South Korean drama Crash Landing On You offers glimpse of daily life in North Korea

Buzz over hit series as viewers ask whether depiction of life in secretive North is realistic

Above: The hit series is about a South Korean heiress (Son Ye-jin), who accidentally crash-lands in North Korea - and into the life of North Korean elite soldier (Hyun Bin). Left: In another interview, Ms Kang, who served as a consultant for the show
North Korean defector Kang Na-ra (centre) on YouTube talking about homes in North Korea having kimchi storage areas underground - just like in the hit South Korean drama series Crash Landing On You - owing to a lack of electricity. She says the drama is 60 per cent accurate in portraying North Korea.PHOTOS: YOUTUBE
Above: The hit series is about a South Korean heiress (Son Ye-jin), who accidentally crash-lands in North Korea - and into the life of North Korean elite soldier (Hyun Bin). Left: In another interview, Ms Kang, who served as a consultant for the show
In another interview, Ms Kang, who served as a consultant for the show, talks about how she used to go to the beach in North Korea to dig for clams and light a fire over them to cook them. PHOTOS: YOUTUBE
Above: The hit series is about a South Korean heiress (Son Ye-jin), who accidentally crash-lands in North Korea - and into the life of North Korean elite soldier (Hyun Bin). Left: In another interview, Ms Kang, who served as a consultant for the show
The hit series is about a South Korean heiress (Son Ye-jin), who accidentally crash-lands in North Korea - and into the life of North Korean elite soldier (Hyun Bin). PHOTOS: YOUTUBE

For someone living in North Korea, bathing in winter means hanging plastic sheets over a tub of hot water to create a steam bath.

Seeing this in the hit South Korean drama Crash Landing On You "brought back memories of my childhood", said North Korean defector Noel Kim.

She is referring to a scene where a North Korean elite soldier played by Hyun Bin teaches a South Korean heiress (Son Ye-jin) how to take a hot bath after she paraglides across the heavily guarded demilitarised zone due to freak weather and ends up landing in his arms and intruding on his life.

"That's how I took a bath my whole life, especially in winter when water is scarce," Ms Kim said in a YouTube video.

Crash Landing On You ended its run on Feb 16 with an average rating of 21.6 per cent, making it the second-highest rated cable TV drama in South Korean history, after Sky Castle.

But the buzz over the drama remains, with many viewers asking if its portrayal of everyday life in the highly secretive North is realistic.

While North Korean issues are a recurring theme on big and small screens, Crash Landing On You is arguably the first to extensively feature everyday life in a small village, where blackouts and house checks happen regularly, and in the brighter, more glitzy capital Pyongyang.

The production team behind the drama said they were inspired by an incident in 2008 when a boat carrying actress Jung Yang in Incheon was close to crossing the Northern Limit Line separating the two Koreas due to bad weather.

In order to make the drama as real as possible, the team conducted detailed interviews with North Korean defectors ranging from soldiers to wives of military officers, merchants, drivers, doctors and even pianists who had studied overseas.

They also roped in a defector as one of their writers and got an expert in North Korean language to review their scripts.

At least two defectors, including beauty YouTuber Kang Na-ra, have said that the drama is 60 per cent accurate in portraying North Korea.

Ms Kang, who defected in 2015, said they got many details right, such as how the rich show off their wealth by adding lace to their curtains and how people in rural areas store their kimchi underground due to a lack of electricity.

"Throughout watching the drama, I was like... is this my home town?" she said.

House checks are also a regular affair. She revealed that she once had to hide inside a furnace at the house of the broker who helped her to escape to avoid detection.

In the drama, the heiress had to hide in the kimchi storage area when security forces came knocking one night.

As depicted in the drama, North Koreans are allowed to choose only from a fixed list of hair styles - 18 for women and 28 for men, according to Ms Kang, who served as a consultant for the show.

"There's a punishment for you if you don't comply," she said in an interview with YouTube channel DKDKTV.

Cartoonist Choi Seong-guk, who defected to the South in 2011, said the drama set is 60 per cent accurate.

The portrayal of jangmadang, or local markets where all kinds of goods, including imports from South Korea, are sold is especially real, he told The Sunday Times.

YouTuber Han Song-ee called Crash Landing On You the "most realistic North Korean picture".

She recalled a scene where the soldier and the heiress took a train to Pyongyang to take passport photos and ended up spending a night in the open fields when the train suddenly stopped due to power failure.

"The scene is so realistic," she said. "Electricity is very unstable in North Korea so the train stops very often. In fact, when I first arrived in the South, I was so surprised that the trains came on time."

The two Koreas remain deeply divided, banning their citizens from visiting or even interacting.

But South Korean attitudes towards North Korea, once demonised as the enemy, have changed under the administration of President Moon Jae-in.

The country hosted North Korean teams at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Pyongyang threw a grand welcome for Mr Moon's first state visit that same year.

The effect has spilled over to the movie industry, with "more imaginative stories pouring out", according to film critic Kim Hyeong-seok.

Bromance between South and North Korean agents have become a trend in movie scripts, as seen in titles such as Confidential Assignment (2017) and The Spy Gone North (2018), he told JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.

"The mainstream genres are still action... but I also see more romance stories," he said.

However, hunky North Korean soldiers like the one played by Hyun Bin do not exist, Ms Kang said.

In Crash Landing On You, the North Korean soldier is so devoted to the South Korean woman who fell from the sky that he ropes in his teammates to protect her from the evil forces.

Mr Choi felt that the drama "glamorised the soldiers too much, almost to an uncomfortable extent".

He said North Korean men enter the military when they are 17 and serve for 10 to 13 years.

"During this time, they are... ruthless and harsh, robbing homes and raping women at night."

Still, Mr Choi hopes the drama will make its way to North Korea and go viral.

"I hope the North Koreans who see this drama will realise how positively the South Koreans think of them and learn to change," he said.

• Additional reporting by Kim Yeo-joo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 01, 2020, with the headline 'S. Korean drama offers glimpse of daily life in North Korea'. Subscribe