Cheon produced the videos in K-Town Studios in Korea Town, Baltimore, where she lives along with Seoul and New York City. They are humorous, light, and fun, featuring Professor Kim in front of a floating backdrop, sometimes with a Snapchat animal filter superimposed over her face. In a gentle tone sometimes accompanied by sound effects, she discusses artworks as their images, interspersed with emojis, clips from The Simpsons, and archival photos, appear on screen.
“I didn’t want it to be propaganda,” said Cheon. “I wanted to present something that’s communicable.”
This luscious and entertaining effect, Cheon said, invokes the aesthetic of the South Korean images and videos that are smuggled into North Korea. Indeed, while the majority of North Koreans lack internet access, the smuggling of illicit material, from food to movies, is more common than many outside the peninsula realize.
The rise of unsanctioned media exploded after what the North Korean government called the “Arduous March”—a famine in mid-’90s that killed between two and three million North Korean citizens. A black market developed to fill the need for food and other supplies, and the rise in market activity resulted in the trafficking of media as well. Today, in some areas of North Korea, it’s possible
to view South Korean soap operas on USB sticks 24 hours after they air.
Cheon’s videos took longer to get into the North—roughly about a month, she said, although she used tried-and-tested smuggling techniques to get them into the country. The USBs were transported across the country’s land border with China, and sent from the South via helium balloon, a common tactic often used by those in South Korea to distribute images and videos in the North. Cheon said she’d been presented with evidence of their arrival in the country, and of their circulation within communities of North Korean dissidents living in South Korea.