"Korean Wave" set to swamp North Korea, academics say

North Koreans sing during a performance to celebrate the birthday of their country's leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Kyodo

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean popular culture, known as the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu, is set to achieve what generations of politicians from both sides have failed to do -- unify a peninsula that is divided by the last Cold War frontier, according to two academics.

South Korean drama and popular music has swept through the rest of Asia, generating billions of dollars in revenue, and is now being seen in the reclusive North thanks to smuggled DVDs and CDs selling for the equivalent of $3.75 on the black market, researchers say.

Some people living close to the border illegally tune their televisions to South Korean stations, according to “Hallyu, shaking North Korea,” a recent book from Korea Institute for National Unification.

The two researchers interviewed 33 defectors from the North who said that one of the reasons they were willing to risk their lives and come to South Korea was the impact of dramas such as “Winter Sonata”, an emotional soap involving a car crash, brain washing and the inevitable happy ending.

“I watched ‘Winter Sonata’ in North Korea and I even recall the name of the leading actor, Bae Young-joon,” said a defector to South Korea identified only by his surname, Kim, who was quoted in the book.

It is not just defectors from North Korea who love cinema, Kim Jong-il kidnapped South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, Choe Eun-hu, in 1978 and forced them to make films for him.

This isn’t the first time that the Korean Wave has been credited with the power to reunite the peninsula -- former president Roh Moo-hyun once said he believed the same.

The latest effort to draw North and South Korea to the negotiating table appeared to end in failure on Thursday as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter failed to secure a meeting with Kim Jong-il on a trip to Pyongyang with a group of former world leaders.

Few political analysts believe that reunification will come any time soon and surveys show that younger South Koreans are less interested in the idea as well as fretting over how much it will cost.

Writing by Seongbin Kang; Editing by David Chance and Jeremy Laurence