Korean Kontext: What Can North Korean Soap Operas Tell Us About Kim Jong-un’s Priorities?

A group of women gossiping about the new neighbor. A feisty middle schooler using a homemade drone to prank his classmates. A young military officer seeking information from his past. These themes could be from any American TV show. But they are, in fact, storylines from a new wave of soap operas produced by the North Korean state. 

Former AP journalist Jean Lee, now a Global Fellow at The Wilson Center, analyzed four of these North Korean soaps for a new research paper commissioned by KEI. In this episode of Korean Kontext, she discusses some of her observations, including a shift from emphasizing military service to emphasizing family ties and a focus on youth and the next generation of North Koreans - themes which may indicate some of Kim Jong-un's main domestic priorities

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KEI: Press Release | Soap Operas and Socialism: Dissecting Kim Jong-un’s Evolving Policy Priorities through TV Dramas in North Korea

The Korea Economic Institute of America published today a new analysis by Jean Lee, a journalist and veteran North Korea watcher who opened the AP’s Pyongyang bureau, focused on how North Korean soap operas can shed light on Kim Jong Un’s policy priorities. For her study, Lee analyzed four North Korean TV dramas that aired from 2013 to 2016. She used the dramas to tease out details of what these dramas can tell us about North Korean thinking, and what the regime wants the general populace to focus on in their daily lives. Things like clothing choices, apartment decorations, and career choices that are seen in the dramas shed light on how Kim Jong Un sets domestic priorities in North Korea.

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