Are snowflakes being too critical of 'Snowdrop' or are bigger issues at play?
JTBC's period drama "Snowdrop" is facing intense backlash from all sides of the Korean political spectrum since it first aired on Dec. 18. A debate on how far fiction can go, especially when depicting a sensitive historical period such as Korea's democratization, is raging on — not only in Korea but also among foreign viewers due to the lead actors' global popularity.
“Snowdrop” is set in Seoul in 1987, when Korea was in the midst of democratization protests against the military dictatorship. Jisoo of girl group Blackpink plays South Korean college student Young-ro and actor Jung Hae-in plays Soo-ho, a North Korean spy disguised as a college student.
The story begins with Soo-ho being hunted down by South Korea’s Agency for National Security Planning (NSP) agents and hiding in Young-ro’s dormitory room. Young-ro and her roommates mistake Soo-ho for a pro-democracy protester running from the police and decide to harbor him in the dormitory.
The series was immediately met with outcry. Although Soo-ho does not participate in any pro-democracy protest, many viewers found the premise of a North Korean spy hiding among South Korean college students innately problematic. The regime at the time justified its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, many of whom were college students, as simply hunting down North Korean spies or communism sympathizers.
Young-ro and others in the dormitory dismiss the NSP agents' notification that a spy has broken into the dormitory and believe Soo-ho is a falsely accused student activist, despite their lingering doubts — a “potentially dangerous depiction” according to Ban Byung-yool, an emeritus professor of history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
“It may give viewers the impression that spies were hidden among students and were indistinguishable, adding weight to the regime’s claims that cracking down on student activists was an effort to catch spies,” Ban said. “Even if it’s a dramatically interesting concept, it’s very irresponsible.”
Critics of “Snowdrop” express concern that such portrayal may justify how the regime arrested activists under false espionage charges, then tortured or even killed them. Perhaps the best-known case is student activist Park Jong-chul who was tortured to death during interrogation in 1987.
Each episode of “Snowdrop” starts with a disclaimer that every character, organization and event in the series is completely fictional. However, viewers have been pointing out numerous specific similarities between the show and real historical events.
“How can the producers insist that everything is fictional after specifically setting the series in 1987, a symbolic year when the Korean democratization movement was at its peak?” said Secretary General Kim Young-man of the May 18 Seoul Memorial Society, an organization commemorating the 1980 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Gwangju, South Jeolla. “Creative freedom doesn’t mean distorting history and insulting the victims involved.”
“Period dramas that deal with a time period so sensitive and recent should be extra cautious,” Ban added. “Since many victims of the regime or their families are still alive, such controversial storylines can be hurtful to them. Because it was so recent, the controversy is bound to be highly politicized or misused by certain political forces.”
A petition on the Blue House website demanding the show be canceled garnered over 350,000 online signatures in a week and several brands withdrew from their sponsorship deals.
On the other hand, politically conservative viewers are also condemning “Snowdrop” but for entirely different reasons. They say the series glamorizes a North Korean spy as the handsome and romantic protagonist. In the show, Soo-ho is said to have kidnapped and murdered many South Koreans in Europe.
As of now, “Snowdrop” seems to be under fire from all sides of Korea’s political spectrum.
What was the NSP?
Another major criticism of “Snowdrop” is that it portrays the NSP in a positive light. The NSP, commonly referred to as its Korean acronym angibu, was Korea’s intelligence agency from 1981 to 1999.
In one scene that was particularly lambasted, NSP agents do not search the dormitory until they obtain a warrant.
“The NSP fabricated more spies than it actually caught,” said Professor Ban. “It falsely accused dissidents of espionage and frequently arrested people without warrants. Countless people were illegally incarcerated and came back disabled due to torture, died or went missing. ‘Snowdrop’ depicting the NSP as a normal law enforcement agency that abided by the rules is inaccurate and problematic.”
The NSP under the military regime was infamous for fabricating espionage cases, imprisoning and often executing the falsely accused. The victims and their families were socially stigmatized until retrials exonerated them in the 21st century. Many still suffer from the aftereffects of torture.
“I found the search warrant scene ridiculous,” said Secretary General Kim. “I was locked up in 1980 for 105 days for participating in a pro-democracy protest. There was an arrest warrant only for the final 30 days. ‘Snowdrop’ showing NSP agents patiently waiting for a warrant is a gross misrepresentation."
A little fiction, a little fact
Some argue that the backlash against “Snowdrop” is overly harsh. A college student surnamed Lee called the outcry “double standards.”
“So many K-dramas have portrayed North Korean soldiers or spies as brave, handsome leads,” he said. “‘Crash Landing on You’ [2019-2020] romanticized a North Korean army officer as the male lead and was a massive hit. But the North Korean military attacked South Koreans so many times, even in the 2010s. Those victims and their families are still alive and suffering too. Why didn’t ‘Crash Landing on You’ face the same backlash?”
Political critic Yoo Jae-il, who was once a student activist in the 1990s, called the backlash an “allergic reaction from the 586 generation,” referring to those who were born in the 1960s, protested against the dictatorship in the 1980s and are now in their 50s. The generation is considered a key part of Korea’s current ruling party and its voter base.
“It’s a historical fact that there were actual spies sent to South Korea. Some even settled down as resident spies for decades,” said Yoo. “There were also South Korean socialists who voluntarily became spies for the North.”
One example is the notorious “grandma spy” Lee Sun-sil who was sent to lead an underground organization of North Korea supporters in South Korea for over a decade. The NSP discovered her identity in 1992, although she had returned North two years prior. Lee’s exposure led to approximately 100 more arrests.
“It’s also a fact that the absolute majority of South Korean student activists during the democratization movement supported socialism and anti-Americanism,” Yoo continued. “Some of them contacted North Korean agents to receive resources and instructions. Even among students who didn’t support North Korea, anti-U.S. socialism was the dominant ideology.”
Student activists who sympathized with North Korea’s juche (self-reliance) ideology did exist and were referred to as their Korean abbreviation jusapa. In “Snowdrop,” one of Young-ro’s roommates who is an active member of the democratization movement shows interest in socialism and secretly reads a book about it.
“This backlash is the 586 generation desperately trying to hide the fact they were jusapa socialists with ties to North Korea,” Yoo said.
“Although the regime often exaggerated cases to persecute all student activists, some jusapa students did illegally visit North Korea, have secret rendezvous with North Korean agents or listen to North Korean radio,” said Professor Ban. “Still, there was no case of a North Korean spy hiding among South Korean college students. A college-aged spy would have been too young to be sufficiently trained.”
“A college-aged North Korean spy is utterly unrealistic,” Yoo said. “But considering the true existence of spies and jusapa, I think the concept is within the acceptable range of creative imagination, not distortion.”
“Jusapa did exist,” said Secretary General Kim. “As the U.S. turned a blind eye to the dictatorship and persecution of pro-democracy protesters, many students developed anti-U.S. sentiments and turned to socialism. But that doesn’t justify the NSP’s wrongdoings or a historically misleading series.”
Foreign fans join the frenzy
Due to lead actors Jisoo and Jung’s global popularity, the “Snowdrop” controversy immediately spread worldwide. The backlash in Korea received international media coverage and sparked a debate among foreign viewers.
The debate among viewers abroad focuses on whether fiction should be simply taken as fiction, rather than argue about what’s historically accurate — likely because foreign viewers have relatively less background knowledge on Korean history and politics, which is another factor that worries Korean critics of “Snowdrop.”
“The series is reaching a large audience because its actors are internationally popular, but foreign viewers with little background knowledge may take the story as the truth, or at least something that may have possibly happened,” said Professor Ban. “It may give them a distorted perception of Korea’s democratization.”
While some foreign fans of “Snowdrop” criticize the Korean public for being overly sensitive, often referring to them using the dismissive term “Knetz” (Korean netizens), some agree that the political issue at stake is serious. Karolina Kaluzna, a Polish-Canadian viewer and history major shared her thoughts.
“International fans tend to be biased just because an idol they like is in this drama,” she said. “They justify and make excuses because they don’t want the drama canceled or simply because they don’t know Korean history. They criticize the Korean public as being too sensitive for being offended by ‘Snowdrop,’ but if they were faced with a drama in which the main character is a Nazi, they would be outraged. I find ‘Snowdrop’ insulting to torture survivors, and glamorizing North Korean spies is just as wrong.”
Although “Snowdrop” remains controversial, many Koreans also assert that freedom of expression must be guaranteed in a democratic society. Political critic Chin Jung-kwon, who used to be a non-jusapa student activist in the 586 generation, spoke up on his Facebook on Dec. 21.
“One side is yelling that it insults the democratization movement, and one side accuses it of romanticizing spies,” he wrote about the series. “Both sides share the same mentality and are enemies of an open society. Just accept a drama as a drama. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy.”
“Snowdrop” finished filming all its episodes, and with the premise that the male lead is a North Korean spy, any meaningful change to the story seems practically impossible. Cancellation is also unlikely as five episodes have already aired.
“Nobody can give a definitive answer to this matter,” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun. “At this point, each viewer has to make their own judgement. The producers may have simply intended to create a love story, but some viewers disagree, and that’s also a viewpoint that producers should accept.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]