SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - Often cast as villains in Hollywood and wayward kin in South Korean movies, North Koreans have now taken on the atypical, and arguably more realistic, role of desperate souls caught in an oppressive regime.
The South Korean feature film "The Crossing" and a recent South Korean TV documentary are groundbreaking works showing the dangerous and life-threatening journeys North Korean take to leave a country criticized for human rights abuses.
"Most South Koreans are not oblivious, but indifferent, to what's happening right across the border," says Kay Seok, a researcher with the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
Left-leaning South Korean presidents over the past 10 years had largely avoided any criticism of North Korea's human rights record fearing they may antagonizing their prickly neighbor and endanger a so-called "Sunshine Policy" of engagement.
But a new conservative leader who became president earlier this year has called on his communist neighbor to clean up its act, which may make it easier for the feature film and documentary on defectors to find receptive audiences.
"(They are) being released in a more conducive environment, because for previous governments, defectors have been an irritant to North-South relations," Peter Beck of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told Reuters by phone.
PAIN AND HARDSHIP
"The Crossing," which opens on June 26, is a fictionalized account of North Koreans making a harrowing journey to China, where they then hope to gain passage to the South.
Director Kim Tae-kyun consulted defectors who have settled in the South to painstakingly reproduce conditions in the North.
The TV documentary, "On the Border," follows defectors through China and into Laos and Thailand before they finally arrive in the South. The documentary aired in March on two local cable stations, and again last week on EBS, a public broadcaster.
About 1,000 North Korean asylum seekers arrive in South Korea each year. They avoid the heavily patrolled and land-mine strewn Demilitarised Zone buffer that divides the peninsula, instead crossing a border with China that is porous in places and then seeking passage via a third country.
"For the last 10 years, maybe because of the Sunshine Policy, the words 'North Korean defector' and 'refugee' were not really welcome or familiar to people in Korea," said Lee Hak-joon, producer of "On the Border."
Five of 13 top grossing movies at the South Korean box office have focused on ties across the divided peninsula with big screen North Koreans presented as kindred spirits caught on the wrong side of a Cold War divide.
"The Crossing", starring Cha In-pyo, is squarely focused on the pain and hardship of those living in the impoverished North.
"All the politics are kind of removed from the movie," said Kay Seok. "It just shows the family tragedy."
"That can be far more persuasive and appealing to Koreans across the political spectrum."
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Miral Fahmy)