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“Snowdrops” and Korean culture increasingly canceled

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Boy meets girl, boy and girl find themselves in very unlikely situations again, and boy and girl look like they are about to fall in love.

This is how the last K-drama Snowdrops on cable channel JTBC (also available on Disney +) takes place in the two episodes that have aired so far, much like any standard South Korean television romance.

With in-demand actor Jung Hae-in (who became a celebrity in the 2018 series Something in the rain) and Jisoo from K-pop girl group Blackpink, it must have hit many JTBC executives and investors like gold when the cameras started rolling.

Instead, he’s already embroiled in a messy controversy, ushering in the final phase of South Korea’s culture war. Critics, mostly from the left of the political spectrum, argue that Snowdrops sully the legacy of the democratization movement. A petition to the presidential office asking for its annulment has collected nearly 350,000 signatures. Corporate sponsors and advertisers are reportedly giving up.

A trailer for the JTBC drama Snowdrops with Jung Hae-in and Jisoo

Such is the outrage that it’s easy to believe the show has committed some serious sins, but it’s best to let the facts speak for themselves.

The drama takes place in 1987, the end of the military dictatorship. University students regularly organize anti-government protests. Demands for democracy are growing. The country’s leaders plan to retain power by implicating North Korea in a plot to smear the political opposition.

In this context, Young-ro, a student at a female-only college, and Su-ho, an undercover North Korean spy, develop feelings for each other.

The show is clearly inspired by the K-drama Reply 1988, which, as the title suggests, tapped South Korean viewers’ nostalgia for the late 1980s (a heady period that saw democratization, the Seoul Olympics, and economic prosperity), and Crash landing on you, another recent cross-DMZ romance. Both have been massive business successes.

Unfortunately 1987 is a trickier subject than 1988 or an inter-Korean relationship.

This is ancient history: in April 1987, military dictator Chun Doo-hwan announced his intention to stay in power, dashing hopes for a directly elected presidency.

A month later, the full truth about the death of a militant student at the hands of the anti-communist police unit emerged: the state claimed he died of a heart attack, but in reality, he had been tortured to death.

Already angry with the maintenance of the military regime, the students took to the streets to denounce the crime. In early June, one of them, Lee Han-yeol of Yonsei University, died after being shot in the head by police tear gas canisters. Protests intensified, involving South Koreans from all walks of life, a sign that patience with Chun’s repressive regime was running out.

Under enormous pressure, the government reluctantly agreed in June to hold an open and free presidential election six months later in December.

Where are all the women in the democracy protests in South Korea?

Moon Young-me was one of five million South Koreans who took to the streets in June 1987. She was naked, without make-up or fancy clothes. This was the norm for student protest culture at the time. She was a 21-year-old history major, a transfer

Read about the hidden activists of the 1987 pro-democracy protests in Korea

As if that weren’t enough, in November, North Korean agents detonated a bomb on a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Seoul with stops in Abu Dhabi and Bangkok. All 115 people on board were killed when the plane exploded over the Indian Ocean.

It is the complex historical circumstance in which the creators of Snowdrops chose to locate the two fictional lovers, Young-ro and Su-ho.

You could argue that a drama is just a drama, but the statement from producer and director of the show Jo Hyun-tak, that “Snowdrops takes place in 1987, but apart from the fact that there is a military dictatorship and that a presidential election is approaching, each character, each configuration is fictitious “, rings hollow in the light of all probability.

The on-screen dictator (who is only shown in preview but enough to confirm he’s bald, much like the late General Chun) is holding a courtyard surrounded by a private elite military gathering called Dongsimhoe 동심 회 (“One-Mind Society”). It is not much different from the real Hanahoe 하나회 (“Oneness Society”) of which Chun was a member.

South Korean dictator on screen at fictional Dongsimhoe rally

And we watch the grim plan that the South Korean state is preparing with North Korea to be signed in a secret bilateral meeting in November 1987, the same month as the actual bombing of the Korean Air plane. , which some leftist conspiracy theorists say was ordered by the South. Korean security establishment to influence the upcoming elections.

(The actual dictatorship was indeed terrible, but no evidence of such collusion has been revealed.)

What the Korean left found disturbing was the scene in which North Korean spy Su-ho is pursued by agents from the National Security Planning Agency (infamous in history for detention arbitrariness and torture of activists). As he walks the streets, demonstrators he meets sing the iconic song “Sora, sora, pureureun sora 솔아 솔아 푸르른 솔아” synonymous with the democratization movement of June 1987.

Sora, sora, pureureun sora: an emblematic song of the democratization movement of June 1987

Critics see this, along with the following footage in which the heroine Young-ro saves Su-ho believing he is just another student activist wanted by the dictatorship, as furthering the right-wing conspiracy theory. , for which there is also no proof. : that North Korea was involved and possibly even orchestrated the student protests against the military regime. They say this is a blatant “distortion of history” and an offense to all activists.

And they are right. Snowdrops mix enough story and fiction that sometimes it’s impossible to tell which is which unless you’ve already read the facts before viewing.

But is it enough to justify the cancellation? The head of the Lee Han-yeol Memorial Museum, which commemorates the student protester killed in June 1987, equated the scenes in question with a “Nazi cult”. This comment is frankly extreme.

Strangely, it’s not just the left that hates Snowdrops.

An anonymous right-wing South Korean citizen reportedly filed a criminal complaint against JTBC and the director / producer of the show Jo, believing that “a North Korean spy is idealized as the main protagonist.” In the opinion of this person, this is “in violation of the National Security Law”, a controversial law prohibiting anti-state activity.

In reaction to all this, leading expert Chin Jungkwon, famous for his common sense comments on the follies of the country’s ideological opposites, joked:

“One party cries out scandal by saying that the democratization movement has been insulted, and the other party reports [the drama] as violating national security law for idealizing a spy. They are from different sides but share the same mentality. They are both enemies of an open society. “

Culture, especially movies, has long been an ideological battleground in South Korea. Admiral: Roaring currents and Ode to my father in 2014 were loved by the right to apparently celebrate the patriotism and sacrifice of the older generation. The left flocked to watch Avocado (2013) and Taxi driver (2017), who highlighted the brutal nature of the bygone military regime and celebrated democratization.

History guides the future of the latest South Korean blockbuster

Three South Korean high school students in uniform mercilessly heckle a South Asian migrant worker in the contemporary city of Busan. Seeing this, an old Korean man gets angry with them. The privileged young people ignore that the old man, Deok-soo, had himself been a laboratory for migrants …

But the fighting is getting out of hand, and not just over “historical distortions”. A new culture of cancellation rears its ugly head over all manner of perceived flaws.

Even the hit drama of 2018 Mr. Sun was not immune to attack (again, there seems to be little way to avoid them when the colonial period is the center of attention). And the fantastic and historical drama of SBS Exorcist Joseon was notoriously phased out earlier this year after just two episodes. It would have made early 15th-century Korea appear too Chinese, and viewers accused the show and its author of asserting China’s cultural dominance over the region and advancing the Chinese state’s agenda.

(The fact that zombies also appeared, however, didn’t seem to offend anyone’s historical sensibilities.)

Next in line of sights is a production that hasn’t even hit the airwaves yet: a Korean remake of the Chinese drama Silent truth . The series is based on a novel that the Chinese state apparatus is said to have approved, and the novelist himself has reportedly disparaged the democratic movement in Hong Kong on several occasions.

After criticism that the Korean adaptation might idealize the Chinese Communist Party, filming has ceased. JTBC, which was supposed to broadcast it, only indicated that the production was “being restructured for the sake of final quality”.

On the question of Snowdrops, however, the chain does not retreat yet. To say that “the first part of the story seems to have caused a misunderstanding”, it will not release the usual two episodes this weekend but three, which “will reveal how North Korean spy Su-ho also became in Korea. of the South as the true nature of the corrupt elite “.

This very Friday, we’ll find out if that move is enough to quell the campaign against the series, but it sure won’t be the last episode of the ongoing K-drama. Demand the ideological purity of cultural producers.

Cover: promotional poster for the drama Snowdrop (source: JTBC)

Note: In an earlier version of this play, the channel that aired the Joseon Exorcist drama was incorrectly noted as KBS, when it was actually SBS. I sincerely apologize for the mistake.

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