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What you can learn from watching North Korean soap operas

Small-screen productions produced for a North Korean audience look a lot like the situational comedies and dramas of the West and even South Korea. (Video: Jason Aldag, Adam Taylor/The Washington Post)

North Korean state media is often known for its bombast and fiery rhetoric. But spend some time watching North Korea’s televised dramas and soap operas, and you may be surprised to see that the country acknowledges some of its weaknesses, too.

For example, the family sitcom “Our Neighbors” is set in a splashy high-rise building in Pyongyang’s Changjon Street neighborhood. The show seems designed to show off how far life for North Korea’s political elite has come over recent years, with many of the scenes centered around the building’s elevator — still a high-tech novelty for most North Koreans.

However, “Our Neighbors” doesn’t ignore North Korean hardships, either. In one episode, the power goes out in the neighborhood. These well-heeled North Koreans are forced to lug buckets of water up the stairs. One resident jogs on the spot outside, cheerily telling his neighbors that “my heart has to be strong if I’m going to walk up all these stairs.”

The message seems clear: North Koreans need to be resourceful and strong in the face of problems.

This moment and others like it were highlighted by research by Jean Lee, formerly the Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang and now a fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington. In a report published last week with the Korea Economic Institute of America, Lee examined four  television shows that aired in North Korea between 2012 and 2016.

Lee said she was inspired to look into these television shows when she was dining with some North Korean colleagues while working in the country, and she saw a glossy-looking television show set in a hospital. “I saw the scene that just really made me do a double take because the style of it and the setting looked like it was South Korean,” Lee said.

Instead, her colleagues explained, this was one of the new North Korean television shows that had become popular under Kim Jong Un. Though Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, was a noted cinema fan — even kidnapping his favorite South Korean director and actress in 1978 — the younger leader had favored television.

Lee found that in 2011, the last year of the older Kim’s life, state-run film studios released 10 feature films. In 2013, these studios produced just one film as attention shifted to television — perhaps a response to glossy South Korean soap operas that had been smuggled into the north over recent years, or as an acknowledgment of the younger Kim’s tastes.

Aside from “Our Neighbors,” Lee looked at a number of other television shows that covered themes such as sports, the military and students. She found that it wasn’t only the format that had changed, but also the messages imparted by the shows.

If Kim Jong Il-era movies often featured a pro-military theme and the power of the state, these new television shows tended to look at civilian life, emphasizing community and family. In “Young Researchers,” a television show set at a Pyongyang middle school, bright students vie for the top prize in a science competition. In another show, “Small Playground of a Primary School,” a former national soccer star becomes a coach at her hometown school after a career-ending injury.

The only show Lee profiled that looked at the military was “Value Others,” a drama that features a Naval officer’s journey across North Korea to return a flashlight.

However, even here, the emphasis is on the ordinary people he meets rather than his military experience. “I saw it as a kind of attempt to restore some of those family bonds that perhaps were broken under this long extended period of rule under Kim Jong Il when they were told to put the military first, to put the state first,” said Lee.

Hardships like power outages are acknowledged to help viewers relate to the dramas, said Lee, but also to show North Koreans how they should respond to such problems. Notably, many of the shows also focus on young people being inventive, even mischievous, and using technology in unexpected ways: One student in “Young Researchers” uses a drone to play a prank on two classmates, while the soccer coach in “Small Playground of a Primary School” becomes better by watching clips of games on her Acer laptop.

Given the fact that North Korea is now ruled by a missile-loving millennial, these messages seem especially noteworthy. “The emphasis on youth is very deliberate,” said Lee. “Kim Jong Un is a young man — he was in his mid-20s when he took power and now he’s in his early to mid-30s. If he wants to rule for decades to come, he’s got to win the loyalty of that generation.”

Though Lee’s study finished in 2016 before the most recent round of North Korean weapons testing that provoked heightened tensions in the world, she found that missile launches still formed a part of the shows. In “Young Researchers,” posters in the background show long-range missile technology, while in “Our Neighbors,” the residents are shown rushing home to watch missile-launch coverage on television and then celebrating together.

These details are a reminder that North Korea’s television shows may be swanky entertainment, but they are also propaganda — informing North Korean citizens how to act in the modern era. And that may also be why outsiders should pay attention to North Korean soap operas, which can reveal a different side of life in the closed-off country.

“These are not meant for us in the outside world to watch,” said Lee. “So it’s like we’re getting a little bit of a glimpse of the messaging internally and so it’s valuable for us as well.”

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