The media is a dangerous playground for those choosing to enter its grasp. As fans of K-pop, we are familiar with how manipulative the media can be in influencing an objective point of view. Scandals are rampant in the news, and truths are often perverted out of shape. The idols we love to watch are often performing an ideal public image and we barely get to see their true selves.
Even with these supposedly frivolous entertainment news, we are faced with the complexities of media construction. When international politics gets thrown into the mix, we see how the world of entertainment and the media have far more puppeteers pulling the strings than are visible onscreen.
South Korean officials were taken aback when North Korean defector, Im Ji-hyun reappeared on a video posted by a North Korean website confessing the pain she experienced living in South Korea. Im Ji-hyun had managed to defect to South Korea in 2014, making her name as a television celebrity. She appeared on television programmes expounding on the experiences of North Korean defectors, and also had an online fan club. The video where she first reappeared has since been uploaded onto YouTube, with many speculating the reasons for her return:
While investigations are taking place at the moment, there have been speculations reported in South Korea’s media that Im Ji-hyun was abducted by North Korean agents on the China-North Korean border where she frequently travelled to.
Yet, this is only one side of the story largely served up through the lens of South Koreans, be it journalists or governing bodies. Returning to North Korea might seem inexplicable in the eyes of many, especially considering the arduous and highly life-threatening journey taken by defectors into South Korea. But this is only one side to the story. For a large number of us, North Korea has almost always been painted as an oppressive regime barring political and economic freedom. On the other hand, South Korea’s open arms towards North Korean defectors is seen as a beacon of hope.
However, the tale of defecting to South Korea does not end in happily-ever-afters. In the video showing Im Ji-hyun, she says:
“In a society where money determines everything, there was only physical, psychological pain for a woman like me who betrayed her fatherland and ran away.”
Perhaps there could be a degree of truth to her words. After all, the situation of many defectors is not the brightest. This is the reality that is much less revealed through the media. Despite the subsidies and re-settlement programmes provided to defectors to help them with settling into South Korea, unemployment rate among defectors is six times more than that of average South Koreans, according to the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights. This is only one of the numerous problems faced by defectors in trying to assimilate into South Korea. Defectors experience depression from feeling out of place, resulting in the desire to return to North Korea. In addition, defectors often have family members residing in North Korea, tying them back to the nation.
With such realities put before us, both North Korea and South Korea find their own ways to craft their own perspectives towards the affair. Using the situation and position of Im Ji-hyun as a kind of living mouthpiece and case-study to prove each side’s perceptions of the other as threatening and undesirable, the individual as a media persona becomes a pawn for politics.
Clearly, Im Ji-hyun’s status as a celebrity complicates her confessions into a political affair. As a celebrity with a following in South Korea, her ability to influence the public is clearly more than the common man. In returning through a North Korean public broadcast, there is a possibility of the government leveraging on her celebrity status to persuade an audience of the negativities regarding South Korean society. She admits in the video:
“Everything I said on TV was scripted … to make North Koreans look barbaric, ignorant and stupid.”
On the other hand, South Korea’s media has also highlighted a post on her fan blog in April thanking them for a birthday party. She called it “possibly the happiest birthday of my life.” By pointing out such a seemingly positive attitude towards life, her claims of living a hellish existence in South Korea appears contradictory and by consequence, false.
Interestingly enough, the irony lies in her own confession of merely conceding to a script on South Korean television. While she is relating her supposed criticism of South Korea’s media, she makes us even more aware of the possibilities of her own words as being scripted as well. As far as her confessions accuse South Korea’s media for propagating false notions of North Korea, we are conscious of the possibility of the reverse as well. The opposing perspectives put forth and received through the voice of a single person evidences how public image through the media can easily be morphed under different circumstances. We see the media as something far less frivolous, but rather a platform entwined with the sphere of politics.
The present situation regarding Im Ji-hyun lies in a state of ambiguity. Even though we want to choose one version of the supposed truth out of the two presented, we can come to no conclusions regarding the reasons behind her return. As both North Korean and South Korean media try to offer reasons justifying Im Ji-hyun’s return to North Korea, we become increasingly aware of the shadow puppeteers lurking behind our screens.