An implausible love story in which a (literally) high-flying South Korean heiress accidentally paraglides into North Korea, lands on a soldier and falls in love with him has become the latest Korean drama smash hit, “Crash Landing on You”.
With his broad shoulders and thick torso, Kwak Moon-wan has all the appearance of a bodyguard. That’s probably because until 2004, he served with the Supreme Guard Command, the elite security force which protects North Korea’s ruling Kim family. He was so trusted that he was assigned to work overseas too, for a North Korean trade company in Moscow which was bringing in much needed foreign currency. Only a select few North Koreans are permitted to work outside the country, and to ensure their continued loyalty the leaders have measures in place – Kwak had to leave his wife and son behind in North Korea. In 2004, he was ordered to return to Pyongyang. During a stopover in Beijing, he found out one of his friends in Moscow had reported to their bosses in Pyongyang what he had said in private conversation. He knew immediately that what he’d said would cause huge trouble when he got home.
So he decided to defect. Alone. And he has lived in South Korea without his family ever since. After arriving in South Korea, Kwak, like thousands of North Korean defectors, began the process of building a new life. And it took a remarkable twist of fate for Kwak to find his way into the booming world of Korean entertainment.
Before entering the military, Kwak had spent time learning about film. He ended up being accepted to study film directing in Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts. Shortly after Kwak arrived in South Korea, a famous filmmaker who was working on a North Korea-themed film project approached South Korea’s spy agency asking for some advice. Kwak had just finished his interrogations, part of the resettlement process new defectors go through, in which he’d talked about his film skills. The agency put him in touch with the filmmaker, who offered him a job at his film company. Kwak accepted it right away. He went on to work as an adviser and a screenwriter on a number of films and dramas.
In 2018 a former colleague introduced Kwak to Park Ji-eun, the head writer of the drama. She had come up with an idea of a romantic comedy featuring a North Korean officer and a South Korean heiress, but her lack of intimate knowledge of Northern life was a pressing concern. Kwak’s intimate knowledge of how North Korean officials operate meant he was able to contribute ingenious plot devices. Read more on this
The series has since become one of the most successful Korean dramas of all time. It tells the story of heiress and businesswoman Yoon Se-ri and North Korean army captain Ri Jeong-hyuk. While out paragliding one day, Se-ri gets caught up by freak winds, and pushed over the border into North Korea. She is found by the dashing Jeong-hyuk, who instead of turning her in agrees to keep her safe and help her return home. Inevitably, they fall in love.
It’s also won praise from people like Sokeel Park, who works with defectors through Liberty in North Korea. “Its portrayal of various aspects of North Korean society have clearly been thoroughly researched, resulting in the most three-dimensional portrayal of North Korean society of any film or drama to date,” he told the BBC. “It is refreshing how it portrays various aspects of North Korean society without unnecessarily passing judgement, and shows North Koreans as complex people who are ultimately relatable and even lovable, even if they are culturally different.”