TV love story casts light on life in secretive North Korea

Adela Suliman and Stella Kim

The series features all the ingredients a viewer could wish for. A beautiful heiress. A swooning soldier. Danger. Forbidden love. All set in one of the most repressive places on earth — North Korea.

The series — "Crash Landing on You," on Netflix — has drawn a global audience of millions, many no doubt searching for entertainment as they while away their time in coronavirus-related lockdowns.

The premise is this: The gorgeous heiress has accidentally paraglided into North Korea, where she is aided by none other than the swooning soldier — with whom, of course, she eventually falls in love.

The series features the South Korean actor Hyun Bin, 37, and the actress Son Ye-Jin, 38 — both of whom are popular heartthrobs. It taps into taboos and offers a glimpse of life and love in the secretive state.

Image: Son Ye Jin and Hyun Bin star in 'Crash Landing On You.' (Lim Hyo Seon / Netflix)

The show has attracted huge audiences from Australia to China and the United States. And nowhere has it had more impact than in South Korea, where few people can remember a unified peninsula. Korea split in two at the end of World War II in 1945.

But as secretive and repressive as North Korea is, for some South Koreans, at least, the series drives home one salient point: It just may be that there is more that unites Koreans than divides them.

"I watched the drama because it is not a heavy drama about the two Koreas, but a drama mainly focused on love," said Ashely Jun, a translator who lives in Seoul and is a big fan of the show.

"It is meaningful, in that it showed some ordinary concerns like love, friendship and family affection in North Korea," Jun said. "Viewers might think that North Koreans are not that much different from them."

Image: Son Ye Jin and Hyun Bin star in 'Crash Landing On You.' (Lim Hyo Seon / Netflix)

Much of the action in North Korea does not take place in the capital, Pyongyang, but in remote rural provinces. It shows everyday life and hardships from power cuts to arranged marriages, as well as different hairstyles and accents.

In doing so, the drama moves beyond stereotypes and feels, Jun said, "fresh and trendy.”

One factor in the show’s success, no doubt, is its reliance on testimony from North Korean defectors, adding color and realism.

The show's makers consulted a number of defectors to elicit nuggets of information and paint an image of grassroots life — putting people rather than politics in the frame.

"At first, I thought that the whole idea about landing in North Korea by paragliding accident was totally absurd," said Kang Nara, a North Korean defector who consulted on the show. "But the producers did such a good job in adhering to the testimony of defectors like me that I was so moved, as I recognized my home village while I was watching."

Kang, 23, defected to South Korea in 2015 to join her mother. She advised on hairstyles and clothing for the show, as well as the ins and outs of everyday rural life, such as the use of makeshift refrigerators created by digging underground spaces near homes.

"Life in South Korea for North Korean defectors is very difficult," said Edward Howell, a researcher and North Korea specialist at the University of Oxford.

Last year, for example, Han Sung-ok and her son, who had fled famine in the North, died of starvation on arrival in the South. The case made headlines and cast a spotlight on the economic hardships faced by defectors, Howell said.

Adjusting to cultural differences and integrating into Southern society is difficult, he added. But there has also been a parallel resurgence of reality TV shows in the South that parade North Korean defectors on screen to shock audiences with details of Northern life, Howell said, satisfying a growing fascination.

"Crash Landing on You" stands as "remarkably nuanced" and "sensitive," said Howell, accounting for its popularity.

"It gives us a window into life in North Korea that is actually, it may be boring to say, but just normal," he said. "Yes, people lead everyday lives in North Korea."

Although South Korea has produced many movies about the North, and some have been huge hits, this series has enjoyed runaway success because the makers have "tried to show North Korea as it is" and dropped tired tropes, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea specialist and associate professor at King's College London.

Other observers agree. Rather than military parades and goose-stepping soldiers, or images of the leader Kim Jong Un at staged events, the show is about real life, which Pacheco Pardo said makes it credible for viewers.

"For some South Koreans it may be shocking … and overseas as well," said Pacheco Pardo, as it shows that for North Koreans, as for South Koreans, "politics is not our only concern."

But Howell said North Korean state media had criticized such dramas, viewing them as blasphemy against the nation.

This month, the show's scriptwriter, Park Ji-Eun, was named Person of the Year by South Korea's Unification Ministry for contributing to "unification education."

"Crash Landing on You" ends with a flash-forward as the lovers meet in Switzerland, a historically neutral country. Neither defects to the other Korea and the question of whether their relationship could thrive on either side of the divide is left to the imagination of viewers.

And so it may remain. The production company, CJ Entertainment & Media, told NBC News that a sequel was unlikely.