Kang Nara, 23, is in her Seoul studio getting ready to record a YouTube podcast. She fled North Korea six years ago. Now she has a channel with 20 million views on which she shares personal stories about North Korean fashion choices, women’s rights, and why others choose to leave the communist dictatorship.
She says she is trying to show South Koreans a side of North Korea they may not have seen before.
Recent years have seen an explosion of defector YouTube channels, as North Koreans in the South become more involved in telling their own stories. And they are getting a big audience, said Sokeel Park with the group Liberty in North Korea.
“There’s an appetite for broader stories, including about North Korean people, how they live their lives in a place which is so close to here but which is completely shut off,” he said.
It has also impacted the film industry. Movies and shows have often portrayed North Koreans as dangerous or simple-minded.
But more recently, the wildly popular TV drama “Crash Landing on You” portrayed a North Korean soldier who falls in love with a South Korean girl. Many saw it as an unusually three-dimensional image of the North.
'People are people'
In Seoul, a lighthearted play tells the story of a separated family that accidentally meets each other at the border separating the two Koreas.
Director Kang Je-kwon said that in the past, South Koreans tended to look down on North Koreans or make fun of their accent. But now more shows are trying to inform people about North Korea.
Tae-ho Lee, one of the actors in Kang's play, said, "It’s not just about some political sides arguing about certain things. It’s not about that … people are people, and I think people in the South have generally really accepted that.”
But that acceptance only goes so far. And while defectors are getting more media exposure, the attention is not always positive. In the end, some say they are treated like novelties.
Oh Jin-ha, an artist who defected from North Korea, said many producers in the South do not like the more unifying approach, because it is not very captivating. So instead, they exaggerate and focus on the things that make North Koreans different. He said they portray North Koreans as almost different creatures.
Back at her Seoul studio, Kang Nara is hopeful that can change.
She said that since North and South Korea have been separated for decades, it makes sense they would feel distant from each other. But, she said, she wants to narrow the gap with her YouTube channel.
North Koreans in the South are slowly learning to take charge of their own narrative.