Love and War: “Crash Landing on You” and Prospects for Inter-Korean Understanding

Love and War: “Crash Landing on You” and Prospects for Inter-Korean Understanding

Article by Andre O. Magpantay

Abstract: The two Koreas, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), have been technically at war since the 1950s. Although the fighting stopped once an armistice had been signed, conflicts between the two nations still occur, and no formal declaration of peace has been signed. Nevertheless, talks of unification have always been on the table, especially during the administration of President Moon Jae-in. While South Korea has undergone rapid economic growth and development in the previous decades, North Korea remains concealed from the world, dubbed as the “Hermit Kingdom” as it has limited contact with the outside world. Meanwhile, in 2019 a South Korean television drama series titled Crash Landing on You took the world by storm as it depicted a fictional relationship between a soldier from North Korea and a businesswoman from South Korea. The series employed world-building in order to recreate the North Korean society from official releases, limited documentaries, and narratives from DPRK defectors. 

This paper examines this TV series by using textual analysis with a focus on the content, symbolism, and social semiotics. The analysis reveals that the series depicted important aspects and facets of North Korean society in terms of culture, hierarchies, justice, and socio-economic conditions. It highlighted the differences and the similarities between the two Koreas while creating a positive relationship between the characters. This depiction is important in shaping people’s perception of the conflict between the two Koreas and the future prospects for inter-Korean understanding.

Keywords: North Korea, South Korea, Crash Landing on You, Inter-Korean Understanding, Korean Reunification

Header image “Header image “National Flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)” by Jeremy Zhu is licensed under Pixabay License.


The Korean War (1950-1953) was fought between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with participation from the United Nations, mainly the United States, and the communist nations of China and the Soviet Union. The war divided the peninsula both geographically and politically; the ROK has a western-style constitution and a Christian-capitalist orientation, while the DPRK devoted itself to creating a communist Korea (Millet, 2001). An armistice was signed in 1953, but the two countries are still technically at war with North Korea recently producing nuclear weapons, which increase fears for the future and  security in the region (He & Feng, 2013). 

Throughout history, the reunification of the two Koreas has been considered by both the public and the government, especially during the administration of then-President Moon Jae-in as he constantly pushed for the improvement of the relationship between the two nations (Lee & Botto, 2018). Nevertheless, there has been a weak and meager understanding between the North and South Korea, particularly in terms of how people from the two nations view the opposite Korea because DPRK conducts minimal interaction with the world and also limits its people’s access to contents coming from the South and the West. While South Korea undergoes rapid economic growth and development, North Korea remains concealed from the world being referred to as a “Hermit Kingdom” (Hassig & Oh, 2009, p. 4).     

The division, particularly the resulting mobility issue, of the two Koreas becomes the central prompt of the South Korean television series Crash Landing on You. The series was a big hit in South Korea and worldwide. It depicted a fictional relationship between a South Korean businesswoman named Yoon Se-ri and a North Korean Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok. The series employed world-building (Webb & Webb, 2013) in order to recreate the North Korean society from official releases, limited documentaries, and narratives from DPRK defectors. There is an emphasis on showing the socio-economic, cultural, and political differences between the two nations with characters accidentally traveling between the two nations. This can be theorized to potentially affect society through its value-semantic sphere reaching the level of real-life impressions as transferred to experience (Glotova, 2020) and nostalgic identity (Son & Schwak, 2022). This is reinforced by Kim’s (2020) theory that the drama arouses the curiosity of South Koreans due to the diverseness of the socio-cultural difference between the characters portrayed in relation to Foucault (2003) and Canguilhem’s (2018) concepts of abnormality. 

Thus, this paper examines the South Korean television drama Crash Landing on You using textual analysis with a focus on the content, symbolism, and social semiotics to draw insights into the potential of the drama for inter-Korean understanding. The show serves as a crucial text for evaluating the representations of North Korea in South Korean media (Green & Epstein, 2020) as seen through the lens of nationhood as an imagined community (Anderson, 2006). The depiction of the two Koreas in this popular media form, particularly that of the North Korean society, is important in terms of the perceptions of people on the existing conflict between the two nations, especially with limited sources of information available. The narratives presented and the world depicted in these media forms are critical in understanding the conflict between the two Koreas and the prospects for inter-Korean understanding and future resolutions.

The Lived Sense of Community

Ever since the aftermath of the Korean war, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued to establish a communist nation with a single party controlling all economic assets and aspects of the people’s lives (Millet, 2001). According to Erik (2005), this traction continued “in spite of economic consequences leading the state beyond ruin to famine” (p. i). In the series, this is portrayed through specific manifestations in the way of life in a provincial village and Pyeongyang, a capital city. The story begins as South Korean Yoon Se-ri crash lands near the border of the DPRK while paragliding due to a tornado. She meets a North Korean soldier Captain Ri Jeong-Hyeok and his troops who tried to arrest her but eventually decided to help her return to the South. Se-ri stayed in the house of Captain Ri in a village near the border. Se-ri, being a CEO of a South Korean company, lived her whole life in luxury so she struggled to adjust to the difference in culture and way of life in the North. 

The village life is portrayed as simple and devoid of both luxuries and necessities so common in South Korea and most parts of the world. For instance, the supply of electricity in the village only comes in the morning. Some food, especially meat, is a luxury that only the rich can afford. There is also a limited water supply and a lack of technological advancements, such as refrigerators or cooking stoves; instead, traditional grillers and an underground Kimchi cellar are used. The villagers also perform a morning exercise from a national routine broadcast on the radio. The women are also seen collectively making kimchi for the whole village to share. Children, on the other hand, collectively sing while marching to go to school. It shows the collective nature of the village, people refer to each other as “comrade,” specific hairstyles are prescribed, and pins bearing the image of the leaders are also required to be worn by all. Non-conforming to these norms is seen as deviant and might result in consequences. 

These practices reflect the communist nature of the country and performatively instill the communist ideology with the people through language conventions, cultural products, and daily practices. Direct efforts such as house-to-house inspections are also done to eliminate illegal activities such as using an electronic rice cooker which is said to “steal from the hard-earned electricity” of the community (Um et al., 2019-2020, Episode 2). More concrete efforts are seen through propaganda posters and monuments in the village bearing images and messages about the leaders saying: “the great leader is always with us” (Um et al., 2019-2020, Episode 1). These manifestations establish the cultural characteristics of communism in North Korea as depicted in this South Korean television series and portrayed through the lens of a South Korean character who is a product of a different ideology and lifestyle. Common misconceptions about hunger and famine are also rectified in the representation. Instead, a focus is given on how life is different in comparison with that in South Korea. In this regard, the series effectively represents the region’s way of life to make its audiences understand the norms under North Korean communism. These practices such as the use of the term “comrade” to each other and having an equal share of produce and electricity reflect the ideals instilled by the communist nation of North Korea to its citizens. 

Meanwhile, the experience of Yoon Se-ri in living in the village is also an important aspect in understanding how the cultural and social differences are perceived. At first, the character faces extreme difficulties in adjusting not just to the cultural differences but also to the lifestyle, due to her position as a CEO in South Korea. However, at the same time, Se-ri establishes a great relationship with the members of the community. Considerably, her life in the village gives her a sense of happiness and fulfillment that she fails to get in South Korea despite her luxuries. In fact, the character has once contemplated the assisted suicide due to her long depressive condition. This experience is common in South Korea with suicide rate has been increasing since 1997, especially among younger generation (Kwon, Chun, & Cho, 2009). A lesson can be learned from the dichotomy and contrasts presented in terms of the way of life in the village and Yoon Se-ri’s experience. The “sense of community” experienced  in the village, their values, and lifestyle is a reminder of one’s privileges and a challenge to capitalism in the South. Overall, this juxtaposition also suggests how people from the two nations adapt and learn from each other despite the differences brought upon by ideologies and long separation.

Social Mobility, Power, and Justice

The village life in North Korea is juxtaposed with the life in the capital city Pyeongyang. The series successfully recreates impressive buildings and infrastructures to depict the capital city. However, even the capital city experiences problems with electricity, as seen when the characters are eating in a luxurious restaurant and when the train system stops due to power loss. The socio-economic gap between the people from the village and those in the city is evident. Most people in the city are from families who occupy a position in the government, predominantly in the military. It is depicted in the series that citizens strive to climb the social ladder and move to the capital city. There are various ways to do this such as making merits with influential people, excelling academically, or through marriages of convenience. This system of social mobility is further reinforced by the government by giving awards such as stars and medallions which can lead to promotion. 

Struggles of people in power, particularly in the military, are also depicted in the series. There is a need to maintain and improve their position in society with some even resorting to illegal means with dire consequences. For instance, in the village, the family of a high-ranking officer is apprehended after some problems that happened in Pyeongyang. It is shown that most of the villagers tend to stop associating themselves with the once prominent family. It is important to note that the kin punishment exists in North Korea whereas family members of apprehended citizens are sent to labor camps or to death (Nakao & Chai, 2011). In the series, in spite of this, the neighbor’s sense of community persisted which made them sympathize and help the starving family. Justice is depicted neutrally in the series. Most of the time, the military conducts investigations that violate today’s human rights standards. Torture scenes are portrayed, and executions are implied to be an easy resort. The military court system is portrayed to have effectively sentenced a renegade soldier after sufficient evidence is gathered. However, the main villain in the story, in the character of soldier Cho Cheol-gang, still gets to escape to South Korea. This prompted the protagonists to travel beyond the border and prevent the renegade soldier from causing harm. When they returned to the North, Captain Ri and his troops were readied for an unofficial execution, but they were saved by Ri’s father, a member of the ruling party.

These narratives depict the socio-economic gap and the dichotomies in the socio-political and socio-economic structure of North Korea, as well as the different attitudes resulting from it. These are depicted in dichotomies, therefore, making it a common case of the natural existence of human nature to be good or evil in any country. For instance, the community upholds their camaraderie after one family is apprehended, while others resort to unlawful acts for personal gain as they desire more power. What is crucial to understand in this portrayal is how the socio-economic structure is not entirely dissimilar from that of the capitalist republic in the South. Both systems of government result in a structure that divides the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. There are available tracks of social mobility, but these are rarely accessible and are only utilized by those in power to gain more power. This portrayal of the society makes it more relatable as people can perceive that even different ideologies lead to similar issues that plague society whether be it in the South or the North. Such contentions are important in understanding the shared experience of the people from the two nations.

The “Hermit Kingdom” and the World 

North Korea has long been known as a “hermit kingdom” due to its estrangement from the world (Hassig & Oh, 2009). In the show, a rough government policy regarding  products coming from neighboring South Korea and the US is implied. Commodities, such as beauty products, and cultural products like K-Pop and K-Drama are also banned, although citizens find a way to obtain them. On the other hand, South Korean citizens, like the character Se-ri, are in danger of being arrested and questioned after illegally crossing the North Korean border. Foreign travel is heavily regulated. Most of the time, only prominent and rich families are allowed to travel abroad on special occasions such as government-sponsored activities, sports competitions, or international education. For instance, Se-ri, with the help of Captain Ri, tries to leave the country several time, once by being pretending to be a part of an international sport delegation, and another time as she tries to ride a boat towards a trading vessel that would leave the country. These routes are commonly seen as a method of defection in escaping North Korea, with current figures reaching 300,000 since the 1950s (Bluth, 2022). 

South Korea is portrayed to be seen negatively by most of the characters. They are indifferent to its capitalist ideology, which they call “dangerous.” In a scene in episode 2, the troop of Captain Ri attributed Se-ri’s confusion to “amnesia” that results from the food she eats in capitalist South Korea. Meanwhile, when Captain Ri’s troops travel to South Korea, they experience culture shock due to the availability of commodities such as instant rice and an endless supply of meat and chicken. An emotional scene with Captain Ri’s youngest troop shows how the character would rather have gone to school like the students in the South than being drafted to the army at a young age. When Captain Ri was arrested by South Korean intelligence, they considered him a threat to national security, however, after checking CCTV footage, they only saw him doing good deeds for the community.  On the other hand, when his troops were also detained, they fear of being tortured. However, they were treated humanely and offered a chance to stay in the South. This positive portrayal is an important symbolic allusion to the shared sense of community of the two Koreas.  

Meanwhile, a scene is also shown where an encounter happened between troops from the two nations after apprehending illegal treasure hunters who got lost near the border. When the hunters started to resist, the two troops strived to disarm them to avoid conflict and the risk of violating the truce. This scene, among others, symbolizes the respect of the people for the existing peace and an effort from both sides to maintain it. This is a significant point in understanding the current relations between the two countries, which can lead to an understanding. Another important scene with rich semiotic meaning is when the North Koreans cheered with the South Koreans during a football match against Japan. In hindsight, such a simple scene can be seen as just a simple camaraderie. However, this shows the depth of shared experience and “national” grief that still lives on in both the people of North and South Korea due to their colonial past. The portrayal of this shared “nationhood” that has existed in the past and now exists as an imagined community, as conceptualized by Anderson (2006), can serve as a way to communicate messages of understanding through the use of contemporary media.

Figure 1. “North Korean Soldiers” by WZ Still WZ is licensed under Pixabay License.


The conflict between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea has caused not just a geopolitical division but also a great cultural divide. This separation, both physically and in terms of cultural flows, resulted in the meager flow of knowledge and understanding between the two nations. Nevertheless, South Korea continues to depict and represent this conflict, as seen in the television series Crash Landing on You. The textual analysis reveals that the series depicted important aspects of North Korean society in terms of culture, hierarchies, justice, and socio-economic conditions. First, different practices and traditions are highlighted in the spirit of communism as seen in a rural village. This is juxtaposed with the experiences of the main character in the capitalist South. Second, the socio-economic and socio-political structure of North Korea is neutrally depicted while contrasting rural life with that in Pyeongyang and the ideas of justice, socio-economic gaps, hierarchies, and social issues. And lastly, the negative views towards South Korea and the capitalist world are highlighted while also depicting grounds for understanding through shared history and experience and mutual respect for the existing peace. 

All of the narratives presented in the series point out the differences and similarities between the two Koreas while providing prospects for understanding as symbolized by the positive relationship between the characters from the divided nation. This depiction of the two Koreas in this popular media form, particularly that of the North Korean society, is important in the present as it contributes to the conception of people about the existing conflict between the two nations, especially with the limited sources of information available. The fictional world provides a proposition of reality as Webb & Webb (2013) writes, “the world’ seems, often, to be more a proposition than a place, more a theory than a thing-in-itself” (p. 68). The narratives presented, alongside the world depicted, serve as a critical source of information and understanding between the two Koreas. The series contributes to the inter-Korean understanding and future resolutions as it rekindles the sense of shared nationhood as an imagined community (Anderson, 2006) of a pan-Korea that has been divided by time and progressed with different ideologies and cultures yet still has grounds for understanding and harmony amongst its peoples.


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