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Crash Landing on the Liberal Script Or What K-Drama & Memory Tell us about Contestations in Korea

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 66 by Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 66/2023 from Sep 19, 2023

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the Panmunjon armistice agreement, which ended the Korean war and sealed the nation’s division into two separate states.  PI Jessica Gienow-Hecht reflects on the occasion in the context of recent cultural and political developments, pondering the question how external contestations to the liberal script may obfuscate internal challenges, notably when there is a common denominator.1

Memorial commemorating the Manseongri Massacre, Yeosu, South Korea, in November 1948. [photograph © Jessica Gienow-Hecht]

Memorial commemorating the Manseongri Massacre, Yeosu, South Korea, in November 1948. [photograph © Jessica Gienow-Hecht]

In the K-Drama, Crash Landing on You, a modern-day South Korean chaebol heiress named Yoon Se-ri (played by Son Ye-jin) goes paragliding and, accidentally, lands in the North Korean portion of the Demilitarized Zone. There, she literally “crashes” onto handsome army general Captain Ri Jeong-Hyok (Hyun Bin), son of the Director of the North Korean General Political Bureau, who decides to help and hide her. Most of the 16 episodes are taken up by various attempts to smuggle Se-ri across the DMZ, and, latter-day attempts on the part of the captain to protect her from her own materialist, corrupt family once she has returned to Seoul. Airing in 2019-20 and one of the highest-rated K-dramas in cable television history, Crash Landing has received praise for its fast-driven plot, heartbreaking love story, and authentic portrayal of North Korean life and society, complete with electricity outages, communal village life, and a peculiar dialect.[2]  It also has a clear, if hidden message for the liberal script.

To global audiences, Crash Landing’s appeal constitutes in its nuanced, romance-driven approach to the division of the Korean peninsula. Sexy, sweet and caring North Korean border guards are not exactly the staple of the international entertainment industry. The series’ intense if highly unlikely romcom plot resonates with equally unlikely visions of Korean unification. In contrast to carefully edited North Korean videos celebrating rocket tests, DPRK birthday parades or unpleasant news such as “Kim Jong-Un, Putin Meet for Arms Talks at Russian Spaceport”,[3] Crash Landing rings home a message familiar to those with the contestations to the liberal script: it’s not that simple. External challenges are easier to identify than internal ones; occasionally, the two even condition each other to the extent that it may hard to distinguish one from the other. 

The Korean peninsula, is a typical example of a region where historically, external contestations literally silenced and continue to silence, the diagnosis of internal challenges. This summer – to be precise: July 27, 2023 -- marked the 70th anniversary of the Panmunjon armistice agreement. The treaty officially ended the Korean War after more than three years of military conflict. Its outcome, a division between North and South Korea along the 38th parallel plus more than 2 to 4 million people dead (mostly civilians, mostly Koreans), established the status quo ante, a divided nation:[4] The South -- non-communist, financed and bolstered by the United States, and, so the story goes, a fine liberal democracy. The North -- communist, under the auspices of China and the Soviet Union, simply a bad place to be that, according to historian Bruce Cummings, “Americans love to hate, beginning with George W. Bush, who made it a charter member of his ‘Axis of Evil.’”B

There can be no doubt that North Korea is an illiberal, totalitarian regime. It suppresses its people. It restricts access to media and communication. And it has no regard for any tenets of liberalism. Still, when it comes to contestations in South Korea, the story is not that easy.

To many foreign observers, South Korea today looks like a total success story: With a thriving, hyper modern capital of nearly ten million people, the country seems like a picture book of liberal-economic progress, showcasing the benefits of U.S. American tutelage, liberal economic development, and the material fruits of labor associated with fast industrialization and modernization. An increasingly attractive popular culture with global appeal, spearheaded by K-pop groups such as Blackpink and K-dramas such as Crash Landing on You, explains the fascination of people enrolling into Korean Studies programs and language courses, the global expansion of Korean shops, restaurants, concerts in, and the upsurge of business-clad westerners on the streets of Seoul. South Korea, it appears, is a country worth travelling to, trading with, investing in, learning more about.

Much of that attraction is rooted in South Korea’s rise as a tiger state.  While South Korea’s GDP/cap in 1960 equaled that of some Central African countries, by 1990, the country had risen to the status of a modern industrialized state. To explain the transformation, South Korean experts such as Jin Park at the KDI think tank (Korean Development Institute) in Sejong typically point to a combined strategy accentuating priority setting (in the chemical industry), coordination (of infrastructure and human resources), capacity building (both within the government but also in the area of domestic research and development), and, above all, motivation: performance-driven incentives for farmers, manual and office workers, civil servants and others. Observations by then-President Park Chung Hee such as “We will win nothing when we try to win everything” or “the government will support only those who help themselves” count among the mantra of how to kick an underdeveloped country into a modern present within the span of less than thirty years.[5]

And yet, that leap forward has come at a bloody price: Like many postcolonial regions, the divided peninsula’s past has been full of hope and disappointment. For much of its history a nation of scholars, ruled by the erudite Joseon dynasty and enamored with a few scattered military leaders going all the way back to the 16th century, Korea has continually experienced direct and indirect occupation and oppression, by China, Russia, Japan, and the United States. Some of these stories are little known; notably the atrocities committed in the 1940s and early 50s under U.S. auspices in various spots in the southwestern part of South Korea, have only very recently received any public and then very controversial attention.[6]

In the postwar period, that oppression has continued under a string of dictators, on both sides of the 38th parallel. The above-mentioned president of South Korea, Park Chung Hee, ruled for 18 years, crushing any sign of rebellion with brutal force, torture and murder, all this in the name of anti-communism and with the firm consent of the U.S. government.[7]  In the end, his own secret service chief could not put up with him any longer and shot him, during a dinner party in the fall of 1979. Nor did that put an end to the country’s misery. Park’s successor, army general Chun Doo-hwan turned out to be equally brutal, inaugurating nearly a decade of bloody conflicts between civil society and the military, from the Gwangju students and workers’ uprising, in May of 1980, counting at least 2300 people dead [8] (where the U.S. explicitly advocated military force to maintain “order”), to the nationwide June Protest struggle of 1987, that eventually yielded the democratization of South Korea.

Thus, the very government that did to so much to transform the country – successfully -- into modernity, create a series of viable industrial sectors, provide millions of people with work and infrastructure, and raise the standard of living tenfold, is the same that ruled the nation with an iron hand, turned democratic elections into a joke, suppressed opposition, threw dissidents into jail, and was responsible for the rape, murder and disappearance of thousands of citizens.  

Some economists have drawn the lesson that underdeveloped countries can only thrive when coached in an authoritarian fashion. They argue that the measures necessary to modernize – such as prioritizing specific industries, municipalities, and individuals at the expense of others – require total control as well as long-term planning at a level that exceeds a legislative period. And they refuse any comparison with economic miracles such as postwar West Germany pointing out that those were already industrialized countries prior to their success. Instead, they cite the example of other, rapidly developing tiger states noting that none of these caught up with the blessing of a liberal democratic regime and its attendant constituents.[9]

That’s a troubling insight for developing nations the world over where women, minorities, persecuted religious groups, and many others daily fight for survival and human rights. And it begs the question what this means for the liberal script, its challenges and the causes of the same: To what extent is rapid, overdue modernization for underdeveloped countries at all possible in the context of liberal regimes? Put differently, in how far can liberal states and their constituents at all accept, enact, and endure decisions that might be economically feasible yet politically controversial?  

There is no easy answer to that query but one thing is clear: In South Korea, external and internal contestations to the liberal script relate to each other. If conservatives continue to tout communism as the nation’s worst enemy; if experts proclaim the nation’s current wealth and welfare required what’s been called a  “developmental dictatorship;” and if the memory of controversial uprisings and their violent suppression, continues to be a matter of disputation and indifference, often written off as external contestation and “pro-North Korean;” there is, indeed, not much hope, let alone instruction, for the liberal script in the developing world.

That, by the way, also goes for K-Drama. While Crash Landing was a global hit, the producers of Snowdrop (2021-2022) barely escaped litigation. Snowdrop portrays a love story between a North Korean spy (Jung Hae-in) and a South Korean graduate student (Blackpink’s Jisoo), both in their 20s, set amidst a hostage crisis after the June 1987 democracy movement. Its plot goes farther than Crash Landing: The spy is cool and caring but also cruel and firmly loyal to Kim; what is more, the film centers on domestic attempts to corrupt the 1987 South Korean presidential elections. Already pre-release, Snowdrop drew widespread critique, among others for its alleged link between pro-democracy activism and North Korean espionage. While the Seoul Western District Court rejected a lawsuit to stop broadcasting and the Korea Communication Standards Commission saw no evidence for historical distortion,[10] Snowdrop was, in terms of viewership, a flop. And it showed, again, how external and internal contestations of the liberal script can be joined, at the hip, in South Korea.

[1] The author wishes to thank Eun-Jeung Lee for reading and commenting on this essay.

[2] “Crash Landing on You,” written by Park Je-eun, directed by Lee Jung-hyo, produced by Studio Dragon, Netflix, 2019-2020, https://www.netflix.com/title/81159258;

“Crash Landing on You: The Defector Who brought North-South Korean Romance to Life,” BBC online, 22 February 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51526625.

[3] “Kim Jong-un, Putin Meet for Arms Talks at Russian Spaceport,” NBC News, 13 September 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/kim-jong-un-vladimir-putin-meeting-russia-rcna104775.

[4] Bruce Cummings, The Korean War: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2010) 

B Bruce Cummings, North Korea: Another Country (New York: New Press, 2004).

[5] Jin Park, “Korea’s Economic Development and Industrial Policy,” presentation at the KDI School of Public Polidy and Management, 24 August 2023. Thank you to Professor Park for sharing his slides.

[6] Anthony Kuhn, “Survivors of a Massacre in South Korea Are Still Seeking an Apology from the U.S.,” Morning Edition, NPR, 7 September 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/09/07/1121427407/survivors-of-a-massacre-in-south-korea-are-still-seeking-an-apology-from-the-u-s;  Martin Hart-Landsberg, Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), 87-88; “439 civilians confirmed dead in Yeosu-Suncheon Uprising of 1948,” Hankyoreh, 8 January 2009, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/332032.html.

[7] Eun-Jeung Lee, “The 1960s in South Korea: Modernisation, Nationalism and the Pursuit of Democratisation, International Quarterly for Asian Studies, 52, 3-4 (2021): 19-37/

[8] Democratisation Movement Archives, May 18 Democratization Movement, Trans. Park O-bog and Gregory Lanza, c2017, 2nd ed. (Gwangju, 2020);  The May 18 Memorial Foundation, The May 18 Democratic Uprising in Photos (Gwangju, 2020); Sŏg-yŏng Hwang and Gwangju Democratization Movement Commemoration Committee, Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea, trans Slin Jung (London, New York: Version, 2022).

[9] For more about Korea’s economic development, see the KDI-managed webpage,  https://www.kdevelopedia.org/.

[10] “Court Rules JTBC Can Continue Airing Controversial Drama ‘Snowdrop,’” Korea JoongAng Daily, 29 December 2021, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2021/12/29/entertainment/television/snowdrop-lawsuit-snowdrop-controversy-snowdrop/20211229180512742.html; “Snowdrop Controversy,” Times of India, 22 April 2022, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/web-series/news/korean/snowdrop-controversy-jtbc-sues-netizens-for-accusing-jisoo-and-jung-hae-in-starrer-of-historical-distortion/articleshow/90725227.cms.

Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht is a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS, professor of history, and chair of the department of history at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin.



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