A group of friends, who all live in the same apartment building, go about their daily lives in the big city. The camera follows them in the yard outside, in the elevator, and in each other’s well-appointed apartments – where they make jokes, flirt and hang out.
It could be Friends. But this also describes the setting of the 2013 North Korean TV drama Our Neighbours, where meddling neighbours conspire to set up two of the building’s single residents, with lots of opportunities for awkward misunderstandings and slapstick humour.
Lee, a former North Korea bureau chief for the Associated Press, spent years working in the country. Over dinner in a Pyongyang restaurant one night, the program playing on a widescreen TV caught her eye. “I just did a double-take because I thought it was a South Korean drama. The style and way it was shot was so different than what I was used to in North Korea.”
She was inspired to start collecting North Korean DVDs and started to analyze their content, to learn what the new TV shows say about North Korean life and propaganda.
And what she’s seen is a shift that might reflect Kim Jong Un’s priorities: “More of an emphasis on the family, rather than putting the state first, which is something that they really tried to push in Kim Jong Il’s era. The shows also spend “a lot of time advertising ‘the good life’ in Pyongyang that is rewarded as a political treat or political benefit to those who are loyal to the party.”
For example, the setting of Our Neighbours is one of the toniest addresses in Pyongyang – a place where, when it was built, people only got apartments as rewards for loyal service to the regime. “This is propaganda, it is not a reflection of how the average person lives by any means,” she said.
“It’s not fake, but it’s just one tiny slice at the top, similar to what you would see in Gossip Girl or a show like that.”
“The majority of North Koreans live in absolute poverty with extremely difficult access to a rich diet and food. We’re in the middle of an extremely cold winter. They have very little heat and power. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a reflection of life for most North Koreans. It is a TV drama.”
Many programs also positively portray youth and science, she said, which are important to Kim Jong Un. “Remember that the youth are going to be his power base. He’s very young so there’s a lot of emphasis cultivating and nurturing the youth. Science and technology are important. That the nuclear program is important, that the economy is important.”
One show, called Young Researchers, follows a group of students competing to win a science prize. Their classroom is filled with computers, microphones and other technology. And Our Neighbours features a scene where the neighbours celebrate after watching a rocket launch on the news.
In this way, argues Lee in her research paper, North Koreans get cues on what the regime’s priorities are and how they’re supposed to behave. The cast of Our Neighbours not only celebrate the good news of a rocket launch, but happily pitch in to clear their yard of snow (the kind of work that’s often left for the people to deal with themselves) and cheerfully deal with a power outage that forces them to walk many flights of stairs up to their apartments.
But in impoverished North Korea, who’s watching these slick new TV shows? More people than you might think, suggests Lee.
Most households in Pyongyang have a TV, she said, though fewer do in the countryside. And although the power is usually cut around 10 pm, that’s enough time to squeeze in a TV drama before the lights go out. “TVs are a luxury item, yet they are part of the propaganda,” she said. “So often TVs are more of a fixture than you would think across North Korea.”
The evening broadcasts, including dramas, are “extremely important” for political messaging. “It’s not just entertainment. It’s not like people can subscribe to HBO and pick and choose. This is propaganda and the people know it. They know they need to watch these broadcasts.”
And although the settings are as far removed from most North Koreans as Gossip Girl’s Upper East Side Manhattan apartments are to most Americans, Lee still thinks that they show something of North Korean household life – which most outsiders never see.
“Even though this is TV, just as fake as TV is anywhere, it still gives you a glimpse into what is entertaining to the North Koreans and it just lets us see a little bit of what their daily lives are like,” she said.
“You see them flirting, which I think is amazing, gossiping, fighting. There is an incredible scene about a marital spat. Just this couple that have the same complaints as couples anywhere around the world, with the wife complaining that the husband isn’t doing enough work around the house.”
They’re just TV shows, but they’re “humanizing,” she thinks.