In the South, North Koreans often take jobs as day laborers, or in the service sector.

It is perhaps unsurprising defectors are applying in large numbers to be on the shows, where the pay is good, they can sit in a relatively comfortable TV studio, and gain a bit of fame on local television.

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As many as 6,000 North Korean defectors may have applied to be on the show as guests, Eom said, but only a tiny minority of the applicants have made appearances.

"All North Korean media is controlled by the North Korean government, which means it's almost impossible to get on TV," Eom said, referring to the North Korean defectors' relationship to media.

Beyond money and the merits of fame, defectors are also motivated by an opportunity to "rebuild the credibility of the North Korean refugee community"; some defectors have been accused of "fake testimonies" on television, Eom said.

Casey Lartigue, one of the co-founders of TNKR, said South Korean perceptions of North Korean defectors or refugees have changed over time.

"South Koreans [in the '90s] used to ask them questions in a very judgmental way, saying, 'Why did you abandon your family'," to new defectors, he said, adding the newcomers were often suspected of being spies.

With the rising number of escapees, it was harder to call these people traitors or spies, and easier to understand North Koreans were flocking to the prosperous South in search of better opportunities.

South Korean TV shows 'powerful'

Defector activists have said South Korean TV shows, copied to flash drives, have been spreading secretly in North Korea.

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Eom told UPI the shows are "really powerful," and if ordinary North Koreans are better able to access South Korean media, "North Korea would be gone."

But he also said he spoke to a "fresh" defector who arrived earlier this year in the South, who confirmed North Korea is cracking down on TV shows; copying shows to flash drives could bring a three-year prison sentence in the North.

Kim Dang, a South Korean journalist with UPI News Korea, a licensing client of UPI, has authored two books on North Korea and espionage; the spy story was the subject of a hit 2018 movie, The Spy Gone North.

Kim said the flash drives are easy to hide and people in the North know more even when events are not reported.

Their knowledge of the outside world and awareness could "explode" at any moment, he said.

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