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KEI Spotlight

Soap Operas and Socialism: Dissecting Kim Jong-un’s Evolving Policy Priorities through TV Dramas in North Korea

December 6, 2017

Nov. 30, 2017 | Washington, DC

The Korea Economic Institute of America published today a new analysis by Jean Lee, a journalist and veteran North Korea watcher who opened the AP’s Pyongyang bureau, focused on how North Korean soap operas can shed light on Kim Jong Un’s policy priorities. For her study, Lee analyzed four North Korean TV dramas that aired from 2013 to 2016. She used the dramas to tease out details of what these dramas can tell us about North Korean thinking, and what the regime wants the general populace to focus on in their daily lives. Things like clothing choices, apartment decorations, and career choices that are seen in the dramas shed light on how Kim Jong Un sets domestic priorities in North Korea.

Please find below some quotes from Lee’s presentation today at KEI. You can view the video of her presentation, including several clips from these North Korean shows, by clicking here. You can read her full paper by clicking here.

Please contact KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson at for more information.

  • “[Kim Jong Un] wanted his dramas and films to not only convey a party message but also convey social norms and social mores, which is one of the differences I see in dramas in the Kim Jong Un era versus dramas in the Kim Jong Il era.”


  • “Each of them features an archetype of the type of person that Kim Jong Un wants to see and wants to cultivate – the Pyeongyang elites, the athletes, the young military officials, and the students, the potential young scientists. Each of these dramas serves as advertisement for the Worker’s Party, and they promote a vision of what Kim Jong Un wants to see in his people.”


  • “[In dramas you can see] the importance of family and community – this is a big shift from putting the leader first, now they’re saying let’s put your family first, put your community first. So this is a very significant shift in terms of priorities in the Kim Jong Un era.”


  • Regarding a scene about a successful missile launch shown in a drama: “I think it’s interesting that we never get a chance to see how the North Koreans are told to react to this. It’s really illuminating that they are being told that this is a celebration, this is something that you’re supposed to get up and dance around the house about. It’s very clear that this is a policy priority.”


  • “Kim Jong Un was about 26 years old when he took power, he was very young. And if he wants to rule for generations to come, he really has to have the young people as his power base. So there’s a lot of effort spent toward wooing the youth and that younger generation.”


  • “We do have to remember that all media in North Korea is propaganda. But what they’re doing with these dramas is kind of packaging up party policy in a really engaging, entertaining fashion.”


  • “Dramas are an underutilized avenue to understanding who the North Koreans are. And I realize it’s propaganda and it’s light entertainment, but there are so many interesting details that can be gleaned from these dramas.”


  • “The quality has gotten much better, the plotlines have gotten better. But I don’t think it has replaced the desire for outside information.”