Episode 376 of “Now on My Way to Meet You” aired in late February, three days after the second summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Labeled a “special feature,” it began on the streets of Hanoi, a rare on-location shoot. One of the show’s two hosts, the genial comedian Nam Hee-seok, stood behind a police barricade with 30-year-old Shin Eun-ha, perhaps the most well known of the South Korean variety show’s recurring personalities, waiting for the arrival of Kim in an armored limousine. They were surrounded by reporters and gawkers holding up cellphone cameras to the North Korean entourage. When Kim’s limo appeared, Shin loudly, tearfully called out a plea: “Sir, please help me get back home! Please help me get back home!”
Shin is no acolyte of Kim or his Workers’ Party. She is a talbukja — a defector to South Korea from the North — and what she longs for is to see her hometown again and to be able to occasionally cross the Demilitarized Zone. This vision of a comparatively open border and some freedom of travel is increasingly what is meant on the Korean Peninsula by “reunification.” There has been talk of normalized relations and corporate exchange, and Seoul has even floated the notion of a European Union-style confederation. Literal reunification, defined as the abrupt political merger of the two Koreas, has mostly passed into a prelapsarian dream of peace activists.
When it had its premiere in 2011, “Now on My Way to Meet You” was a tear-jerking reunion program featuring families separated by the Korean War, but before the show had a chance to reunite anyone, it underwent a transformation. The way the producers tell it, in their scramble to recruit separated families, they kept running into a new generation of defectors. So they made the rather canny decision to reorient their show around appealing young women, whom they took to calling “defector beauties.” The show’s on-location backdrops of humble homes and noodle restaurants gave way to a glitzy game-show-type set, and estranged septuagenarians were replaced with girlish defectors. Pretty soon, the only thing left of the original program was its name and the desire for reunion. A typical 90-minute episode might veer wildly from a report on rice shortages to a joke about face cream. The aesthetic is loud and frenetic, featuring sound effects and cartoon thought bubbles. At center stage sit a dozen guests, many of them women in short, colorful dresses, their legs all canted in the same direction. The two hosts engage the group in rapid-fire patter, while an all-male panel of B-list celebrities called the South 4 tosses out oohs, aahs and sexual innuendo.
Since its reinvention, “Now on My Way” has attracted a loyal audience, and in the process has become a mass-market vehicle for notions of reunification and North Korean identity, as understood by South Koreans. The show was the first to approach North Korea not as news or documentary but through comedic skits and tearful testimonies by young talbukja. The marriage of silly themes and personal stories produced an aptly incoherent vision of the North: depending on the segment, a hell that must be escaped at all costs or a place of neighborly warmth. In media coverage, “Now on My Way” has been portrayed as a gaudy curiosity, but it’s better understood as a lowbrow show with good intentions. Reunification is a constant sub- and supertext, endorsed by everyone on set.
Episode 376 took this theme to a new level. A second segment from Hanoi was filmed in a makeshift studio, a hotel ballroom, with Nam, Shin and several others — talbukja, journalists and a postdoctoral student in nuclear physics, each introduced with an animated title card — seated in a talk-show half-moon. Shin, wearing a demure yellow dress, offered a personal reflection: “As soon as I heard that the talks had fallen apart, it hit me: It’s over. When will we be able to hope for reunification again?” Jun Cheol-woo, a middle-aged defector with a theatrical manner, chimed in. “Seeing Kim Jong-un, I suddenly felt a rush of hope,” he said. “But now that talks have collapsed” — cue close-up, soft piano music and here’s-what-to-think subtitle (“Imagine how Cheol-woo feels!”) — “I thought, maybe I was wrong to hope.”
Twelve minutes later, the Hanoi footage wrapped, and “Now on My Way” was back where it usually is, on its elaborate studio set in Seoul. The pretaped remainder of the episode made no mention of diplomacy. One of the South 4 had been swapped out this week for Hooni Kim, the Korean-American chef behind Hanjan and Danji, upscale Korean restaurants in Manhattan. Kim discussed his love of North Korean naengmyun (cold buckwheat noodles) and taste-tested a seafood stew cooked by one of the defectors. We may season things differently, the unsubtle message seemed to be, but we are one.
I went to see “Now on My Way to Meet You” in person on a humid summer morning. It airs on Channel A, a cable network started in 2011 by the conservative Dong A Ilbo newspaper, which has its studios in Digital Media City, a cluster of shiny high-rises on what was once a giant landfill. I’d been emailing with the show’s executive producer, Kong Hyosoon, for more than six months, and not without hiccups. She was immensely protective of “Now on My Way” and its cast of defectors. The terrifying back and forth between Trump and Kim Jong-un throughout 2017 — followed, confusingly, by the scheduling of a first-ever summit meeting between the countries’ leaders — had put talbukja on edge. The North Korean government was clamping down on the flow of remittances that many defectors send home via Chinese middlemen. Kong worried that I would interrogate the talbukja and write off the show as drivel.
On set, though, the mood was relaxed, and Kong let down her guard. The defectors, the hosts and the South 4 milled around, cracking jokes and catching up like old friends. Many defectors had told me how much they miss the intimacy of their neighborhoods in the North, a stark contrast to Seoul’s cool, atomistic consumerism; but here, a tenderness prevailed. The set was a cartoony village beneath a starry sky: cottages and townhouses, planter boxes, a cobblestone path. Most striking was an old-fashioned telephone booth (calling to mind the fact that the Koreas had just re-established a diplomatic hotline) and a bus stop indicating transit between Pyongyang and Seoul. The props seemed designed to map an imminent reunification.
The theme of this episode was North Korean pop culture. The hosts, Nam and the actress Park Eun-hye, asked the younger defectors on set about North Korean millennials’ growing obsession with South Korean fashion, slang and music. This, a South 4 member explained, represented the third wave of defection. First was the kotjebi era of migrants fleeing the famine; second was the jangmadang era of protocapitalists seeking opportunity; and now came the gangnam era of young people “crossing the river to go South,” in search of fulfillment and cool. Everyone onstage nodded.
[Read about the black markets in North Korea.]
Defections were relatively rare until the late 1990s: a few high-level desertions of diplomatic posts and the occasional cinematic escape from a prison camp. But the widespread famine of the 1990s drove hundreds, then thousands of North Koreans to risk their lives by crossing the Tumen or Yalu Rivers into China and hoping to find passage to the South. The term used for that first wave, kotjebi, translates literally as “flower swallow,” after the scavenging motions of homeless children in the North.
South Korea is the logical destination for refugees from the North — not only for cultural reasons but also because it provides them with citizenship and generous benefits. Upon arrival, talbukja are subjected to lengthy interrogation to make sure they aren’t North Korean spies or Chinese-Koreans (ethnic Koreans living in China aren’t given the same benefits) and are then placed in a three-month adjustment program run by the Ministry of Unification, a 50-year-old agency that handles everything from inter-Korean development initiatives to cross-border family reunions. Defectors learn how to take the subway, shop for groceries, use smartphones and master the “Seoul accent.” Once they graduate, the government gives them cash benefits and a housing subsidy, vocational training and scholarships but also places them under surveillance. More than 32,000 talbukja now live in South Korea — up from just over 1,000 in 2001. (Some 400 have appeared on “Now on My Way.”)
Female talbukja, having come up in a society untouched by feminism, are viewed by South Koreans as meek and old-fashioned. “Now on My Way” has been criticized for peddling this stereotype, but in the episode I saw being taped, the emphasis was more on romance — what Kong calls “interpersonal reunification.” Following a “Lady and the Tramp”-style skit set in a Pyongyang restaurant (think spaghetti and flirtation at a small dinner table), two new defectors emerged from backstage. One was a 20-something woman who teetered in white platform heels; the other, a stylish, brooding young man with floppy hair. Kong whispered, “He’s a huge YouTube star.”
Before and after the taping, in a greenroom marked “VIP,” Kong supervised my interviews with the two hosts; with the head writer, Jang Hee-jung; and with the defectors Shin Eun-ha and Kim Ara, the show’s most popular and glamorous regulars. Kong warned me several times not to ask about politics. “Now on My Way” had been accused, especially early on, of demonizing the North. In a recurring segment called “Defection Story,” talbukja gave unverifiable accounts of the conditions they left behind. In articles, blogs and online forums, other defectors called the program “shameless” and “80 percent lies.” The criticisms were small and large — it wasn’t true that toothbrushes were rare in the North; it was irresponsible to say that 90 percent of defectors had been sexually trafficked. One defector I met in Seoul blasted the show for presenting an outdated view of North Korea, all abuse and starvation. “It makes it harder to achieve reunification with all the inaccuracies on the show and because it reflects an earlier reality,” he said.
Shin and Kim joined the program in Season 1 and have continued to appear, week after week. In some episodes, they say very little — the more time passed, the less direct knowledge they had of North Korea. But the women are always game to clap and laugh and cry, offering their alabaster faces for reaction shots. Shin defected with her entire family in 2000; her mother and sister have appeared alongside her on the program. Kim, on the other hand, has been separated from her father since 2008, when she left the North, and has a bit more of a crusading air. “Reliving my trauma is worth it, because I can spread a message to people from different governments and others watching the show,” she told me. Outside “Now on My Way,” Kim is a model and an actress and recently played a Chinese-Korean maid in a soap opera. Her celebrity, she said, was a platform for human rights that she used to endorse diplomacy with the North. “I now have real hope to reunite with my family,” she said. “Until last year, I didn’t think it’d happen until after I die. Our show might be partly responsible.”
Kong guffawed. “That’s definitely not true!” she said. “Don’t print that.” Despite her reticence about politics, Kong did acknowledge that “the point of our show is to demonstrate the value of reunification.” Jang, the head writer, said, “There’s room for this show until reunification happens.”
Last May, in an episode following a summit meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea, the hosts asked the day’s cast of defector beauties and the South 4 not for policy prescriptions but for feelings and gut reactions. A defector in a scarlet dress spoke of her changed opinion of Kim Jong-un: “Before, I really disliked him, but seeing the way he spoke and acted at the summit, I was impressed by his sincerity.” Yoo Jae-hwan, a stocky pop singer on the South 4 panel, spoke next, over footage of the two Korean leaders smiling at each other along the Demilitarized Zone. “I got teary, watching them hold hands,” he said. “Even now, thinking about it again, I feel like I’m going to cry.” An animated balloon reading “almost cried” popped up, to the sound of a cartoony pow.
Though “Now on My Way to Meet You” was birthed by a right-wing media company that opposes dialogue with the North, its focus on emotion over politics has translated into a vague endorsement of peace. Seoul’s policy toward Pyongyang has vacillated: hard line and militaristic under conservative presidents and conciliatory under liberals. The current South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is a liberal with an additional, personal stake in North Korean rapprochement — his parents came south as refugees at the height of the Korean War; his mother’s sister still lives in the North. Before becoming president, Moon was a democracy activist, a civil rights attorney and the chief of staff to the left-wing president Roh Moo-hyun. After talking Trump down from threats of war in 2017, Moon used last year’s Winter Olympics to draw North Korea into the global arena and met with Kim soon thereafter. In April 2018, in their Panmunjom Declaration, named after the truce village along the Demilitarized Zone, Kim and Moon pledged to bring an official end to the Korean War, create “a new era of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity” and re-establish cross-border “railways and roads.”
The idea of a railway, however theoretical, captured the imagination of South Koreans, who aren’t permitted to visit the North. In February 2018, “Now on My Way” dedicated an episode to the past and future idea of a transcontinental train. Shin held up an enlarged copy of an old-timey passenger ticket. It belonged to Sohn Kee-chung, the Korean marathon runner who won a gold medal for colonial Japan in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Sohn had traveled by train from Japan to Germany, via Korea, China and Russia. “Right now, South Korea is an island,” Shin said. “But it wasn’t always that way. It’s because the peninsula was divided. If we were reunited, we could take the train all the way to Europe.”
Moon talks a lot about unity and peace but avoids “human rights,” a phrase that, from the North Korean perspective, smacks of imperial overreach rather than reasonable condemnation of totalitarian control. Seoul has adopted a “spillover” approach, hoping that an emphasis on diplomacy, aid and economic development, paralleling the American focus on denuclearization, will eventually improve the status of human rights in North Korea. Moon is also careful not to put too fine a point on “reunification,” lest he imply a German model of takeover. His Ministry of Unification highlights what it calls the Three Nos: “no desire for the North’s collapse, no pursuit of unification by absorption and no pursuit of unification through artificial means.” For this, Human Rights Watch and defector groups have condemned him for whitewashing abuses. “Now on My Way” has generally fallen in line with Moon’s principles, though some of its defector beauties now support regime change in the North. “I think it’s great that people from our show are advocating human rights and talking about their experiences in North Korea,” Kong said, “but that shouldn’t be seen as being done under the color of our program.”
Most South Koreans believe that reunification is necessary, but just 19 percent want it to happen “quickly.” Younger adults are much more likely than those over 50 to support a gradual, deferred reconciliation. Krys Lee, a novelist and professor in Seoul, told me that TV programs like “Now on My Way” are helpful in getting students to identify emotionally with reunification. “I can see the difference since ‘Now on My Way’ went on the air,” said the defector Kwon Seol-kyung, a musician who leads the all-North Korean Pyongyang Art Troupe. “There’s an openness and good feelings about reunification.”
“Now on My Way” has given rise to numerous copycat shows, including a nearly identical program called “Moranbong Club,” named after a North Korean girl group, and “Love Reunification! Southern Man, Northern Woman,” both seasons of which had a South Korean man playact marriage with a dainty, naïve talbukja. “In South Korea today, there’s isn’t a TV program that doesn’t deal with the North,” Kong said. Last fall, during yet another inter-Korean summit meeting, the journalist Jin Cheon-gyu held a news conference in Seoul to announce the start of the “Reunification TV” channel, to go live in 2019, befitting a “new path of dialogue between South and North.” It would feature history, culture, food, lifestyle, education, arts, sports and music programs, along with soap operas and films — “but nothing political.”
To endorse reunification, though, is ultimately a political act. I had seen, in watching “Now on My Way to Meet You,” how the idea of reunion could be made to feel inevitable, willed into existence, even on an otherwise silly show. “We’re trying to make the audience more curious,” Kong said. “First it was: ‘Wow, we have this many defectors in South Korea? Is that how they live?’ Then, in time, people gained more knowledge about North Korea and the lives of defectors. Now the question is, ‘What happens after reunification?’ ”
E. Tammy Kim
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