This image provided by JTBC sows a scene from "Snowdrop." (JTBC)
The romance series "Snowdrop" has sparked criticism that it distorted the history of South Korea's pro-democracy movement of the late 1980s, prompting calls for the show's cancellation and withdrawals of corporate sponsorship.
The weekend primetime drama on JTBC is about a romantic relationship between Young-ro, a female South Korean university student, and Su-ho, a North Korean spy, before the 1987 presidential election.
Fierce criticism arose after the first two episodes this weekend depicted Young-ro giving shelter to Su-ho, who jumps into her dormitory covered in blood, as she mistakenly believes that he is a pro-democracy protester being chased by heavy-handed state secret service agents under the military dictatorship.
Su-ho, the North Korean spy on a mission to disturb the 1987 presidential election, keeps pretending to be a pro-democracy activist without revealing his real identity to Young-ro.
Critics say the story could reinforce the narrative of the past authoritarian governments that pro-democracy student activists were linked to North Korea when many such activists and dissidents were tortured and prosecuted on trumped-up charges of being North Korean spies.
On Sunday, a petition was posted on an online bulletin of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae calling for the termination of the TV production. More than 300,000 people have signed it as of Tuesday morning.
"It is true that there were many activists who were tortured and killed after being falsely charged with being spies," the petition reads. "The drama dares to portray the fact and definitely undermines the value of the pro-democracy movement."
The director of the series and the broadcaster JTBC said that everything in the drama, except for its time setting, is basically fictional.
"The drama is set in the year 1987, but, except for situations like the country being under the reign of a military regime and electing a president at that time, all other things, like its characters and institutions, are fictitious," Jo Hyun-tak said during an online press conference last week.
JTBC stressed that "Snowdrop" is not intended to defend the military government's claims that Pyongyang was behind the pro-democratic movement in the 1980s, pointing out that there is no North Korean agent participating in the protest throughout the series.
"'Snowdrop' is a creative work illustrating the personal narratives of people capitalized on and victimized by those in power," the cable channel said in a statement released on Tuesday, adding that the series contains a "fictional story that those with vested interests collude with the North Korean regime to hold on to power."
Supporters of Park Jong-cheol, a student activist who was tortured to death, issued a statement decrying the JTBC series, saying that the basic setting of the romance with a North Korean spy could serve as an excuse for the violent oppression of the democratic movement by the authoritarian government.
"The state secret service manipulated many spy cases during that period," said an official from the Park Jong-cheol Memorial Society, adding that she has not yet viewed the show. "The series may justify the regime's claims that victims are just coincidental to its crackdown on North Korean spies."
Park was a Seoul university student when he died after hours of torture by the investigative authorities, and his concealed death helped spark the nationwide pro-democracy movement in June 1987.
The criticism of the drama has caused some companies to withdraw sponsorship and advertising deals, including Teazen, a local tea brand, and Ganisong, a fashion brand.
Experts said producers of "Snowdrop" should have taken a more prudent approach in adapting and twisting a true story into a drama, especially one that is part of the country's sensitive modern history.
"The series deals with a controversial issue that some think is a history distortion and others don't," culture critic Gong Hee-jung said. "Creators of upcoming TV series should keep that in mind."
"Snowdrop" is not the first production that has come under fire for mispresenting historical issues in the South Korean entertainment scene.
In March, the broadcasting of the historical fantasy "Joseon Exorcist" on SBS was canceled after two episodes, amid intensifying controversy over distorting Korean history.
The historical comedy "Mr. Queen" on tvN was also embroiled in historical controversy due to its bold caricature of real figures. The show's video-on-demand service had bee dropped from local streaming platform Tving. (Yonhap)