Visiting family members as often as possible is a well-established tradition in Iranian society. Usually nights are spent sipping freshly brewed tea and eating fresh fruits and salted nuts. This goes on for long hours into the night, especially in summertime when children and college students are free from school schedules.
Things have changed, however, since state TV started broadcasting a Korean TV drama called “Jumong.”
Now, in many homes after dinner, whole families race to huddle around the TV. Photos of the main characters grace everything from stationary to serving trays. Fans have set up blogs and forums to exchange news and discuss episodes.
"Jumong" is produced by MBC Korea. The series follows the life of the hero Jumong from childhood, when king Gumua takes on his guardianship, after thinking that his father He Mu So had been killed by the Han Dynasty. The series ends with Jumong’s biggest achievement: building a nation called Goguryeo and marrying his second wife, Susano.
Many viewers embraced the series because of the human side of the story — Jumung’s love for Susano. “I kept on watching religiously because I wanted to find out if in the end Jumong and Susano would reunite in their love or not,” said Mina Moradi, 12, who has bought notebooks for school emblazoned with photos of Jumong and Susano.
The Iranian press has published numerous stories about the antics of fans. One told of a young man from Zanjan, a city in southwest Iran, who had fallen deeply in love with the series’ heroine, Susano. He asked his father several times to sell their goats and sheep and finance a trip for him to South Korea so he could ask Susano’s hand in marriage. His father refused, and one day the family found the son hanging from the ceiling of his bedroom.
Another story said that a toddler had died after her parents, picnicking out of town, packed hurriedly to get home in time to watch "Jumong" and forgot to take their child with them.
While many such reports are unsubstantiated, it is clear that many in the Islamic Republic have become enamored with Korean dramas.
The love affair started before "Jumong," with the broadcast of another Korean drama called “Jewel in the Palace.” It’s the story of a woman chef-turned-physician in the Korean royal court.
“The story of the struggles the heroine endures, is what made the connection between the audience and the movie,” said Yuni Cho, of the Korea Society in New York. “The human elements and emotion present in a lot of Korean TV dramas, has made them very popular.”
Thirty years of strict censorship and Islamic propaganda has resulted in low-quality TV programs in Iran, which almost no one watches. It’s rare to turn on the TV and not see an Imam in his turban going on about a Muslim’s life and death, how the pious young should wait and find their perfect soulmate, and how couples whose marriages have turned sour can resolve their problems.
In the past few years satellite TV has entered homes to counter the dull state TV. Satellite dishes mushroomed on almost all roof tops in the country, from posh neighborhoods in northern Tehran, to small towns and villages.
The government banned satellite TV and for a while deployed the morality police to take them down and fine the owners. But it became impossible to go to every single house and take down the dishes, which would go up again the moment the police left the house.
To compete with the satellite stations, the government decided to step up the quality of its programs by buying foreign TV programs. But choosing wasn’t easy. Stories had to comply with religious and moral rules, and women, if not wearing Islamic clothes, should at least be covered as much as possible. This left South Korean TV dramas as a good option. Their scenes are less risque, the women decently clad, and the series foreign. Korean dramas appealed to a large audience, both religious and secular.
Ismael Nouri, a 60-year-old who lives in Isfahan, said he had never followed TV dramas on Iranian TV before "Jumong."
“This Korean drama was different,” he said. “Jumong seemed so in charge of his life. He overcame any obstacles that life laid on his path. He always had a plan and came out victorious,” he adds.
Iranians were so fond of the drama and its main characters that the electronic company LG, which has a branch in Iran, invited Song Il Gook to visit Iran for three days. He came in August and fans waited for autographs at the airport and at the hotel where he was staying. One of the fans even learned a few Korean words to welcome Gook to Iran in the actor’s native language, news outlets reported.
In the press conference held during his visit, Gook said that he was surprised by his celebrity status in Iran. He said before coming to Iran, he didn’t have a good understanding of the country, and its culture other than what he had read in books.
Gook wasn’t the only one surprised. Nahee Kim, the content business and planning manager at MBC’s office in LA, says that she was surprised by the high ratings in Iran. “We have also broad casted in other countries in the Middle East, and in those countries too, 'Jumong' was very well received. One of them is Turkey,” she added.
The appeal to Korean TV dramas, and Korean culture in general is part of a bigger phenomenon dubbed the “Korean Wave.”
“Since the 1990s, Korean pop music, movies and TV drama swept Asia, and journalists covering this surge, started calling this the 'Korean Wave,'" said Michael Shin, a historian at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
Part of the popularity of Korean culture in countries such as China, explained Shin, was that the Chinese liked the fact that the Koreans have managed to conserve the Confucian tradition. “But when we see people in countries such as Iran or Turkey (who have very different traditions), connecting to Korean culture, it’s very interesting,” Shin added.
Even though "Jumong" has finished, the Iranian’s love with Korean culture hasn’t. Song Il Gook’s visit to Iran turned out so well that LG is sponsoring another visit of four main characters to Iran, Mohsen Shariat, director of international concerts and programs, told Fars news this month. The group will be visiting in February, and plan to stop by in the city of Kerman in southwest Iran, as well as Tehran.
It seemed that after the end of "Jumong" this September, many families might go back to the usual nocturne rituals: fresh fruits, nuts and tea. But no, Iranians have discovered such American reality TV dramas as “Lost” and “Prison Break.”