South Korea’s biggest television hit is a surreally unlikely tale of a billionaire heiress who accidentally paraglides into the North and falls in love with a chivalrous army officer serving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Crash Landing on You is unashamedly fantastical in its plotlines, but has drawn praise for its portrayal of everyday life in North Korea, even down to accents and words.
The division of the Korean Peninsula is a regular theme in K-drama and K-movies, but it is unusual for so much of a show to be set in North Korea — in both Pyongyang and the countryside — and defectors have complimented its accuracy.
Portraits of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father — North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and his successor, Kim Jong-il — appear on the walls of every home, with propaganda slogans in the streets of the set.
The crew included a writer and an actress from North Korea.
“I felt like I was actually back in a North Korean village,” said Kim A-ra, who played a villager.
The 16-part series reaches its climax on cable network tvN this weekend.
“It changed the stereotypes on North Korea and candidly showed that it, too, is a place where people live,” Chungnam National University professor Yun Suk-jin said.
It is also a manifestation of how tensions have eased on the Korean Peninsula, where fears of war in 2017 were replaced by a rapid diplomatic thaw and a series of summits, although the process has stalled.
“The series wouldn’t even have been planned and produced under heightened tensions,” Yun said. “Even if it was, it would not have been well received.”
The story opens with the beautiful heiress to a South Korean business empire being swept up by a tornado while paragliding, and crashing on the wrong side of the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ).
She meets a handsome North Korean soldier — the son of a top military general — and the two fall in love, as he hides and protects her.
It is a vanishingly implausible scenario in a one-party state, where intruders are jailed and disloyalty heavily punished.
Even more surreally, after she returns to South Korea, the hero and several comrades slip across the DMZ and into Seoul undetected to save her from a villain.
However, South Korean viewers have been fascinated by the villagers’ humble lifestyles.
In one scene, a woman places a plastic bag over her bath to keep the water warm for longer. In another, a resident pedals vigorously on a bicycle-powered generator after a blackout to keep the television on.
South Korean fans found it humorous, but defector Han Song-ee was reminded of frequent power cuts in her homeland.
“Every home in North Korea has a pedal-powered generator,” Han said in a YouTube video. “I cried watching the scene.”
The series portrays North Koreans as being well-disposed toward South Korea.
One North Korean soldier is a fervent fan of South Korean dramas and secretly watches the forbidden clips even when on duty, while a North Korean teenager uses the latest South Korean slang.
“One thing for sure is that if this TV series was smuggled into North Korea, it would be hugely popular,” said former senior North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, who defected to South Korea in 2016.
Most fans appear not to be thinking “too deeply” about the Koreas’ division, Yun said.
“It’s pure fantasy,” said Kim Eun-ji, a 33-year-old office worker who has freed up her weekend to catch the finale.
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