A False Sense of Status: North Korean Migrants in South Korean Media Frames
As North Korean defectors and migrants evoke both alarm and sympathy from people worldwide, questions emerge as to the role that popular media frames play in crafting public imagination regarding North Korean migrants. Host to an increasing number of North Korean migrants, South Korea has produced its own media frames, which often cast these individuals as a special type of migrant taking on particular hardships. Although South Korea is in fact host to various groups of migrants from several countries, North Korean migrants are depicted as a highly distinctive group in the public sphere. In reality, their experience largely parallels that of other migrants residing in South Korea. Therefore, this discussion will assess whether or not North Korean migrants are indeed given exceptional coverage by South Korean media frames within the last decade. The question is then raised as to whether this additional attention necessarily reflects the exceptional hardships experienced by North Korean migrants, or, if it simply means the coverage itself is exceptional. Analysis of secondary sources on South Korean media frames, coupled with scholarly research on political and social relationships between North and South Korean actors, indicates this decisive view: while South Korean media does not provide exceptional media coverage to North Korean migrants in terms of quantity or frequency per se, the media’s framing of North Korean migrants does cultivate an exceptional view of their experience while marginalizing other migrant groups. Contrary to this construction of singularity, evidence suggests that most migrant groups face substantial difficulties while living in South Korea. The following discussion will elaborate on these conclusions and identify plausible reasons as to why the South Korean media frames are highly invested in distinguishing North Korean migrants over other migrant groups living within the country's borders.
The Media’s Fixation on North Korean Migrants
Curiosity caused by overarching perceptions of North Korea as a secretive and provocative state have cultivated a global fervor of interest in the lives of the North Korean people. An expanding body of news, documentaries, film, literature, and television shows explore the narratives of North Korean defectors, while framing them as those exceptional individuals who venture outside the pariah state. In particular, South Korean media frames targeting South Korean audiences deliberately frame North Korean migrants in a way that has makes it all too easy for the international community to overlook other migrant groups. After all, there is a myriad of migrant groups living in South Korea. In its most recently published data, Statistics Korea (KOSTAT) reported there are more than 1.4 million foreign residents as of 2016, comprising over 3 percent of South Korea’s population (KOSTAT 2016). Scholars point out that most of this percentile is due to an influx of temporary workers from East and Southeast Asia, as well as marriage migrants primarily from China and Vietnam (Cho, Im, and Kim 2017, 362). Relatively speaking, a much smaller population of North Korean migrants currently live in South Korea, approximating 31,000 individuals as of 2017 (Ministry of Unification 2017). Moreover, migrants outside of the North Korean demographic constitute a substantial population in South Korea, but there is little evidence to suggest that they occupy a substantial presence in South Korea media frames in comparison to North Korean individuals.
On the whole, there is no migrant group which receives a great deal of attention in South Korean media. Searches for academic materials specifically related to North Korean migrants in the media generate only a handful of links. Searches for other migrant groups in the media produce even fewer results. One may argue that this is simply a matter of gaps in research, or an indication that the topic has not received serious attention from scholars. However, another plausible explanation could simply be that the presence of migrants in South Korean media frames is negligible. For this reason, our discussion cannot argue that North Korean migrants are depicted more often or more consistently than other migrant groups in South Korean media; there is not enough quantitative research to make this argument. Even so, the modest amount of research which does exist on the issues of how and why migrants are cast to any degree in South Korean media, however minimal, is decisive: North Korean migrants are framed in a way that ascribes to them a peculiar status as an exceptional group of migrants, where exceptional takes on both positive and negative connotations.
Hardship and Success: Common Characterizations of North Korean Migrants
One of the most obvious motifs employed by South Korean media frames to portray North Korean migrants is the narrative of hardship. Scholars Epstein and Green (2013) have assessed the social contexts and implications of the moderately well known television program, Ije Mannareo Gamnida (Now on My Way to Meet You), which first aired in South Korea in 2011. The program is designed to facilitate weekly dialogue and lighthearted activity through exchanges between a group of female, North Korean migrants and a panel of male, South Korean entertainers (Epstein and Green 2013, 1). While the highly gendered component of the program is worthy of analysis, it does not fall within the scope of this discussion. As noted by the scholars, the nonchalant interaction between North Korean guests and South Korean hosts is most frequently followed by “a harrowing narrative from one of the border crossers detailing her exodus from North Korea” (Epstein and Green 2013, 1). Inclusions of emotionally evocative accounts are intentional on the part of producers, and pivotal to the way in which South Korean audiences understand the North Korean subjects in the frame. That is to say, they are viewed not only as conversationalists describing their lives in both the North and South, but also as the perceived others who are marked by trauma.
Along the same vein of suffering, frequent acknowledgement of the sense of misbelonging felt by many North Korean migrants has been depicted in film. Scholar Eun Ah Cho (2017) highlights two films in particular which inform viewers of the multiple ways in which North Korean migrants invariably struggle with daily life in an unfamiliar society. She points out that both the 2010 film Journals of Musan and the 2011 film Stateless Things characterize a male North Korean defector living in the South as a perpetual outcast hindered by ill treatment. Cho underscores the role these films play in fixating collective attention on a creative urge to construct mediums around the idea that North Korean migrants struggle in a particularly severe manner (Cho 2017, 77).
The point of this discussion is not to say that North Korean migrants do not experience serious difficulties in both the North and South, nor is it the intention to argue that media frames are inherently disdainful or dishonest in rendering painful testimonies and narratives. However, by eliciting such discourses, media frames are playing a role in securing the image of North Korean migrants as a distinct demographic. Specifically, they are understood as a demographic characterized by an uncanny background within a collective, public imagination. As will be later argued, it is merely this notion of exceptionalism that ought to be questioned.
There is another role which South Korean media imposes on North Korean migrants. It could be labeled 'extraordinary fortune in South Korea.' Television programs subtly or conspicuously attempt to showcase North Korean migrants as the beneficiaries of renewed hope and a buoyant life upon their transition to the South. This portrayal has the obvious result of elevating the perceived status of North Korean migrants in the eyes of viewers. Cho has provided insight into conservative media framing of North Korean migrants. She notes that it is not uncommon for North Korean panelists on the program Now on My Way to Meet You to emphasize their fixation “with South Korea’s development, security, education, and liberty” (Cho 2017, 61). Cho further observes this concept of attainment in the South Korean television program Namnam Pungnyo (Southern Men, Northern Women). Airing since 2014, this program also pairs a panel of female, North Korean migrants with male, South Korean entertainers. A story follows wherein panelists role-play mock aspects of married life. Cho notes: “The South Korean males perform their role as saviors of these newcomers” (Cho 2017, 73). In other words, constructed overtures of redemption bestowed upon North Korean migrant women are highly apparent in the media frame.
Regardless of whether or not migrant accounts of the benevolence and wholesomeness found in South Korea are fully truthful, partial true, or heavily prompted by show producers, the final impression offered is a picture of graciously welcomed companions who have seemingly earned hyper recognition for their new fortunes. This assumed well-being of North Korean migrants who settle in the South is coupled with the underlying assumption that their new lives were preceded by atypical hardships. This dual perception, perpetuated by South Korean media, is not an overly malignant framework. But neither is it benign. Such media representation of an entire demographic is indicative of deliberate manipulation of public perception. It is a framework which offers North Korean migrants implicit standing above other migrant groups while both failing to depict the broader realities facing them and offering them no real social capital in return for the heightened status.
False Impressions: North Korean Migrants Do not Stand Apart
What are those broader realities? To begin, the narrative of exceptional hardship which has come to characterize popular portrayals of North Korean migrants usually refrains from contextualizing their experience within a larger norm: that most, if not all, migrant groups living in South Korea are generally relegated to the corners of society in one way or another. Negative encounters navigated by North Korean migrants are connected to a process of marginalization which affects the vast majority of migrants.
For instance, it is well documented that working conditions below international labor standards, chronic gaps in pay, and criminally low wages are often factors which plague numerous migrant laborers and guest workers in South Korea (Ybiernas 2013). Astonishingly high rates of medical discrimination against certain ethnic groups of marriage migrants in South Korea, and their subsequent health erosion are also cause for alarm (Kim et al. 2016). A recent content analysis of news reports issued by South Korean news agencies between 2011 and 2014, suggests that migrants from South Asia and other world regions are overly depicted as criminals (Cho, Im, and Kim 2017, 371). These references are by no means an exhaustive description of the nation-wide prejudices looming over most migrant groups. Yet, the purpose of this discussion is not to enumerate grievances against each demographic. Rather, the goal is simply to challenge the notion presented by South Korean media that North Korean migrants stand apart.
Using media frames to spotlight the difficult histories of North Korean migrants and their trials in South Korea has pros and cons. On one hand, these frames bring attention to people who are in jeopardy of being misunderstood and mistrusted in a new country. On the other hand, so long as various migrant groups are also under or misrepresented in media frames, emphasis on North Korean migrants may lead to the false impression that they alone move through challenges during their transition, or that only those barriers facing North Korean migrants are worth noticing.
On the flip side of representing intense strife, South Korean media frames have supported perceptions of North Korean migrants’ extraordinary success. If it appears on screen as though migrants prefer the comforts of South Korean life and are able to adapt and thrive, then perhaps they may be viewed as occupying a place of greater social standing in the eyes of viewers. Media frames have thus succeeded in fabricating a false sense of status. In reality, new livelihoods in South Korea are rarely so bountiful.
Although media frames readily display a supposed sense of awe and gratitude with which North Korean migrants meet the developed nation, sources outside of popular media have debunked any myths regarding an abundance of prosperity for most North Korean migrants in the South. Scholar Eun Ah Cho (2017) fixates on the “psychological anxiety” which casts a shadow over the lived circumstances of migrants: Young-ho Kim [North Korean defector], who turned 20 years old in 2012, said,
‘I can neither call South Korea ‘our country (uri nara),’ nor can I call North Korea ‘our country’ since I escaped from there. I don’t know . . . I am neither the nation of here nor there . . . That is why I symbolize myself as stateless or a refugee.’ His confusion cannot be resolved easily, and it is not limited only to his case. (63)
The statement, offered in a documentary interview, candidly works to discredit the media-induced perception that all North Korean migrants adore South Korea and thrive within its borders. Cultural anthropologist Byung-ho Chung (2008) further probes into the false sense of security offered by the South Korean state and subsequent economic downturn for migrants:
During their initial period in South Korea, most North Koreans expect that they will become middle-class citizens. They share a ‘‘Korean Dream’’ similar to that of other migrants. However, middle-class aspirations are unusually strong and persistent among the newcomers from the North. When faced with the harsh realities of South Korean life, these aspirations prevent the North Koreans from being content with their limited social and ﬁscal means, creating a state of anxiety along with a sense of injustice. They are welcomed initially as heroic political defectors, and then given lives as poor economic migrants. (15)
The insights which Cho, Chung, and numerous migrants have offered concerning the labyrinth of anxieties and systematic barriers awaiting North Koreans in the South, should rattle media consumers out of passive reception. It is prudent to remember that media frames are a product of craft. North Korean migrants may be on display in popular media as exceptional cases of prosperity, but behind this script, they have gained much less than expected.
Reasons to Focus: Why the Media Fixates on North Korean Migrants
If North Korean migrants are unexceptional in terms of struggle or triumph in South Korea, the next question asked must be: why does South Korean media give so much attention to them over other migrant groups?
To a certain degree, the answer is self-evident; for many audiences in South Korea, North Korean migrants represent the most direct link to a notoriously reclusive state which is otherwise baffling and beyond reach. Eun Ah Cho (2017) remarks, “….in the case of the South Korean television shows, the audience looks at North Korea through a double pane window. The producer and the program represent the first pane while the North Koreans, as panelists, create the second pane” (59). The metaphor of ‘window panes’ is an appropriate way to illustrate the narrow opportunities through which most of the global community gathers insight regarding North Korea. Media frames in the South have a clear incentive for sensationalizing North Korean migrants as key informants. No other migrant group can provide the same gateway of apparent access to North Korea.
Still, there are other incentives to frame North Korean migrants in popular media. For one, in contrast to other migrant groups, North Korean individuals reflect ethnic kinship in the collective perception of many South Korean people. Hence, South Korean viewers and media producers may view the presence of North Korean migrants in media as a means of identification. This process of identification may in turn underlie an attempt to transform North Korean migrants into more trustworthy citizens of South Korea. As scholars Epstein and Green (2013) have said of the program Now on My Way to Meet You, “Ije Mannareo Gamnida attempts to nurture the integration of North Korean refugees into South Korean society; personalization of their plight occurs in conjunction with reminders of a shared Korean identity maintained despite the regime they have fled” (1). Here, those ‘reminders of shared identity’ correspond with the need to ‘nurture integration’, a process that is partially fulfilled in the eyes of viewers through public media performances.
The ‘personalization of plight’ which occurs also explains the media’s motives for enmeshing North Korean migrants in narratives of hardship. By frequently evoking sympathy from South Korean viewers, a heightened sense of interconnection can easily arise. Even so, this sense of identification with North Koreans on the basis of perceived ethnic kinship is not without strain. Media performance is not simply a matter of compassionate integration or open exchange of dialogue. Eun Ah Cho (2017) comments on the program Southern Men, Northern Women, saying: “This reality show has shown a typical patriarchal marriage life between South Korean men and North Korean women while educating the new women from North Korea on the characteristics of the South Korean marriage…this goal, however, serves to consolidate the heteronormative patriarchal system of Korean society” (72). Cho’s conclusion pinpoints the broader, sociocultural agendas at play in the popular media frames that target North Korean migrants. In this light, the targeted framing of North Korean migrants is not so much a benevolent embrace of newcomers as it is a public display of teaching them how to become appropriate and trustworthy South Korean citizens. Such an agenda offers them little room to maneuver around societal norms. This insight is supported by research from scholar Hae Yeon Choo (2006), who speaks to the important link between perceived ethnicity and citizenship in South Korea. Choo informs us, “North Korean settlers are expected to get rid of their ethnic markers and transform themselves into modern citizen-subjects of South Korea” (576).
Consequently, the public perception of kinship comes with highly rigid expectations that potentially belie deeply rooted anxiety directed at North Korean migrants on the part of South Korean society. North Korean migrants are then held to a peculiar standard in popular media, precisely because they are viewed by South Korean audiences as those who should depict resemblance rather than dissimilarity. The events that unfold on screen offer the appearance of actualizing this goal.
Furthermore, the desire to highlight the South’s economic and developmental prowess in contrast to the North has situated South Korean media frames in political and nationalist agendas. These factors bring a different connotation to the role North Korean migrants play in South Korean media frames. Eun Ah Cho (2017) best captures this point in her discussion of Now on My Way to Meet You, observing that “One North Korean panelist who had been in South Korea for nine years intentionally referred to South Korea as ‘our country (uri-nara)’ while criticizing North Korea’s underdeveloped condition” (63). Scripted or authentic, such rhetoric has enabled South Korean media frames to co-opt the North Korean panelists’ impressions to sell a juxtaposition that privileges the South over the North.
This discussion has grappled with the question as to whether or not South Korean media frames focus more intently on North Korean migrants than other migrant groups. It also asks if the hyper media attention reflects an exceptional level of hardship experienced by North Korean migrants. It has found that North Korean migrants and other migrant groups all appear to be underrepresented in South Korean media frames on the whole. However, popular media frames which do include North Korean migrants overwhelmingly represent them as members of a distinct demographic who are notable for their difficult experiences and remarkable avails upon arriving in South Korea. The truth of these media constructions has been called into question, and the discussion has found that North Korean migrants must be situated in a larger norm of marginalization that impacts every migrant group in South Korea. There is no objective rubric by which one could rank the trials of North Korean migrants against other migrant groups. Furthermore, North Korean migrants do not reap the benefits of economic or social superiority while residing in South Korea that the media would lead viewers to believe. Rather, North Korean migrants are misrepresented by narratives of attainment perpetuated by media frames fixated on indulging social and national objectives.
Moreover, the presence North Korean migrants in media is not an authentic representation of exceptional standing in South Korea, nor is it a full recognition of their plight. This is not to condone an outright denial of the personal accounts shared by North Korean individuals in popular programs. However, greater awareness of the implicit factors which compel media frames to host North Korean migrants does reveal a more nuanced structure; behind every portrayal of migrants are the interests of the South Korean viewers and producers, and these interests are pegged within a framework of collective expectations, anxieties, and ambivalence between the two Koreas. As a result, North Korean migrants are situated in media projects that do indeed make some effort to humanize the participants, but nevertheless subject them to a certain level of coercion and contribute to on-going misperceptions.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
Tashia Shupert is a former student at Yonsei Graduate School for International Studies and served as an intern at North Korea Review.
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