“At first, we were even told not to use the word ‘chairman'" when referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Joo Dong-man, a props manager for the story about a South Korean billionaire heiress who accidentally paraglides into North Korea and falls in love with an army captain.
Apart from its fantastical plot line with prominent stars like Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin, the drama has been creating a buzz for its unconventional take on North Korea. With detailed portrayals of the isolated country down to words, objects and the makeup style, the cross-border love story even drew praises from several North Korean defectors in South Korea. Behind the effort are people like Joo, who had soaked in almost everything about the secretive regime — collecting details from books, experts and North Korean escapees.
Joo said recreating life in North Korea was a difficult process, simply because there’s no guidebook on multiple hurdles he had to hop over - skillfully and delicately – to accurately depict the country while dodging criticism. He said rules, self-imposed by the production team themselves, were arbitrary and frequently subject to change.
“Later, we got permission (to show propaganda slogans),” Joo told The Associated Press. He said three names from North Korea’s ruling family dynasty – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un – were banned till the very end.
The surreal plot – cross-border love between beautiful heiress and a handsome North Korean soldier from the top military family – doesn’t fail to show occasional glimpses into the most repressive authoritarian regime in the world. The team had to tread carefully in order to avoid glorifying or misrepresenting the state.
They blurred the portraits of the Kim dynasty, which are mandatory in public places and private homes in North Korea. Objects displaying the faces of the Kims are practically illegal in South Korea, where wearing or possessing them could be considered praising the regime, which is punishable by law. The two rivals are still technically in a state of war.
Since all North Korean adults are required to wear a pin with the leaders' images to show their loyalty, Yang Hee-hwa, a costume manager, said the cast had to wear them too. But she devised her own safe way of doing so. “Our badges were almost half or one third smaller (than actual badges),” Yang told AP.
The team created scenes that had “the least resemblance to South Korea,” according to Joo. He said the most difficult props was smartphones made in North Korea, which came from a series of meetings with defectors, including one based in Yanji, the Chinese city near North Korea. Joo declined to comment further on the process due to sensitivity of the matter.
Joo brought with him three North Korean phones, each as much as three times the price of an iPhone. Joo said some scenes were exaggerated for theatrical reason. One scene where a woman puts together a makeshift plastic shower stall to keep the water warm for longer drew a complaint from one of defectors for being “too condescending.” The defector who advised the team had told him that such method was used in the 1960s.
However, Kang Na-ra, a Youtuber who defected in 2014, said people living in rural parts of North Korea still use it. Kang was one of the escapees who provided real-life depictions of North Korea – from a group kimchi-making session to a popular make-up style that emphasizes the eyebrows.
The South Korean actors speak with a North Korean accent and use expressions less familiar in the South. The drama series aired its final episode this week. For Yang, this was an opportunity to create something new. “Everything we did was the first so there wasn’t any benchmark (to follow),” said Yang. “I think we’ve created the benchmark.”
"To be honest, we always showed poor and famished scenes when it comes to North Korea,” Kang said. “But I really like this drama because it shows that North Korea is also a place with people, and they know how to share despite the scarcity."
The drama is one of a few reminders of Kang's faraway home. It’s also a distant place for both Joo and Yang, because neither nation allows contact with the other's citizens. “I thought about how nice it would’ve been to film in Pyongyang,” Joo paused. “Well the time will come one day.”