by Seo Young-seok and Shirley Lee


Kim Jin-myung escaped from North Korea just last year. He is known by his friends for his sensitivity to women – a trait that isn’t considered very characteristic of North Korean men. In fact, many tease him for being more sensitive to women than any South Korean man. When asked about the secret behind this trait, Jin-myung replied, “While in North Korea, I tried to make myself like the main characters in South Korean soap operas. I thought that all South Korean men were more sensitive to women’s needs than North Korean men.” Smiling wryly, he added, “But I found that men are only sensitive in soap operas!”

With the rise of the so-called ‘Korean Wave’ (Hallyu), audiences from East and West alike are increasingly exposed to South Korea through K-Pop or Korean soap operas. North Korea is no exception. And just as foreigners learn about life in South Korea through watching soap operas, North Koreans are learning about South Korea by watching the soap operas of their southern compatriots.


Officially, the consumption of foreign media is strictly prohibited by the North Korean regime. Nevertheless, North Korean refugees testify that many ordinary North Koreans secretly watch South Korean soap operas. It appears that the harsher the crackdown on such content, the more alluring it becomes. Some North Koreans even say they decided to escape after watching South Korean soap operas.


As with the example of Jin-myung, North Koreans are said to study the protagonists in South Korean soaps as closely as if they were learning from a textbook.


Interestingly, just as Jin-myung believed that South Korean men were more sensitive to women, most North Koreans do not differentiate between South Korean soap opera and South Korean reality.


There exists a specific reason for this. The North Korean regime’s harsh crackdowns on such ‘illegal’ content actually strengthens North Koreans’ belief that South Korea is just like it is on television. According to recent refugees, the logic is that the content would not be banned if it wasn’t reflective of reality.


In a world where an increasing number of young North Koreans are looking up to South Korea as a beacon of sophistication, it’s not surprising that North Korean men consider it fashionable to emulate South Korean soap stars. A classic example is that how when a young couple say goodbye to each other at the end of a date, the boyfriend will not turn his back first.



There are darker consequences too. South Korean soap operas are often full of violence and gang warfare. Some North Korean viewers are said to be associating capitalism with violence as well as with romance.