Episode 376 took this theme to a new level. A second segment from Hanoi was filmed in a makeshift studio, a hotel ballroom, with Nam, Shin and several others — talbukja, journalists and a postdoctoral student in nuclear physics, each introduced with an animated title card — seated in a talk-show half-moon. Shin, wearing a demure yellow dress, offered a personal reflection: “As soon as I heard that the talks had fallen apart, it hit me: It’s over. When will we be able to hope for reunification again?” Jun Cheol-woo, a middle-aged defector with a theatrical manner, chimed in. “Seeing Kim Jong-un, I suddenly felt a rush of hope,” he said. “But now that talks have collapsed” — cue close-up, soft piano music and here’s-what-to-think subtitle (“Imagine how Cheol-woo feels!”) — “I thought, maybe I was wrong to hope.”
Twelve minutes later, the Hanoi footage wrapped, and “Now on My Way” was back where it usually is, on its elaborate studio set in Seoul. The pretaped remainder of the episode made no mention of diplomacy. One of the South 4 had been swapped out this week for Hooni Kim, the Korean-American chef behind Hanjan and Danji, upscale Korean restaurants in Manhattan. Kim discussed his love of North Korean naengmyun (cold buckwheat noodles) and taste-tested a seafood stew cooked by one of the defectors. We may season things differently, the unsubtle message seemed to be, but we are one.
I went to see “Now on My Way to Meet You” in person on a humid summer morning. It airs on Channel A, a cable network started in 2011 by the conservative Dong A Ilbo newspaper, which has its studios in Digital Media City, a cluster of shiny high-rises on what was once a giant landfill. I’d been emailing with the show’s executive producer, Kong Hyosoon, for more than six months, and not without hiccups. She was immensely protective of “Now on My Way” and its cast of defectors. The terrifying back and forth between Trump and Kim Jong-un throughout 2017 — followed, confusingly, by the scheduling of a first-ever summit meeting between the countries’ leaders — had put talbukja on edge. The North Korean government was clamping down on the flow of remittances that many defectors send home via Chinese middlemen. Kong worried that I would interrogate the talbukja and write off the show as drivel.
On set, though, the mood was relaxed, and Kong let down her guard. The defectors, the hosts and the South 4 milled around, cracking jokes and catching up like old friends. Many defectors had told me how much they miss the intimacy of their neighborhoods in the North, a stark contrast to Seoul’s cool, atomistic consumerism; but here, a tenderness prevailed. The set was a cartoony village beneath a starry sky: cottages and townhouses, planter boxes, a cobblestone path. Most striking was an old-fashioned telephone booth (calling to mind the fact that the Koreas had just re-established a diplomatic hotline) and a bus stop indicating transit between Pyongyang and Seoul. The props seemed designed to map an imminent reunification.