Now on My Way to Meet You (Ije mannareo gamnida) is a hybrid talk and talent show shot in Goyang, a city northwest of Seoul, that brings together a group of female North Korean refugees on a weekly basis. These women interact with host Nam Hui-seok, an additional female co-host and a panel composed of four male South Korean entertainers. Episodes typically open in a lighthearted manner, with conversation about daily life in North Korea, often involving song and dance, finishing with an emotional narrative from one of the border-crossers detailing her exodus from North Korea.
I became aware of the show following a recent VICE documentary and have begun research into it for my own DIGC330 study. I am fascinated by the way in which this show attempts to nurture the integration of North Korean refugees into the South Korean society. In viewing clips I have attempted to draw parallels or similarities with such a politically poignant series or show in an Australian context, but to no avail. I think that is what makes this television show, in my eyes, so unique. My initial reaction was perhaps the show was trivialising extremely sensitive issues. However, as discussed by Green & Epstein in their article Now On My Way to Meet Who? South Korean Television, North Korean Refugees, and the Dilemmas of Representation “the personalisation of their plight occurs in conjunction with reminders of a shared Korean identity maintained despite the regime they have fled, which is depicted as cruel, repressive and backward”.
The show has proven a minor hit within South Korea and received coverage from local and global media. Indeed the emotional public response is said to have taken producers by surprise. One guest, Shin Eun-ha, even has her own fan club ‘I wept for the first time in 10 years, along with my husband’ wrote one female viewer. Another said the show had persuaded her and her husband not to divorce.
So what it mean to be beautiful in North Korea, to escape, and then end up as a minor celebrity in South Korea? Less than a decade ago, Han Seo-Hee was a member of an elite, secret music troupe for Kim Jong-il, the iron-fisted late leader of North Korea. Today Han Seo-Hee, stars weekly on Now On My Way to Meet You. Yet the celebrity status is not easy, and works to highlight the cultural clashes experienced by those people the show both features, and the audience it is attempting to help: “I still feel uncomfortable when I have to make people laugh, or perform. I am still wedded to North Korea’s stiff style,” Han told the UK Telegraph. “I was worried that a lot of malicious comments might be posted (on the show’s Internet site)… But when I actually look there, there are a lot of supportive messages, so I think I was right to appear on this show.”
On reflection, while I am inspired by Han Seo-Hee and the other women who feature on this program, I can also appreciate that I am very much caught up in the emotionally harrowing side to their background. In addition, when viewing the program I have been relying on English commentaries (such as the video below), as it has proven difficult to find episodes with English subtitles. For these reasons I understand I am not looking at the television show as an isolated work, my viewing is clouded and somewhat framed by fairly fresh emotions and preconceptions. Having watched the VICE episode ‘Seoul Asylum: The Brutal Existence of North Korean Defectors’ I was surprised at the treatment of refugees in South Korea, and in some ways appalled at the South Korean attitudes depicted in the documentary. This forces me to questions: do South Korean’s share my reaction, a foreigner with a limited knowledge of South Korean v North Korean politics? If not, why has it become so successful? This is something I would love to continue to think about and research more throughout my individual project.