Crash Landing on You: meet the defector writer behind stunning details on North Korea

Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin
South Korean top stars Son Ye-jin (left) and Hyun Bin play South Korean heiress Yoon Se-ri and Korean People's Army officer Ri Jeong-hyuk respectively

This is the original draft of my BBC story on the defector writer of the drama.

An inter-Korean love story? I would hardly imagine a success. How would you make it sound plausible with about seven decades of conflict and division? Not to mention the risk of political controversy to which playing with a taboo could lead. Does younger audience even care about North Korea in these days?   

Crash Landing on You, however, has proven to be a huge success. Its finale, which aired Sunday, recorded the highest rating ever in its cable network tvN, surpassing the former record holder Guardian: The Lonely and Great God

The writers made a bold decision to situate the dominant part of the drama in North Korea. Which makes the drama very refreshing despite the stereotype K-drama romance. 

‘The most three-dimensional portrayal of North Korea ever’ 

Its detailed portrayal of North Korean society soon became a hot topic among North Korean defectors living in South Korea. On YouTube, you can find a number of videos in which defectors talk about their reactions on the drama.  

“The details in the drama were done so well that we (defectors) say it’s one of the best realizations of North Korea,” Han Song-yi, one of the YouTubers who defected in 2013 said to a local media. 

For example, she pointed out the moment when the train to Pyongyang the two lead characters took suddenly stops due to power shortage. Along with other passengers they had to camp around the train. 

“It was so close to reality,” Han said. “North Korea suffers from frequent power cuts so trains often stop during travels.” It usually takes longer than a week for a train ride to Pyongyang from countryside.” 

She said it usually takes longer than a week for a train ride to Pyongyang from countryside. The farthest from the capital doesn’t usually go beyond 500 kilometers in North Korea. 

Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin
Yoon Se-ri and Ri Jeong-hyuk, despite all the cultural differences, can’t help falling in love

Its portrait of the lives in North Korea was also highly regarded by North Korea watchers.  

“Its portrayal of various aspects of North Korean society have clearly been thoroughly researched, resulting in the most three-dimensional portrayal of North Korean society of any film or drama to date,” says Sokeel Park, South Korea country director of Liberty in North Korea. 

Employing North Korea elements in a storyline is nothing new in Korean entertainment industry. But Park says most of them were too one-dimensional. 

In fact, it is almost impossible to find a North Korean character in Korean films and dramas who is neither a spy nor a soldier.  

North Korean characters, however, in Crash Landing on You, are far from cold-hearted commandos or spies. 

Captain Ri’s soldiers make comical blunders but also show courage to stand up for each other. The women of the border patrol village sometimes compete with each other for status but never turn their back from their ‘comrade’ in time of hardship. 

“It is refreshing how it portrays various aspects of North Korean society without unnecessarily passing judgement, and shows North Koreans as complex people who are ultimately relatable and even lovable, even if they are culturally different,” Park says. 

The defector writer behind the scenes 

Kwak Moon-wan, who defected from North Korea more than a decade ago, was the one who midwifed the storyline. 

Unlike the other defectors who offered some consultations in the production, he joined the team of writers led by Park Ji-eun from the beginning, who is best known for the global K-drama sensation My Love from the Star.  

Among more than thirty thousand defectors living in the South, no one could do the job better than Kwak. Born and raised in Pyongyang, he graduated Pyongyang University and Cinematic Arts, majoring in film directing before having served in the Supreme Guard Command.   

Kwak Moon-wan studied film directing in Pyongyang

As a member of the elite force in charge of ruling Kim family’s protection, Kwak witnessed what happens behind the shroud. It also led to his descent.   

In the early 2000s, Kwak was ordered to come back to Pyongyang when he was working for a state-run trade company in Moscow, one of foreign currency earning organs of the North Korean regime.   

In his stopover in Beijing, he found out one of his friends in Moscow reported what he talked in private about his service in the Supreme Guard Command to Pyongyang and he’s going to face a big trouble once he goes back home.   

That’s when he decided to defect. Alone.   

Those who served in high security services like him are not allowed to bring along his family when deployed to offices abroad. Kwak had to leave his wife and son behind when he defected to the South.   

His longing for the family was one of the reasons he joined the team.   

“I only have one shadow when the sun comes up,” Kwak, in his early fifties, told me. “And not even a shadow when there’s no sun above. That’s my life in South Korea.”  

Paving North Korean ground for romance   

Kwak began working with Park the head writer and the others in 2018, discussing ideas on how to better suit the basic storyline conceived by the head writer in terms of plausibility and entertainment.    

Yoon Se-ri, South Korean chaebol heiress, crash lands on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone in a paraglide accident. North Korean army officer Ri Jeong-hyuk spots her but in a compromised situation he reluctantly agrees to help her go back to the South.   

The hardest part, according to him, was how to keep the female lead unnoticed in a North Korean village.   

“For a dramatic purpose, Se-ri had to experience North Korean culture for a while.” Kwak says. 

“How can a chaebol heiress from the South, with such a hot-tempered personality, go unnoticed in a North Korean village under strict surveillance? But we had to make it happen.”   

The first idea the team discussed was having Captain Ri to teach her learn North Korean accent. Only to be dismissed soon since it looked far-fetched. The second was to keep her in Ri’s house but in this case, she wouldn’t have any chance to establish rapports with the ladies from the village.   

Camaraderie and competition among the ladies in the village bring joy to the viewers

Kwak’s intimate knowledge from his military service offered a breakthrough.   

“I said, ‘let’s get her exposed then,'” Kwak said.   

To viewer’s surprise, Ri tells the secret police agent who caught Yoon from his house that she’s from South Korea. Why has Ri been keeping her in his house then?   

“She belongs to Division 11,” Ri says. Division 11 of the United Front Department is in charge of spies dispatched to the South, the viewer’s told.   

Pretending Yoon as a spy returned from the South, the writers set her free to roam around the village without being worried about suspicions due to her Southern accent.   

Technically the Division 11 is known to take care of the families of the dispatched spies rather than the spies themselves but Kwak’s knowledge, without doubt, helped setting the ground for the crucial moment of the story without a bump.  

‘Keeping’ criminals for money  

Kwak’s extensive knowledge also helped setting up another romance between supporting characters Gu Seung-joon and Seo Dan. Contrary to the lead couple, this couple has the male from the South and the female from the North.   

But the question is how to bring another one from the South to the North. Obviously, another crash landing wasn’t an option.   

Kwak then came up with the idea of ‘keeping’ business.    

After exploiting ginormous money from Yoon’s brother, Gu seeks for a haven in which he can stay put awaiting for statute of limitation. 

A broker offers him what seems to be the best option: North Korea.   

“North Korea is the only place the Interpol can’t reach,” Kwak says.    

Lead actor and actress monitoring the recording

North Korea, always in dire need of foreign currency, offering a safe haven for criminals in return for money sounds way too plausible. One of the frequent questions I received from Twitter was whether this ‘keeping’ business is real.   

“It is indeed plausible,” Kwak says. “That’s all I’d like to add.”  

‘Glamorizing’ North Korea?

Not all the reactions to Crash Landing on You were positive. Some say it’s inaccurate and others even accused it of glamorizing North Korea.   

The criticism focuses on the early stage of the series where the North Korean village people seem to be in plenty of food whereas many people in the North still suffer from food shortage.   

Kwak concedes that it used some dramatic license in portrayal of North Korea but also emphasizes the drama also portrays the darker side of North Korea including homeless children aka kotjebi and frequent power cuts.   

One young defector in her twenties agrees.   

“Even if what they say, that it glamorizes North Korea, is true, would they choose to live there?” asks Chun Hyo-jin who defected from the border village of Hyesan at the age of nineteen. “I don’t think so.”  

Now with many of her extended family living in the South, watching a drama centered in the North made them excited.   

“Every time it’s on air, we call each other on the phone and talk about the drama,” Chun says.   

Even though the drama leaves political matters aside, which are essential to the North Korea issue as she sees the matters, she says it still is of great significance.   

“Its depiction of North Korea is a bit far from reality but it has made the people interested in North Korea,” she says. “It gets my friends to ask me about North Korea and I’m really grateful for it.”   

Male lead and female supporting character in the field

Liberty in North Korea’s Sokeel Park thinks the same.   

“This drama has crashed the South Korean zeitgeist on North Korea by portraying a real and three-dimensional country where a multitude of relatable people live,” Park says. 

“Of course it’s a TV drama whose main objective is entertainment so it’s not 100% realistic, but then again Friends wasn’t completely true to the lives of 20-something New Yorkers either. 

“The drama, which is popular especially among young South Koreans, will probably have a bigger effect on South Koreans’ understanding of and empathy for North Korean people than any government-led initiative or ‘unification concert.'”   

What would North Korean say when they watch the drama?   

“As the drama portrays, a lot of South Korean films and dramas are smuggled into North Korea and watched and shared especially among North Korean youth,” Park says.   

“It will be very interesting to see what effect this drama, portraying North Korean characters and storylines in a way never seen there before, will have.”   

“I’m sure they will be very interested,” Kwak says, though he hasn’t heard of any North Korean watched the drama yet.   

“It’s their story. It’s about them,” he says. “And I guess that especially North Korean men would feel very grateful to have a handsome guy like Hyun Bin to play one of them,” he chuckles.  

His future plans: North Korean loggers and inter-Korean espionage 

Many fans of the drama wonder what his next work will be. Would it be another North Korea-themed drama or completely different one?   

“My identity (as defector) gives me no other options than telling stories about, or at least in relation to North Korea,” Kwak says.   

Kwak (left) directing actors how to play North Korean soldier's role
Education in the North and field works in the South brought Kwak up as filmmaker and screenwriter

He actually has two plans in preparation: a film and a drama.   

The film, which he calls The Siberian Dream, is about North Korean loggers deployed to Siberia by a state-owned company. Their dreams of affluent life, which Kwak likens to the American Dream, takes a tailspin as they are being set up to “cutting down heads instead of trees.”   

Inter-Korean espionage is the subject of his next drama plan, entitled HUMINT, which is short for human intelligence.   

“Big events of the world, I believe, have espionage at its base,” Kwak says.   

Rather than being a conspiracy theorist, what he experienced in the Supreme Guard Command made him ponder about things behind the thick curtain of secrecy in major inter-Korean events.   

He says he served as a guard for North Korea’s most important guests when the very first inter-Korean summit occurred in 2000. He witnessed firsthand numerous officials from the two Koreas and their dynamics at work which were hidden from public.    

“The story I try to tell about inter-Korean espionage is more about the people who take part in it than espionage itself,” he says.    

“Some get disposed in the process. Their sacrifice. Their sorrow from it. But they still feel like they did what they had to do. Where principles and practicalities collide and coexist.   

“That’s the picture I want to draw,” Kwak says.   

To some fans’ dismay, there will be little heterosexual romance in his next drama.   

“Melodrama is not my kind, to be honest,” he says with smile. “Bromance is.” 


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