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Iranians hooked on Korean TV drama

Family time in Iran has turned into Korean TV drama time.

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.”