North Korean defectors the unlikely stars of new kind of reality TV in South Korea

North Korean defectors are becoming the stars of a new genre of South Korean reality TV.

Bizarre, campy reality TV shows are giving South Koreans a glimpse of life in the North

Nara Kang, 21, defected from North Korea in 2014. Since coming to Seoul, she's become a reality TV celebrity - something unimaginable in her former country. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

For the celebrity-crazed young people of South Korea, North Korean defectors are fast becoming the unlikely stars of a whole new kind of reality TV.

"When I stood in front of the camera for the first time, I was terrified. But now it's fun," said Nara Kang, 21, who studies at an arts school in Seoul. "The shows I'm on are unimaginable in North Korea. It was fascinating to see myself on television."

Kang escaped North Korea in 2014 via a perilous, dead-of-night river crossing into China. She couldn't swim. As the Yalu River grew deeper, she was swept downstream by the current.

"I nearly drowned," she said.

Kang was smuggled into China by a broker — paid by her mother to keep her out of the reach of North Korean authorities and the human traffickers who prey on young women trying to escape. She took a roundabout route through China, Myanmar and Thailand before arriving in South Korea for a reunion with her mother, who had defected two years earlier.

Kang welcomed us into the tiny three-room flat she shares with her mom. Sitting on the floor in her all-pink bedroom, she meticulously applied her make-up. With her porcelain skin and long, dark hair, she's a beautiful young woman — and a natural pick for a new and growing genre of reality TV shows in Seoul, drawing on an audience of young South Koreans curious about life in the North.

'Because North Korea and South Korea have been separated so long, they don't understand each other very well,' ​says television producer ​Hyung-jin Joo​. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

"Anything North Korea-related is always a hot topic and comes across as being mysterious," said Hyung-jin Joo, producer of Moranbong Club, a show featuring hosts who interview panels of young, attractive North Korean women who've defected to the South.

"The Korean peninsula has been divided for over 60 years now, so the reality is that they do not understand each other very well.

"From the show, we can understand our cultural differences and also realize what we could learn from them. Some stories are fun while some will make you shed tears."

'Why did you defect, then?'

The shows are rousing and fast-paced, with lots of entertaining production effects and laughter. On one program — Now On My Way to Meet You — the host asked Kang how she managed to maintain such a flawless complexion when "North Koreans work a lot under the sun."

She told him she came from a well-to-do family and was never a starving peasant working in the fields.

"From being wealthy, you became poor [by coming to South Korea]?" the host asked as a banner popped up on the screen with the question, "Why did you defect, then?"

North Korean defectors: Celebrities in South Korea and to some, ambassadors of freedom

4 years ago
Duration 8:07
North Korea's defectors are celebrities in South Korea, due in large part to coming from a culture shrouded in mystery — but in some cases, they are viewed as ambassadors for freedom

"Most South Koreans think that North Koreans live in extreme poverty, but I didn't live in poverty," said Kang.

Her mother ran a dance troupe, and she was a singer for state-sponsored cultural events.

"Not all North Koreans defect because they have nothing to eat," she said. "Each has his/her own reason for wanting to defect, and that's what I'd like to say on TV."

The programs can be bizarre, even campy — but they do manage to demolish many misconceptions about North Koreans that persist in the South.

"It's the North Korean regime that is bad, not its people," said Kang. "When I first came to South Korea and went to school, what I found surprising was when my classmates said, 'Oh, you're from North Korea? But you look just like us!'

"So I asked, 'Are we supposed to look different' And they told me what they learned in school was that North Koreans have horns on their heads."

'I yearned for freedom'

Blame it on the propaganda that the regimes on both sides of the border have been spreading for decades, Now, however, South Korea's culture is seeping into the North. Young people watch South Korean videos on their smartphones through SD cards smuggled across the border.

"We watched a lot of South Korean TV series," said Kang. "I yearned for freedom."

But these reality TV programs frequently are accused of trivializing the grim nature of life under North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and minimizing the human rights abuses perpetrated by his regime.

On one program — a dating show called North Korean Woman, South Korean Man — Kang was paired up with a famous South Korean MMA fighter. On the show, Kang said, they flirted with each other on camera, and he offered a bit of cultural advice: "South Korean men pay for the big things and women the small things."

Afterward, Kang said, social media called him out for being paternalistic — a cultural reckoning of sorts.

Kang's TV work has won her a huge fan base. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Kang is just one of dozens of North Korean women recruited by television producers to star in weekly celebrity shows, which first popped up five years ago. Some of the women end up attracting quite a following.

Kang has her own fan club and 13,000 followers on Instagram. She broadcasts regularly to her followers through her phone in a tiny corner of her all-pink bedroom. She says she wants to be an actress or the CEO of an online retail business.

Over 31,000 defectors from the North live in South Korea now, with more arriving each year. But according to South Korea's reunification ministry, the yearly average dropped to 1,127 defectors in 2017 — a 15-year year low, part of a downward trend that started when Kim Jong Un took power in Pyongyang in 2011.

"Casting new members for the show is really tough at the moment," said Hyung-jin Joo, producer of Moranbong Club, which has been running two years.

"There are many who still have family in the North and refuse to appear on TV for fear that their family in North Korea might be harmed.

"As we aren't able to guarantee the safety of their families in North Korea, we respect their wishes to remain private. Despite that, if they still want to appear on TV to reveal the truth behind North Korea, or wish to tell their stories to the world, we'll cast them."

Upcoming episodes of Moranbong Club are in pre-production, and North Korea's late-stage entry in the Olympics is sure to generate rich content for the show.

"There are some people out there who do not like the idea of unified teams for the Pyeongchang Olympics," said Kang. "But I feel that it's a good opportunity for both countries to resolve their issues, at least a little. That's why I'm happy about the upcoming Olympics."

Why is the peninsula divided? Susan Ormiston explains:


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.