BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Since its unsolicited selection for the axis of evil, North Korea has largely fulfilled its media role as America's Asian arch-nemesis. Isolated, repressive, erratic, and now nuclear. But there's at least one place where North Korea's image has been softening. South Korea. And according to Wall Street Journal reporter Gordon Fairclough, South Korean TV and film are the reasons why. He joins us now from Seoul. Gordon, welcome to the show.
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: Thanks very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the images of North Korea on South Korean television before the 1999 Sunshine Policy went into effect.
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: There used to be quite a lot of government sponsored propaganda about the north, and even in popular films and TV. Some years ago there was a movie made about a North Korean plot to steal South Korean high explosives and detonate them in a soccer stadium, and the opening sequence of this movie shows North Korean commandoes practicing bayonet drills on live people and actually killing people during their training. And there's this image of bloodthirsty and not quite human monsters there in the north.
BOB GARFIELD: That sounds harsh. What about in non-fiction? Documentary and news coverage of the north?
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: The north and the south for a long time were locked in a kind of neck and neck struggle economically, politically, militarily. And after the demise of the Soviet Union, North Korea's economy has really spiraled downwards, and so over the course of the '90s, instead of seeing images of the North Korean military and North Korean industry, we started to see pictures of starving North Korean children as famine hit North Korea in the mid-1990s, causing perhaps a million or more people to lose their lives.
BOB GARFIELD: So either bloodthirsty brainwashed zealots, or pitiful figures who have lost the ideological and economic war. What has changed in the last five years?
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: Just more humanization, I think. You know, in a recent movie, there are a couple of North Korean marines who are out fishing, and they get accidentally blown ashore in South Korea, and they're desperate to get home, and they're sort of befuddled by technology in South Korea. They, they can't figure out how to work the phone card, and you know, it turns out to be one of these heroes with heart of gold stories, and they befriend a young South Korean girl, and they rescue her from a bunch of South Korean hoodlums by outsmarting and outfighting them, which is a kind of portrayal of North Koreans that probably would have been against the law in the old days. In fact, the most popular TV show on Saturday night here in Seoul this past season is a quiz show pitting elementary school kids from North Korea against kids from the South.
BOB GARFIELD: But I understand that this is produced with some degree of subterfuge. There's not actually a competition afoot here, is there?
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: That's true. There is a bit of editing sleight of hand involved here, which does confuse some viewers, despite the show's disclaimers. Basically, what the producers of the show have done is taken footage that they've pulled off a satellite from a North Korean show that aired last year, and they've inter-spliced that with new footage shot here in the South, and they've built a set that looks exactly like the one in North Korea, and they've brought in a bunch of South Korean kids. They've even re-dubbed the voice of the North Korean M.C. to make it seem like she's bantering with the South Korean host.
BOB GARFIELD: If you were a sociologist, or if you were a journalist, Gordon, and you were looking at the kids from the north and the kids from the south, what conclusions about those societies could you divine?
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: Well, you know, some of the things on the surface are very obvious. All the North Korean kids are wearing matching white shirts and dark trousers, and their red young pioneer kerchiefs knotted around their necks. When they're answering questions, they tend to stand at attention behind their desks. The South Korean kids, on the other hand, you know are decked out in multi-hued brand name clothing, and some of 'em are sporting hairdos spiked up with gel, and you know they, they laugh a lot, and interestingly, from some older South Koreans, they've made the point to me that, you know, those North Koreans, they behave better. They are more polite. They act more like good Korean kids should.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any evidence the sun is shining on the other side of the border? Have the images of the south, as far as you know, been softened by the media or any other institution in North Korea?
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: I think that there has been some toning down of rhetoric in the north. They used to hurl insults at each other over loudspeakers across the DMZ. That has stopped. But there is not the kind of general thaw that you see in South Korea.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, apart from the thousands of missiles on the north side of the DMZ aimed right at Seoul, what other reasons have Koreans in the south to wish for some sort of reunification?
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: I think actually South Koreans are rather wary about reunification right now. A lot of South Koreans have looked at the case of the unification of Germany and decided that maybe South Korea is not quite ready yet to shoulder that burden. The gap between South Korea and North Korea is much bigger, and so what we're seeing here is a move towards a kind of peaceful coexistence, if you will, and an effort by the South to engage with the North and to try to guide it into some kind of a soft landing. Basically, they're hoping to create a kinder, gentler North Korea with which it could more easily reunify at some point in the future.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Gordon, thank you very much.
GORDON FAIRCLOUGH: My pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Gordon Fairclough is a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal. We spoke to him in Seoul, South Korea. [MUSIC]