North Korea has been always one of the most popular topics for South Korean broadcasters. This tendency has become even more obvious in recent months, after several inter-Korean summits. More South Korean broadcasters are rushing to air programs about their isolated northern neighbor in the hope of gaining more attention and viewers.
Producing programs about the North is not something new, but one thing is different after the series of summits: broadcasters in the South are showing signs of a change in attitude in their portrayals of the secretive country.
Broadcasters in South Korea used to focus on “revealing” the realities of life in North Korea, which often meant something negative. They focused on the suffering and struggles of people’s lives in the North, with coverage of human rights violation among other deplorable stories.
Sensational, but often unverified, stories were also popular. A story about the ex-lover of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being executed by firing squad was a high profile one.
As pointed out above, however, that trend is changing.
Take South Korea’s national broadcaster MBC as an example. They produced a special interest documentary about Pyongyang cold noodles, which became popular after one of the inter-Korean summits between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Another national broadcaster, SBS, aired a documentary focusing on ordinary people’s economic life in North Korea while the country’s most influential broadcaster KBS aired a program discussing the impact of improved inter-Korean summits on the region.
These changes in the attitude toward North Korea also can be seen at cable broadcasters, which are often considered as more “aggressive” when covering North Korea.
Cable broadcasters have enjoyed popularity with programs that feature intense criticism of the North Korean regime. Those programs frequently hone in on the suffering, despair, and separation from family members of North Korean defectors.
Among such shows, the most successful one is Channel A’s “Now on My Way to Meet You.” It is a talk show that invites North Korean defectors and asks them to share their experience of life back in the North.
The program used to receive a lot of positive feedback for playing a major role in reducing the public’s prejudice toward North Korean defectors. The show became so popular that its fans even organized an online community to support it. Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, also said he used to enjoy watching the program when he was in London.
As the popularity of these programs increased, however, stories discussed on “Now on My Way to Meet You” became more sensational and exaggerated. Some defectors even went on a protest, urging the broadcaster to shut down the program for spreading false and distorted information about North Korea and defectors.
The broadcaster was also accused of lying about the background of the panel defectors for the show, including their previous jobs back in the North, and of fabricating their personal stories.
Despite criticisms and the backlash, “Now on My Way to Meet You” continued without change — until recently.
The mood for reconciliation between the two Koreas has also affected cable. Cable broadcasters have recently beefed up their efforts to cover a wider range of information about North Korea in an attempt to satisfy the public’s curiosity, instead of just focusing on the negative aspects of it.
As part of this trend, “Now on My Way to Meet You” added new panels with professional knowledge of North Korea in a drive to make the program more legitimate and informative. Broadcasters and panelists on “Now on My Way to Meet You” have become more sensitive about what they say as they now have more impact in terms of forming public opinion, which is more closely monitored by both Koreas than ever before.
This means broadcasters will be less inclined to throw unsourced and unverified information into programs to draw the attention of viewers. The most promising part is that this new trend is expected to continue.
In the past, people have often taken the limited information about North Korea as a given fact. However, after three inter-Korean summits, information has become more available and verifiable. This is thanks to increased cooperation and exchanges between the two countries at the governmental and private levels.
The increased information will help broadcasters in South Korea to diversify their topics and the breadth of information within their programs. Not to mention that direct access to information reduces misunderstanding and can have a positive effect on improving relationships.