GOYANG, Korea (Reuters) - Less than a decade ago, Han Seo-hee was a member of an elite, secret music troupe for Kim Jong-il, the iron-fisted late leader of North Korea.
These days, she struggles to make jokes on a South Korean television program, one of roughly a dozen North Korean women who fled their autocratic homeland and now appear on a weekly show that hopes to bring the two nations closer by showing what North Koreans are really thinking about.
“Now on My Way to Meet You,” a hybrid talk and talent show shot in Goyang, a city northwest of Seoul, has grown in popularity thanks to its format of humor and tears, mingling serious discussions, such as how the women escaped, with lighter fare such as talk about which men make the best husbands.
“I still feel uncomfortable when I have to make people laugh, or perform. I am still wedded to North Korea’s stiff style,” said Han, 30, who for four years from 2002 played a stringed instrument as part of Kim Jong-il’s troupe.
“I was worried that a lot of malicious comments might be posted (on the show’s Internet site)... But when I actually look there, there are a lot of supportive messages, so I think I was right to appear on this show.”
Though the program does not skirt heavy topics altogether, gossip and lighter fare dominate.
On one recent show, the women discussed how widespread plastic surgery is in the North - particularly double-eyelid surgery to make the eyes look rounder, often carried out by eye doctors or unlicensed people - and how Southern men really know how to sweet-talk a woman who has caught their eye, unlike their serious Northern counterparts.
A debate on the most desirable occupations for a prospective bridegroom concluded that cooks and barbers are most popular, because these are high-salary jobs. By contrast, women in the South generally favor doctors or lawyers.
Each woman also entertains, some by singing and dancing. Others perform comedy skits, including several who mimic North Korea’s iconic, stern-faced female TV newsreader.
But the ending turns sad as the women send video messages to family members back in the North. Everyone in the studio sobs as one woman tells her father, held in a North Korean jail, how she can’t forget the way he smiled when she visited.
The show’s producer says that not only does it draw attention to little-known aspects of life in the North, it helps connect North and South Koreans, many of whom find it difficult to bridge social and cultural gaps.
Though more than 23,000 North Koreans have made their way south since the 1990s, they find it hard to settle in, ending up in menial jobs and often shunned by their southern brethren.
“We were focusing on families separated by the Korean War 60 years ago and thought we should see about finding other families split for political reasons,” said producer Lee Jin-min about the show, which began in December and started featuring the women from April.
“That led us to the North Korean defectors.”
With family still left in the North, many of the women were wary about appearing on the show, citing safety concerns. But the show’s writers and producers persuaded them that it was an unprecedented chance to change public opinion in their favor.
The emotional public response has taken them by surprise. One guest, Shin Eun-ha, even has her own fan club.
“I wept for the first time in 10 years, along with my husband,” wrote one female viewer. Another said the show had persuaded her and her husband not to divorce.
The show also appears to be achieving its goal.
“I thought North Korean women might look gaunt because all of North Korea has been struggling with famine, but when I see them, they are cheerful and animated,” said Park Dong-hoon, a 52-year-old man who watched the show on a television at Seoul’s main train station.
“I think South and North Korea must be reunited as soon as possible.”
Reporting by Ju-min Park, additional reporting by Hyunyoung Yi and; editing by Elaine Lies and Ron Popeski