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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Drug-ridden depiction of Suriname shows Korean media must do better

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A scene from the Netflix Korea series “Narco-Saints” (2022), which has been receiving backlash from the Surinamese government for portraying Suriname as a country riddled with gangs and hard drugs. [NETFLIX]
Netflix Korea’s original series “Narco-Saints” is currently the fourth most-watched show on the streaming platform around the world, after peaking at No. 3. The show is proving to be a hit since launching on Sept. 9, but has become the center of a diplomatic controversy as well as another example of the Korean media’s lack of cultural sensitivity when it comes to depictions of foreign countries.

“Narco-Saints” is titled “Suriname” in Korean, taking the name from the Latin American country where it is set. The six-episode show is loosely based on the true story of Cho Bong-haeng, a Korean drug lord who ran a large drug trafficking organization in Suriname between the late 1990s and early 2000s. The beginning of each episode stipulates that the series is “inspired by a true story, but the characters and events in the series have been recreated for dramatic purposes.”

Nonetheless, “Narco-Saints” depicts the former Dutch colony as a country riddled with gang activity and hard drug deals, with corrupt police officers and even a president who accepts bribes from the Korean drug lord.  

“Three-fourths of Suriname’s population is related to the drug business in some way,” claims one of the main characters in the series.

Albert Ramdin, the Surinamese foreign affairs minister, said he will take legal action against the producers of “Narco-Saints” for its negative depiction of the country. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
The show’s success was not good news for the Surinamese government. Albert Ramdin — the Surinamese Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Business and International Cooperation — said during a press conference last week that he will take legal action against the producers of “Narco-Saints” for its depiction of Suriname as a corrupt country associated with drugs. Minister Ramdin said he will send an official letter of objection to the producers as well as contact Korean diplomatic officials.

The Korean public’s reaction to the Surinamese government’s strong objection has been mixed. Some defend the show, saying that the story and title were simply inspired by true events that actually happened in Suriname. Others criticize the producers’ decision to name it “Suriname,” asking how Koreans would feel if a show titled “Korea” on a global platform depicted the country in a negative light. Many Koreans also confessed they were surprised to learn that Suriname is an actual country, not a fictional nation in the show.

A drug deal scene from “Narco-Saints” [NETFLIX]


Comments from Surinamese locals also appear to be mixed, with some taking offense and some reacting cynically toward Minister Ramdin, saying that the depiction in “Narco-Saints” is not too far off from reality. As the criticism became highly publicized, the Korean embassy in Venezuela, which also covers Suriname, warned local Korean residents to pay special attention to their safety.

“Most Surinamese people don’t know anything about this series, so a safety warning is an overreaction,” Davin Mahespalsingh, a Surinamese local, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “But I’m really disappointed that they portrayed Suriname in this way […] They portrayed Suriname as entirely run by drug gangs. This really enforces stereotypes.”

The poster for “Narco-Saints.” The show is titled “Suriname” in Korean. [NETFLIX]
Local news outlets reported that the show’s English title was also supposed to be “Suriname,” but was changed to “Narco-Saints” after the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs relayed the Surinamese government’s concerns last year.

“Narco-Saints” was in fact filmed in the Dominican Republic and Korea, but its success has left a strong impression on the Korean public. Without much previous background knowledge, the crime-ridden depiction of the country on the show is practically all that’s left in the minds of Koreans.

“It’s interesting to name the series ‘Suriname’ in Korean,” said Indra, a 27-year-old Surinamese national currently living in the Netherlands. “I’m not sure what to think of it. I’m not personally offended, although it’s messed up that they made Suriname look bad. On the other hand, I am aware there are many other movies and shows depicting certain countries and people in a bad way, like the Dutch TV show ‘Mocro Maffia’ about a Moroccan gang involved in the cocaine trade in Amsterdam.”

The “Narco-Saints” controversy is far from the first of its kind.

Earlier this year, Korean crime action film “The Roundup” (2022) was banned from being screened in Vietnam as it portrays the city of Ho Chi Minh as a lawless area, where Korean criminals run rampant, kidnapping and murdering tourists.

A scene from crime action film “The Roundup” (2022), set in Vietnam [ABO ENTERTAINMENT]
Such backlash is not limited to Korean media. The 2005 American gore movie “Hostel,” set in Slovakia, depicts the Eastern European nation as an extremely poor country riddled with brutal crimes. The film angered the Slovakian government so much that its culture ministry invited the director, all expenses paid, to come and see the country for himself.

The 2006 American-British mockumentary “Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” sparked anger among Kazakhs by portraying Kazakhstan as a bigoted and superstitious country with primitive infrastructure — despite it being the largest economy in Central Asia in reality — and was eventually banned by the Kazakh government.

A scene from the 2006 American-British mockumentary “Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” which was banned by the Kazakh government [20TH CENTURY FOX]


However, it is also true that Korea — a largely homogenous nation with a small number of immigrants — has shown a tendency to oversimplify other countries and their cultures as a theatrical device. Notable examples include films “The Yellow Sea” (2010), “The Outlaws” (2017) and “Midnight Runners” (2017), which paint Seoul’s Chinatown as a hotbed of crime that even the Korean police fear entering.

A scene from crime action film “The Outlaws” (2017), which takes place in Seoul’s Chinatown [MEGABOX PLUS M]
Korea has also long avoided scrutiny on cultural awareness because its content was mostly consumed domestically before the rise of Hallyu (Korean wave). However, discussions surrounding cultural sensitivity have become prevalent in recent years now that Korean shows are watched all around the world.

“Experts have been stressing for years that this kind of insensitivity will be a risk factor for Korean content,” said pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik. “Those warnings have been ignored and this has continued happening in not only Korean media, but also in K-pop. We’ve kept seeing other cultures, especially Southeast Asian countries, being appropriated or mocked. Now, that gaze has reached a Latin American country.”

“Korean production teams have a tendency to slander a country or region as a plot device,” said Zicarlo van Aalderen, an avid Dutch viewer of K-dramas and K-pop.

“It happens in other countries too, but it’s just a little more obvious while watching K-dramas. The most jarring for me was ‘Descendants of the Sun’ (2016), which was supposed to be in a Middle Eastern country but used Greece as a backdrop and grease to make the local kids look dirty. It was a one-dimensional depiction of what was supposed to be the Middle East; maybe a half-dimensional picture even.”

A scene from “Narco-Saints” [NETFLIX]


A recent trend in Korean media is to use fictional cities as settings. This is often done to avoid enforcing stereotypes about certain regions or potentially offending residents of an actual area. JTBC’s “World of the Married” (2020), which follows the lives of serial cheaters, takes place in the fictional city of Gosan and “My Liberation Notes” (2022), which centers on people who cannot afford to live in Seoul, is set in the made-up city of Sanpo. However, such sensitivity seems to rarely be extended to foreign countries.

The concern is that such oversimplified — most of the time negative — depictions of a country can ingrain stereotypes in the minds of Korean viewers.

A scene from “Midnight Runners” (2017), which takes place in Seoul’s Chinatown [MOVIE ROCK]


These not-so-flattering portrayals can lead to diplomatic friction. Local news outlets have voiced concern that Suriname and other Latin American nations may choose to vote for other cities vying to host the World Expo 2030 rather than Korea’s Busan, since they are members of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) which oversees World Expos.

“Koreans object very strongly when Hollywood, for instance, depicts Korea in a negative light,” said critic Kim. “But through ‘Narco-Saints,’ we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we any better when we look at other developing nations?’ and try to think from their perspective.

“The global status of Korean pop culture is growing day by day,” he continued. “Korean pop culture needs the cultural sensitivity and caution to match.”

BY HALEY YANG [yang.hyunjoo@joongang.co.kr]