What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
The JTBC drama Snowdrop has been embroiled in a fresh wave of controversy since its release in Korea, and around Asia on Disney+, on December 18.
Criticism first started nearly a year ago with the release of the general synopsis. The major issues were as follows:
1. One of the main characters is a North Korean spy in a drama series set in the 1980s.
2. The unusual first name of the female protagonist was the same as that of a real-life activist whose husband was tortured and killed after being branded a North Korean spy.
3. A character who is an official of the Agency for National Security Planning, is described as upstanding and respectable, thereby glamorizing the agency and furthermore the Chun Doo-hwan regime.
In March 2021, JTBC issued a statement addressing these issues. The name of the female protagonist had been changed, and JTBC promised that the series would not glamorize or romanticize the Agency for National Security Planning and that the North Korean spy character wouldn’t be involved in the democratization movement.
The reception since the release has nevertheless been contentious, with JTBC’s viewer bulletin board receiving many calls for the show’s cancellation. Someone even petitioned Cheong Wa Dae to step in:
“The TV show had already caused a huge controversy even before the first episode was aired, when its synopsis was revealed to belittle the democratization movement. At the time, more than 200,000 people agreed to the petition to suspend the show from airing. The production team claimed that it had no intention of belittling the democratization movement, and that ‘there is nothing in the script about the male and female protagonists participating in or leading the democratization movement’. However, the first episode has now aired, and in it the female protagonist saved the male protagonist, a spy, after mistaking him for an activist.
At the time of the democratization movement, people were accused of being spies without any basis and tortured and killed. I think that making a TV show with the content described above despite these historical facts certainly undermines the value of the democratization movement. In addition, when the male protagonist, who is a spy, is running away chased by a supporting male actor, who is an official of the Agency for National Security Planning, ‘The Green Pine Tree’ can be heard in the background. The song was sung during the student democratization movement, and it emphasizes the suffering and the victory of those who participated in the democratization movement. It is unacceptable to use such a song as the background music for a scene showing a spy and an official of the Agency for National Security Planning. In addition, this TV show can be viewed in countries around the world through JTBC’s over-the-top (OTT) service, and as it could instill a false view of the history of Korea’s democratization movement in many foreign viewers, I believe that it should not be aired anymore.
South Korea is a strictly democratic country, and our democracy was not achieved without effort—it was achieved through the suffering and sacrifice of the innocent majority. Only about 30 years have passed since this, and TV shows that undermine the value of the democratization movement must not be aired. Moreover, at this point in time, when the influence of Korean culture is gradually increasing around the world, I would like the broadcasting industry to reconsider the seriousness of historical distortion.”
— Petitioner, December 20, 2021
JTBC then issued a statement regarding the controversy:
“Here is our statement on our position on the controversy over the TV series Snowdrop.
After the airing of Snowdrop, the controversy has not subsided based on issues that are different from the facts, and we would like to clarify our position in this regard.
First of all, the motif of the setting and main events of Snowdrop is the presidential election during the military regime. Against this setting, the TV show tells a fictional story, in which those with vested interests join forces with the North Korean regime to maintain power. Snowdrop is an original story that shows the personal narratives of those who were used and sacrificed by powerful people.
There are no spies leading the democratization movement in Snowdrop. There has been no scene in which the male and female protagonists participated in or led the democratization movement in the first or second episodes, and no such scene exists in any of the scripts.
Most of the concerns and misunderstandings about the ‘distortion of history’ and ‘disparagement of the democratization movement’, which many people have pointed to, will be resolved in the future as the TV show progresses. The show reflects the hopeful intention of the production team to not see a repeat of the abnormal times when individual freedom and happiness were suppressed by unjust powers.
It’s a pity that we are unable to reveal a lot of the plot before the rest of the episodes air, so we ask you to watch how the show progresses.
In addition, JTBC plans to operate a real-time chat window on web portals and an official viewer bulletin board to listen to various voices and hear the viewers’ valuable opinions about our content.
The core values that JTBC pursues are the freedom of content creation and the independence of production. Based on this, JTBC will do its best to present good shows in the future.”
— JTBC, December 21, 2021
The controversy has also sparked angry responses from political circles, as many South Korean politicians participated in the democratization movement in the 1980s. Sim Sang-jung, the Justice Party’s presidential candidate and a former democratization movement activist posted a series of tweets regarding the Snowdrop controversy:
“Not long ago, in response to Chun Doo-hwan’s death, I said, ‘We must constantly reflect on whether Chun Doo-hwan’s era is over.’ Watching the controversy over the TV show Snowdrop, I realize that what I hoped was groundless fear is actually reality. Following the attempt to re-evaluate Chun Doo-hwan, I grieve the attempt to re-evaluate even the oppressive era of Chun Doo-hwan.
It is a problem if you do not see the problem in a TV series featuring a pseudo-Chun Doo-hwan who is portrayed like ‘The Godfather’ of a mafia organization, a spy who infiltrates the democratization movement, a just official from the Agency of National Security Planning, and a college student who is not concerned by the times. We must remember that the scars of fabricated charges and torture from Chun Doo-hwan’s time have continued for over a century. The victims are still alive.
If we are to shine a light on this harsh era, the protagonists must be ordinary citizens who shed blood, sweat, and tears for the democracy of the Republic of Korea, not an official from the dictatorship’s Agency of National Security Planning and a North Korean spy sent to South Korea. There is already a good precedent for this–Youth of May. Creative freedom should be humble in the face of the scars of history.”
— Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party presidential candidate, December 21, 2021
Then there are those who criticize the controversy itself. Chin Jungkwon, a political commentator, expressed his exasperation with the Snowdrop controversy on Facebook:
“What the heck is going on? One side is making a fuss, saying that the TV series has belittled the democratization movement, and the other side is suing the series under the National Security Act for glorifying North Korean spies. These people are on different sides but have the same mentality. Both are enemies of an open society. Just take a TV series as a TV series, please. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Those who shake that foundation must be firmly rejected. With what right do they believe that they can infringe on the rights of other viewers? I despise the tyranny of disgusting ideological thugs.”
— Chin Jungkwon, political commentator, December 21, 2021
Seven episodes of the series have aired so far, and JTBC has stated that it will not be cancelling the show.