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The Dictatorship’s Got Talent

Taking escapism to extremes on South Korean TV

Author Leslie Patrick

ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI

SEOUL—Upbeat music booms in a dazzlingly lit Seoul television studio as 14 glamorous young women take the stage. One of them, a showbiz hopeful named Hwang Mi-ra, launches into a Korean pop song, eliciting a burst of applause from the audience.

At first glance, this looks like any of the countless variety shows on South Korean TV. But it has one significant difference: The entertainers are all defectors from North Korea. A hybrid of talent competition and talk show, "Now On My Way to Meet You" has been a big hit since its debut a little over a year ago, with more than 7 million viewers tuning in every week to watch defectors sing, dance and spill their guts about the hardships they endured up north.

While there’s an element of morbid curiosity to the show, its producer, Lee Jin-min, hopes it serves a nobler purpose. "A lot of the audience is shocked that the North Korean defectors are very different from what they’re perceived to be," she says, referring to the stereotype of North Koreans as uncultured. "The main purpose of the show is to demonstrate that North Koreans also have talent."

An especially popular part of "Now On My Way to Meet You" is a segment called "Stories From a North Korean Defector," in which contestants tell of braving freezing weather and swollen rivers to reach freedom. But the show has its lighter moments, too.

Kim Ah-ra, a petite 22-year-old defector, reveals that she was "very impressed" when she arrived in Seoul, mostly because of the men. "They were very tall," she says, "and good-looking," her blush heightened by the studio’s blinding lights.

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PRIMAL SCENE
A monster hits the stage for a musical extravaganza Down Under

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—A woman places her arm between the jaws of a gigantic ape. Meanwhile, a man climbs a ladder and starts prodding the beast’s shoulder. The ape, standing about 20 feet tall, does not respond to these provocations—mostly because it’s yet to be switched on.

Say hello to King Kong, a one-ton puppet being built by a 60-person team in a Melbourne warehouse. This summer the ersatz silverback gorilla will star in the Regent Theater’s King Kong, touted as a blend of live musical and creature feature. And while Kong won’t be singing, he’ll still need to do many of the things expected of the legendary oversize ape.

“He must be very robust,” says John Barcham of the Creature Technology Co., the outfit building Kong, which will be part robot, part human-operated marionette. “Fighting a giant snake, climbing the Empire State Building—it’s pretty brazen stuff.”

—VANESSA MURRAY

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