Glamour buys less south of borderSouth Korea is a competitive place. In the densely populated city of Seoul, motorbikes, cars and people fight for the meager sidewalk space. The challenge of being admitted to one of the nation’s top universities is so intense that students start preparing for entrance exams from the tender age of 5. Several months ago, Samsung Heavy Industries, a shipbuilder, received 15,000 applications for 200 openings.
South Koreans have a phrase for what it takes to succeed here: pali, pali, or “quick, quick.” North Koreans use the same phrase even more than South Koreans do, but there the exhortation has less to do with individual accomplishment than showing allegiance to the regime. This difference in the connotation of the phrase is indicative of expectations in the two countries and the culture shock North Korean defectors undergo when they reach the other side of the DMZ.
Having lived in a society where the state takes responsibility for providing jobs, food and housing to its people, most North Koreans who brave the obstacles to reach the South are barely able to cope with an entirely new culture, and few penetrate mainstream South Korean society.
Most of them, including those who have lived here for years, never climb any higher than the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Few land a job at a big company or run their own business. Most arrive with few assets other than the clothes on their back.
An exception is Kim Hye-yeong. Ms. Kim, 31, left the North with a very valuable asset: her talent as an entertainer. She had appeared in several movies in North Korea and a television series. But Ms. Kim has not fared as well in the South as she had hoped.
She changed her appearance to conform with South Korean aesthetic demands; rumors say she had plastic surgery, but this she denies. She has an agent and patience, but the problem, according to some South Koreans, is one that surgery or a makeover cannot solve: she has no talent.
Ms. Kim would seem a perfect match for the entertainment industry, constantly on the prowl for a new face. A little exoticism helps, as does a gripping story of daring or escape. In Hollywood, from the 1930s to the 1950s, studios would often sign up unknowns who displayed these attributes and manufacture a star. Whereas Hollywood has since then reduced the importance of glamour in its star formula, giving more “real” people a chance at leading roles, South Korean filmmakers have largely stuck with the beautiful people.
Show business is in large part about relationships, but in the end business takes precedence. Assuming Ms. Kim has the looks and the talent to be a star, her ties to the industry are due for special scrutiny. She herself will tell you that moving beyond casual acquaintance is not easy. This can be a hindrance in any career. Referring to the lyrics of “My First Love Oppa,” the title song on an album that she wrote, Ms. Kim says, “I wrote that song thinking about my friends in the North. At my age, it is really hard to make friends that you can trust.”
After five years in the South, Ms. Kim might be on the verge of becoming an overnight success, but this speaks more to her pluck than the force and dedication of any star-making machine. The firm that represents her, Sege Channel Co., does not come close to wielding the power of SM Entertainment, the nation’s largest talent agency, or SM’s biggest competitors, Sidus and Astars.
But Lee Hui-cheol, who has been Ms. Kim’s manager since October, says she has succeeded in turning a corner in her career.
“I have seen her from the beginning and compared with that initial period she has started to carve her own niche and people have started to accept her.”
Others in the industry say Ms. Kim has to improve her presentation. “I can see traces that will remind people that she is different and that hurts her value. Somehow she does not seem natural,” says Park Heon-pyo, a manager who works in the entertainment industry. He said that besides little things like gestures, Ms. Kim’s toughest obstacles may be her uphill battle against the negative perception in the South toward North Koreans. In other words, North Korean entertainers are not seen as marketable in the South.
Born into an upper-class North Korean family, Ms. Kim credits her father, an official at a state-run trading company who frequently visited China and Russia, for her life of privilege.
“I think I was living a comfortable life,” she says, revealing not a trace of a North Korean accent.
From an early age, Ms. Kim was groomed to be an entertainer, an occupation of high prestige in the North. In first grade, she was selected to participate in operas performed by government-affiliated artists groups. Her entrance into Pyeongyang Movie and Theater University put her on track to a bright career. Later, she was selected for the Pyeongyang National Theater Group. She appeared in movies and a popular soap opera.
She was on schedule to realizing her ultimate dream ― to enter Gippeumjo, a state-sponsored elite group of artists and entertainers, the ultimate prize for anyone pursuing the arts in North Korea. Beginning in elementary school, she had applied five times to the organization, reaching the final selection process along with one other contestant in 1995.
In the end, she failed. Ms. Kim claims that she was turned down because a background check showed she has relatives in China, a blow against her family for not representing the “purity” of North Korean stock.
“I guess that’s what pushed my father over the edge,” Ms. Kim says. “He had seen South Korean TV on his business trips and he could not get over the fact that I could not reach the top. For me it was also very devastating knowing that no matter what I did there would always be this invisible barrier. That day I finally gave up all my hope.”
What Ms. Kim did not know was that her father, who had been passed over for promotions because he was born in China, had finally made up his mind to leave the North for good. Ms. Kim and her family crossed the North Korean border to China on Jan. 15, 1998. It was not until after they arrived in China that Ms. Kim discovered they had left the North for good.
“My father never told me. I guess he took it very seriously,” Ms. Kim says.
During the first year after her arrival in the South in August 1998, there was great interest in the person who was simply known to many as “the actress from the North.” South Korean broadcasting companies promised to cast her in roles, but nothing happened. After a year, interest waned and then vanished. The only offers she received were for appearances on educational TV programs about the North.
“As an actress that’s not what I wanted at all. I wanted to put all of that behind me,” Ms. Kim says. She says she did not feel comfortable with programs, such as Korean Broadcasting System’s “A Window for South and North,” in which she was required to make negative comments about North Korea.
Last year she was offered a spot on a popular TV comedy show called “Gag Concert,” in which she parodied North Korean entertainers. Other milestones have been passed, although she has not landed a leading role yet. She hosts a musical variety show on cable TV and is scheduled to release in Japan an album of songs in the traditional Korean “trot” style.
Being the only North Korean actress to work in South Korea’s entertainment industry might in itself work against Ms. Kim. There are whispers that because of her high visibility as an actress, she has received government aid as part of a propaganda campaign to show that North Koreans can prosper in the South. Ms. Kim denies the accusation. “There was no aid whatsoever. The only help I received was from the National Intelligence Service. They linked me up with a manager and that was it.”
Yoon In-ho, 28, a North Korean who defected to the South in October 1998, has tried to penetrate the entertainment industry as well but has only been able to land part-time modeling jobs while attending Korea University.
“It’s just tough. I’m glad she made it. Hopefully I can make it someday, too,” says Mr. Yoon, who hears from time to time from North Koreans who just have finished their relocation process in the South that they have been told about Mr. Kim and Kim Hye-yeong.
No doubt there are a lot of Kims and Yeongs in the North waiting for a chance to succeed in South Korea.
by Brian Lee