S. Korea soap operas tap North defectors for drama
South Korean actors from the popular soap opera, "Cheer Up, Mr. Kim," which featured as a major supporting character a young North Korean defector in Seoul, are shown in this KBS photo on November 11, 2013
Since the end of the 1950-53 war that sealed the division of the Korean peninsula, the perception of North Koreans in the South has been moulded by Cold War politics.
Images of life north of the border have largely been limited to South Korean TV news broadcasts showing members of the ruling Kim dynasty, goose-stepping soldiers, or grim-faced Pyongyang news anchors reading out threats to turn the South into a "sea of flames."
But cultural representations of North Koreans have undergone significant change in recent years.
One example is the North Korean secret agent -- a stock character in South Korean films down the decades and traditionally played as a soulless, brainwashed villain.
Recent movies have sought to paint a more human, even sympathetic profile, portraying spies as conflicted action heroes whose personal struggles embody a divided Korean peninsula. Actors are vying for such roles, as opposed to fearing the potential impact on their image.
The culturally conservative TV industry has been slower to shift its ground, but the search for fresh twists to popular soap opera plot lines has uncovered a rich seam of untapped potential in the North Korean defector community.
"North Koreans, especially defectors who have come to the South, have very dramatic stories to tell -- a life in the country like the North, a harrowing journey to escape it and a struggle to survive in a new world," Nam Gunn, a director at SBS, one of the South's three major TV stations, told AFP.
"Naturally, these characters have much to offer TV dramas ... and they are largely uncharted territory," he said.
Since the end of the Korean War, about 25,000 North Koreans have escaped and settled in the South.
For many freedom has come at a price, as they struggle to survive in a highly-competitive market economy where they are often treated with a mixture of sympathy, suspicion and condescension.
In the past year or so, at least five soap operas have decided the defector experience offers storyline possibilities and have written in roles for North Korean characters.
Nam recently directed a critically-acclaimed two-episode black comedy, featuring a North Korean character -- a former member of Pyongyang's political elite -- who suffers a series of mishaps in the South.
The main character of "A Stranger" -- aired in early November -- eventually tries to sneak back to the North, only to be rejected. Then, on his return to Seoul, he is accused of spying.
Nam cited as one of his inspirations a popular weekly talk show, "On My Way to Meet You," which features 15 female North Korean defectors as regular guests.
The show -- launched in 2011 -- shows the women recounting, often tearfully, their family, cultural and political lives in North Korea and the challenges of life in the South.
A critical and commercial success, it proved that there was considerable viewer interest in defector stories.
State-run KBS, probably the most conservative broadcaster, featured a North Korean defector character in its hugely popular prime-time soap opera "Cheer Up, Mr Kim" last year.
Played by a South Korean actor, the role was of a teenage boy, Ri Chol-Young, who lost most of his family members in a prison camp in the North and fled to Seoul.
Overcoming his initial difficulties, Ri meets neighbours who embrace him as their own and falls in love with a South Korean girl -- an unlikely match in reality given the financial insecurity of most defectors in the South.
"I wanted to shed a light on this minority group that is so isolated and discriminated against in our society," Hong Seok-Gu, the producer of the show, told AFP.
"I wanted the audience to realise that North Koreans can be our own neighbours who are actually just like us, our brothers or sisters," Hong said.
Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, clearly approved and gave the producers a special award in recognition of their efforts to promote inter-Korean understanding.
"It helped the public to view North Korean refugees as their own neighbours, rather than strangers," the award citation said.
The defector issue is a particularly sensitive one, and not all efforts at portraying their experience have been welcomed.
Production of "A Stranger" almost came to a halt after a group of defectors said it made fun of them and reinforced prejudices.
"The show only focused on crimes committed by a few rogue defectors, while most of us struggle to live a decent, honest life," said Han Chang-Kwon, a defector and activist who led protests against the production in July.
Han said most defectors were too busy trying to survive to watch TV shows.
"We just wish they would show us in a positive light ... because life in the South is already challenging enough," he said.