By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- It was about ten years ago that Ahn Hyeong-seok -- not his real name -- and his family defected from North Korea in the quest for free and better lives in the South.
Ahn, 17 years old at the time, initially balked at his mother's suggestion to go to the South. He did not want to leave his friends, he feared the pain he and his family would face in the process of defection, and he worried about the uncertain life lying ahead.
He didn't hesitate much, however, because he was anxious to see firsthand what it would be like to live in the South -- something he had spent years imagining based on all the things he had seen in South Korean movies and dramas.
"I was perplexed when my mother told me about the defection plan, since it was something that would turn my life upside down," Ahn said.
"But all of sudden, all those images from the South Korean movies and dramas went through my mind in a panoramic way and I said yes without much hesitation."
"I thought that going to the South would be cool, and it was like something that many friends of mine would be jealous of. I was not so naive to believe all I saw in the movies and dramas, but I have to admit that I had a sort of fantasy about South Korea."
Ahn, who currently leads an organization for defectors here, said a growing number of North Korean youngsters are exposed to and more interested in popular songs, movies and dramas from South Korea. People can obtain movies or dramas within a few days of their launch in the South, he added.
The appeal of Korean culture was first felt overseas in Asia in the late 1990s, and has since reached more people in many countries around the world, generating a passionate worldwide response to what is now known as the Korean Wave.
There have been some ups and downs, but Psy's 2012 global hit "Gangnam Style" gave the Korean Wave impetus and brought the popularity of Korean culture to a whole new level. The fan base has expanded and more people have become enthusiastic about all things Korean.
It is not strange at all to see Korean songs on global music charts. Nor is it rare to see Korean films remade in Hollywood and Korean dramas garner popularity in the U.S.
There are growing signs that Korean pop culture has also been spilling over into North Korea, a country known for its bellicosity and its recalcitrant pursuit of nuclear weapons.
It is still hard to know exactly what is happening in the reclusive state but the testimonies of North Korean defectors show that South Korean culture seems to have already penetrated deep into the minds of people there, especially the younger generation.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat in London who escaped to Seoul with his family in 2016, attests to that popularity and expresses the belief that it can help bring a much-awaited change to the North's stagnant totalitarian society.
"Almost no one in North Korea has not seen Korean Wave dramas," he told lawmakers in March last year. "I believe the change in their perception could usher in spring in Pyongyang."
"What (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un fears is not a preemptive strike but a change in people's public sentiment and perception being drawn to South Korea. ... We should get satellite TV set top boxes into the North to help its people watch South Korean TV programs," he said in a separate meeting held in December last year.
Thae's testimony was confirmed again recently by a young North Korean solider who drew the global spotlight by crossing the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas under a hail of gunfire from his comrades in November.
In meetings with South Korean authorities, the man, said to be in his 20s, reportedly said that he watched many South Korean dramas, such as Dream High and Dong Yi, which he said kindled his interest in what it would be like living in South Korea.
Providing more evidence, a survey conducted on North Korean defectors in 2016 showed that 88 percent of them had watched or listened to South Korean movies, dramas and songs when they lived in the North.
Experts see the apparent spread of South Korean culture in North Korea as a good sign, in that it could help narrow the differences that have widened in many areas since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not in a peace treaty.
Kang Dong-wan, a professor at Dong-a University in the southern port city of Busan and head of a local center providing support for North Korean defectors, said the Korean Wave could become the "Trojan horse" that causes the North to collapse in the future.
"The North Korean regime is boasting that it has completed its nuclear armament but more than anything else, the cracks coming from within its society will emerge as the most serious threat," he said.
"Against this backdrop, Korean dramas and K-pop are acting like a Trojan horse, as they are changing the mindsets and perceptions of many North Korean people, which could lead to a change in their society."
Oh In-kyu, the head of the Korean Wave Congress, echoed this view.
"Behind German unification were such cultural factors as rock and roll in West Germany," he said in an interview with a local daily here in October last year. "Likewise, the Korean Wave is expected to serve as an incentive for North Korean people to aspire to unification and to learn about their southern neighbor."
The Seoul government seems to have taken notice.
In announcing its yearlong policy direction in 2017, the foreign ministry said that it plans to shed more light on the dire human rights situation in the North and "diversify" ways of supplying outside information to people in the reclusive country, a plan deemed to be effective in making them more aware of the reality facing their daily lives.
In a related move, the BBC, the British national broadcaster, launched a shortwave radio service in Korean targeting North Korean citizens in September last year to get more outside information to them.
"When the Korean Wave first drew attention, some worried that it could be shortlived. But it has evolved a lot since then in many aspects," a government official said on condition of anonymity. "The Korean Wave, which seems to be here to stay for a long time, will contribute somehow to the two Koreas finding common ground and moving toward reunification down the road."
Having lived in South Korea for more than 10 years now, Ahn does not believe anymore that the things he saw in those movies and dramas are all true. He now knows that there can be both bright and dark sides to even a much more prosperous country than his home country.
He still believes that it was worth taking the risk of crossing into the south a decade ago, given that he can now enjoy things he wouldn't have been able to enjoy in the North.
"Do you know what North Korean people focus on when they watch South Korean movies and dramas? It is not the story but the clothes people wear, the furniture in the houses and things like that. Among other things, they see how the people act and interact with each other, which gives the impression that the South is a freer, more prosperous and better place to live."
"It might not be completely the same as I dreamed and imagined but I still have so many things to appreciate now," he said. "I'm thankful for the hot shower in the morning, I'm thankful that my human rights are respected and I'm thankful that I have the freedom to move, love and be loved, all of which I saw in the movies and drams back then," he added.
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