"Snowdrop" and Korea's Growing Cancel Culture

"Snowdrop" and Korea's Growing Cancel Culture

Another K-drama lands in hot water over perceived historical inaccuracies. It's bound to be not the last.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

Boy meets girl, boy and girl run into each other again in some very improbable situations, and boy and girl look as though they are on the verge of falling in love.

That's how the latest K-drama Snowdrop on cable channel JTBC (also available on Disney+) unfolds in the two episodes that have aired so far, much like any standard South Korean TV romance.

Starring in-demand actor Jung Hae-in (who rose to stardom in the 2018 series Something in the Rain) and Jisoo of K-pop girl group Blackpink, it must have struck many JTBC execs and investors as sure gold when the cameras started rolling.

Instead it's already embroiled in a messy controversy, opening the latest phase of South Korea's culture war. Critics, mainly from left of the political spectrum, argue that Snowdrop sullies the legacy of the democratization movement. A petition to the presidential office seeking its cancellation has attracted nearly 350,000 signatures. Corporate sponsors and advertisers are reportedly dropping out.

A trailer for the JTBC drama Snowdrop starring Jung Hae-in and Jisoo

Such is the outrage that it's easy to believe the show has committed grave sins, but it's better to let the facts speak for themselves.

The drama takes place in 1987, the tail end of military dictatorship. University students stage regular anti-government protests. Demands for democracy grow. The country's leaders scheme to retain power by involving North Korea in a plot to smear the political opposition.

Against this backdrop, Young-ro, a student at an all-women's university, and Su-ho, an undercover North Korean spy, develop feelings for each other.

The show takes obvious inspiration from the K-drama Reply 1988, which, as the title suggests, tapped into South Korean viewers' nostalgia for the late 1980s (a heady time that saw democratization, the Seoul Olympics and economic prosperity), and from Crash Landing on You, another recent cross-DMZ romance. Both were massive commercial successes.

Unfortunately 1987 is a trickier subject than 1988 or an inter-Korean relationship.

This is history: in April 1987 military dictator Chun Doo-hwan announced his intention to stay in power, dashing hopes for a directly elected presidency.

A month later, the full truth of a student activist's demise in the hands of the police's anti-communism unit came out: the state claimed he had died of a heart attack, but in reality he had been tortured to death.

Already in anger over continuing military rule, students took to the streets to decry the crime. Early June, one of them—Lee Han-yeol from Yonsei University—died after being hit in the head by a teargas canister police shot. Protests grew further, involving South Koreans from all walks of life in a sign that patience with the repressive Chun regime had run out.

Under enormous pressure, the government reluctantly agreed in June to hold an open and free presidential election six months later in December.

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Moon Young-me was one of the five million South Koreans estimated to have come out onto the streets in June 1987. She was bare-faced, wearing no makeup or fancy clothing. That was the norm for the student protest culture at the time. She was a 21-year-old history major, a transfer
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As if that weren't enough, in November North Korean agents set off a bomb on a Korean Air flight departing Bagdad for Seoul with stops in Abu Dhabi and Bangkok. All 115 onboard were killed when the plane exploded over the Indian Ocean.

This is the complex historical circumstance in which the makers of Snowdrop chose to situate the two fictional lovers, Young-ro and Su-ho.

One might argue that a drama is just a drama, but the statement by the show's producer and director Jo Hyun-tak, that "Snowdrop takes place in 1987 but apart from the fact that there is a military dictatorship and a presidential election is coming up, every character, every setup is fictional", rings hollow in light of all the verisimilitude.

The on-screen dictator (who is shown only in glimpses but enough to confirm that he is bald just like the late general Chun) holds court surrounded by a private elite military gathering called Dongsimhoe 동심회 ("One-Mind Society"). It's no big departure from the real Hanahoe 하나회 ("Oneness Society") of which Chun was a member.

The on-screen South Korean dictator at a gathering of the fictional Dongsimhoe

And we watch the sinister plan the South Korean state cooks up with North Korea getting signed in a secret bilateral meeting in November 1987—the same month as the actual bombing of the Korean Air plane, which some leftwing conspiracy theorists contend was ordered by the South Korean security establishment to influence the coming election.

(The real-life dictatorship was indeed terrible, but no evidence of such collusion has come to light.)

What the Korean left has found troubling is the scene in which North Korean spy Su-ho is being chased by agents from the Agency for National Security Planning (infamous in history for arbitrary detention and torture of activists). As he runs through the streets, demonstrators he passes by sing the iconic song "Sora, sora, pureureun sora 솔아 솔아 푸르른 솔아" synonymous with the June 1987 democratization movement.

Sora, sora, pureureun sora: an iconic song of the June 1987 democratization movement

Detractors see this, as well as the following sequence in which the heroine Young-ro saves Su-ho in the belief that he is just another student activist wanted by the dictatorship, as furthering the rightwing conspiracy theory, for which there is also no proof: that North Korea was involved in and perhaps even orchestrated the student protests against military rule. They say it's a blatant "distortion of history" and an offense to all the activists.

And they have a point. Snowdrop blends enough history with fiction that sometimes it's plain impossible to say which is which unless one already read up on the facts before the viewing.

But is that enough to justify cancellation? The head of the Lee Han-yeol Memorial Museum, which commemorates the student demonstrator killed in June 1987, has equated the scenes in question to "Nazi worship". That comment is frankly extreme.

Funnily it isn't only the left that hates Snowdrop.

An unnamed rightwing South Korean citizen has reportedly filed a criminal complaint against JTBC and the show's director/producer Jo out of the belief that "a North Korean spy is being idealized as a main protagonist". In this person's view, that's "in violation of the National Security Act", a controversial law banning anti-state activities.

In reaction to all this, high-profile pundit Chin Jungkwon, famous for common-sense commentaries on the follies of the country's ideological opposites, quipped:

"One side cries foul saying the democratization movement has been insulted, and the other side is reporting [the drama] as violating the National Security Law for idealizing a spy. They are on different sides but share the same mentality. They are both enemies of an open society."

Culture, especially films, has long been an ideological battleground in South Korea. The Admiral: Roaring Currents and Ode to My Father in 2014 were beloved by the right for apparently celebrating patriotism and the older generation's sacrifice. The left flocked to watch The Attorney (2013) and A Taxi Driver (2017), which highlighted the bygone military rule's brutal nature and celebrated democratization.

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Three uniformed South Korean high school students mercilessly heckle a South Asian migrant laborer in contemporary Busan. Seeing this, an elderly Korean man flies into a rage against them. The privileged youngsters are oblivious to the fact that the old man, Deok-soo, had himself been a migrant lab…

But the fights are getting out of control, and not just over "historical distortions". A new cancel culture rears its ugly head over all manner of perceived flaws.

Even the 2018 blockbuster drama Mr. Sunshine wasn't immune from attacks (then again, there seems to be few ways to avoid them when the colonial period is in focus). And the SBS fantasy-historical drama Joseon Exorcist was famously axed early this year after just two episodes. It allegedly made early fifteen-century Korea look too Chinese and viewers accused the show and its writer of asserting China's cultural dominance over the region and advancing the Chinese state's agenda.

(The fact that zombies also appeared didn't seem to offend anyone's historical sensitivity, however.)

Next up in the firing line is a production that hasn't even taken to the airwaves: a Korean remake of the Chinese drama Silent Truth 沉默的真相. The series is based on a novel which the Chinese state apparatus reportedly endorsed, and the novelist himself is said to have disparaged the democracy movement in Hong Kong on multiple occasions.

After criticism surfaced that the Korean adaptation may idealize the Chinese Communist Party, filming ceased. JTBC, which was to air it, has said only that the production was "being restructured for the sake of final quality".

On the matter of Snowdrop, though, the channel isn't backing down, yet. Saying that "the early part of the storyline appears to have caused a misunderstanding," it will release not the usual two episodes this weekend but three, which will "reveal how North Korean spy Su-ho has come to be in South Korea as well as the true nature of the corrupt elite".

On this very Friday we will find out whether this move is enough to quell the campaign against the show, but it certainly won't be the last episode of the ongoing K-drama Demanding Ideological Purity from Cultural Producers.

Cover: promotional poster for the drama Snowdrop (source: JTBC)

Note: in an earlier version of this piece, the channel that broadcast the drama Joseon Exorcist was erroneously noted as KBS, when it was in fact SBS. I sincerely apologize for the mistake.

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