🇰🇷 South Korea's 'Defector TV' | The Listening Post (Feature)

Despite sharing the same peninsula, South Koreans don't know much about their northern neighbours. Most of what they do know comes from the testimonies of those who have sought asylum in the south.

The 'Defector TV' formula takes a reality TV approach - putting asylum seekers on the air, exploring what their lives were like before defecting and even setting them up with romantic partners from the south.

The producers involved say they're out to improve understanding, pave the way to reunification of countries divided since the end of World War II, but sceptics aren't buying that. They say the shows are heavy on misrepresentation, sensationalism and sexist stereotyping.

In December 2011, South Korea's Channel A launched a new programme with defectors from North Korea. It's part talk show, part talent show and part beauty contest - and it was the beginning of a trend.

"There's never been a programme about North Korea before," explains Kim A-ra, defector and broadcaster of Channel A. "North Korea was only ever seen through the news, which kept talking about nuclear issues, the North Korean army, how poor North Korea is... that was it."

South Korean channels, eager to find a different lens through which to present North Korea, could finally break away from the usual portrayals of famine and human rights abuses and add an element of entertainment.

"The question of whether they break down prejudices or reinforce them is difficult," says Christopher Green, co-editor of Sino-NK. "The fact of the matter is they mostly do both simultaneously. They certainly seek to convey information about North Korea... [and] they have the tendency to reinforce some prejudices as well."

For instance, 70 percent of North Korean defectors are women and the ones that find themselves on TV often end up reinforcing a cultural stereotype: that beautiful North Korean women are the best partners for South Korean men.

In shows like 'Love Unification', young North Korean women are paired with South Korean men who proceed to instruct them on the ways of the modern, developed country in which they now live.

The messaging is less than subtle and it conforms to the South Korean nationalistic narrative that North Korea is the "weaker" nation that needs protection by the stronger South.

"The concern is that such a caricatured, immature and objectified image of these women is then extended to all North Korean defectors and the North Korean population in general," explains Park Hyun-sun, sociology professor at Ewha Womans University. "So South Koreans may end up looking down on North Koreans or thinking 'we can treat them carelessly'."

There's another issue that doesn't help with the perception of North Koreans - on occasion, some defectors' testimonies have been sketchy and inconsistent but it's almost impossible to fact check these stories.

"There are such cases. But at the same time poverty in North Korea is real. And It is also true that North Korea ignores human rights," contends A-ra. "So we need to see these stories...it may not be his or her own story, they may have heard it from someone else and made it theirs but even when that happens, the story exists."

In a situation where stories about North Korea remain scarce, politicised and controlled, defectors are a rare source of news. That the information they provide gets turned into infotainment says as much about South Koreans - their television market and viewing habits - as it does about their neighbours to the north.

Kim A-ra, defector and broadcaster, Channel A
Christopher Green, co-editor, Sino-NK
Park Hyun-sun, sociology professor, Ewha Womans University
Kim Ji-young, defector and broadcaster, TV Chosun

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(Source: Al Jazeera English, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSP9fwBk-RA)