Portraying North Korean Refugees: Green and Epstein on “Now On My Way to Meet You”



We often tend to focus on the absorption of North Korean refugees in the South through the relatively narrow lens of public policy: what can be done to ease the transition? Dan Pinkston’s 2011 "Strangers at Home" for the International Crisis Group remains one of the best things we have seen on the subject. But the question is a much deeper cultural one: how do South Koreans think about their Northern brethren and how does the media both play into, and shape, such perceptions?

Christopher Green at the DailyNK and Stephen J. Epstein, Director of the Asian Studies Programme at the Victoria University of Wellington, address this question in a fascinating account for Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus of the South Korean TV program “Now on My Way to Meet You” (Ije mannareo gamnida or Imangap).

The format of the show, launched in 2011, will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched Japanese or South Korean chat shows. The hosts lead segments involving four male South Korean entertainers and a group of a dozen or more female North Korean refugees sitting around an open, garish set. The show follows a common trajectory, with episodes beginning with flirtatious banter but building up to a denouement of a border-crossing narrative (talbuk seuteori). These typically harrowing accounts are matched with footage of the deprivations and abuses of the regime, particularly from the high famine years, and often draw on the raw emotional material of family separation and loss.

What Green and Epstein probe, however, is the underlying cultural tropes of the show. Nominally designed to humanize and integrate, they argue that the effect of the show is much more complex and may bear a family resemblance to Jerry Springer: we are invited to take perverse pleasure in the strangeness, the otherness, of those interviewed. Green and Epstein argue that the show oscillates between a pitying portrayal of the backward North and success tales of those who have been successfully integrated into the democratic, capitalist and successful South, a kind of collective pat on the back. They conclude that “the show’s desire to reinforce elements of commonality between North and South while illuminating life in North Korea leads to a double bind: viewers are encouraged to recognize homogeneity with the newcomers based on a shared ethnic and cultural identity, even as the conversations and editing techniques applied to the material often represent the Northern panelists as Others.”

The piece does the service of nesting the discussion in other work on the South Korean media and a detailed analysis of a particular segment, replete with clips. As it turns out, Green and Epstein find that North Korean refugees have very mixed views of the show as well, and a number who participated in earlier segments now express reservations along exactly these lines.

The piece is a reminder that the challenges of unification—as in Germany—are cultural as well as economic. There is also the broader question of whether the public is even interested any more in the refugee narrative. Jonathan Chang at the WSJ Blog Korea Realtime tells the story of the impending release of a new refugee memoir in Korean by Kim Eun-ju. While books such as the Aquariums of Pyongyang, Escape from Camp 14 and Nothing to Envy have been big hits in the West, the South Korean appetite for these memoirs appears much more limited; the initial print run of the Kim Eun-ju memoir was set at only 2000. Annoyance and disinterest may increasingly define public attitudes toward the North. Why should a country as contemporary and sophisticated as South Korea be dragged down by identification with its strange North Korean counterpart?

We need more work like Green and Epstein’s to address these crucial cultural issues. No work on the subject—including the well-intentioned human rights community—is immune from the difficult question of how to get this painfully complex story right.

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