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[Drama 2022] NARCO-SAINTS | Suriname, 수리남 [NETFLIX]


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

BY HALEY YANG [yang.hyunjoo@joongang.co.kr] | September 20, 2022

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.


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 was 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

These not-so-flattering portrayals can lead to diplomatic friction. Korean news outlets have voiced concern that Suriname and other Latin American nations may choose to vote for other cities vying to host the 2030 World Expo in 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.” 

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Global Top 10 [ SEPTEMBER 12 - SEPTEMBER 18, 2022 ]

Weekly Top 10 list of most-watched TV (Non-English)








Top 10 Week of September 12: ‘Cobra Kai’ and ‘End of The Road’ Top English Lists

20 September 2022



Cobra Kai strikes again as Season 5 remained atop the English TV List with 95.55M hours viewed. As the most viewed title this week, the action drama appeared in the Top 10 in 83 countries. School is back in session with Season 2 of Fate: The Winx Saga. With 48.96M hours viewed, the series took fans on an emotional rollercoaster and left them wanting more.  Season 1 of The Crown continued its reign on the list, moving up to the third spot with 40.79M hours viewed, while Season 2 of the series entered the list with 16.67M hours viewed. Devil In Ohio kept fans on the edge of their seats as the series had 29.3M hours viewed. Abbi, Tilda and Juan are the heroes we didn’t know we needed. The Imperfects had an additional 35.02M hours viewed. Director Skye Borgman (Girl in the Picture, I Just Killed My Dad) is back with documentary series Sins of Our Mother, which debuted on the list with 24.39M hours viewed.  Viewers fell in love all over again with Jarrette, Iyanna, Deepti, Shayne and Natalie with the After the Alter special episodes from Season 2 of Love is Blind with 14.37M hours viewed. Stranger Things landed in the ninth spot with 13.48M hours viewed. And The Sandman closed out the list with 12.22M hours viewed.

Viewers didn’t detour from End of the Road as the action-thriller was #1 on the English Films List with 27.19M hours viewed and was in the Top 10 in 90 countries. In Do Revenge, director-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson gives fans a fresh take on the ‘90s teen revenge drama. Starring Camila Mendes and Maya Hawke, the subverted Hitchcock-ian dark comedy entered the list with 26.67M hours viewed. Fans escaped to Italy with Love in the Villa. The rom-com had 8.87M hours viewed. Me Time brought viewers together as the buddy comedy had 7.91M hours viewed. The sinister film, starring Hugh Bonneville, I Came By, continued to keep fans entertained, pulling in 7.36M hours viewed.

Korean favorites kept fans coming back for more. Korean thriller Narco-Saints climbed the Non-English TV List, landing in the #1 spot with 62.65M hours viewed. Korean drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo had 21.97M hours viewed, Korean drama Little Women with 12.96M hours viewed and K-drama Alchemy of Souls with 10.89M hours viewed, all remained on the list. Meanwhile, Mexican thriller Diary of a Gigolo had 34.41M hours viewed and Mexican drama High Heat had 16.21M hours viewed. New series on the list included: Mexican drama El Rey, Vicente Fernández (22.71M hours viewed), Norwegian limited series The Lørenskog Disappearance (16.04M hours viewed) and Japanese anime Cyberpunk Edgerunners (14.88M Hours viewed).

For the second week, French drama No Limit topped the Non-English Films List with 25.49M hours viewed. Danish thriller Loving Adults had 4.9M hours viewed and moved up the Most Popular list to the ninth spot. Fans flocked to new titles, including the Italian drama The Catholic School, Polish drama Broad Peak, Indian drama Jogi and Japanese anime Drifting Home, which all debuted on the list.

To download Top 10 assets, visit Top10.netflix.com.

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Park Hae-soo from 'Narco-Saints' "acting out a character who plays two distinctive roles throughout the series was very charming"

YonhapNews / 2022-09-21 11:12:16

(This article is translated from Korean to English by Joonha Yoo)








▲These photos, provided by Netflix, show actor Park Hae-soo. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)





▲These photos, provided by Netflix, show scenes from 'Narco-Saints.' (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

SEOUL September 21 (Yonhap) -- Known for his acting, South Korean actor Park Hae-soo participated in the production of hit Netflix series “Narco Saints” as an agent of the National Intelligence Service and showed calm but serious characteristics.

“Throughout the amplified incidents, the conflict between characters intensifies, and that is why I feel more engaged and love towards Crime thriller series.” described South Korean actor Park Hae-soo during the interview conducted at a café located in Seoul on September 20.

Through “Time to Hunt,” “Yaksha : Ruthless Operations,” “Squid Game,” “Money Heist” and more Park Hae-soo played crucial characters through numerous movies and dramas.

Within the Netflix series “Narco Saints” actor Park Hae-soo acted out the agent from the National Intelligence Service, Choi Chang-ho. Character Choi Chang-ho’s main mission in Suriname is to take down the drug kingpin Jeon Yo-hwan acted by Hwang Jung-min with a skate businessman from Kang In-ho.

“Since I have continued on working with crime thriller genre of movies and dramas, I was getting bit tired of the genre but I never wanted to drop the genre.  If my fans want to see more of my acting through crime thriller movie, I think it’s a good idea to participate in more crime thriller related productions.”

Throughout the series, Choi Chang-ho disguises into an international businessman in order to trick Joen Yo-hwan. The contrasting image of Choi Chang-ho who appears in a suite and gives out orders to the National Intelligence Service agents and him in a flowery jacket asking whether they’ve eaten already in a very whimsical way creates laughing points throughout the series.


“One of the biggest charming point within the series is that I can show two very distinctively different aspects of the character.  It was not easy for me to jump back and forward between two different characters, but since two of the characters have such a distinctive outlook, I tried to minimize the changes in acting styles.”

Moreover, “Choi Chang-ho is more of a character who delivers the information therefore I focused mainly on delivering the details of Jeon Yo-hwan’s past.  Director specifically asked me to go bit more gentle and calm with the character since all of the characters appearing throughout the series have very distinctive and straight forward characteristics, therefore I tried to be more calm and gentle and tried not to be as eye catching and unique.”  Actor Park Hae-soo described the behind story of filming the Netflix series “Narco-Saints” throughout the interview.

“While envisioning the character and the series I thought I should spit on the ground once more and to something else, but it was much more comfortable during the actual shoot.”

By participating in the production of “Narco-Saints” I was able to work with actor Hwang Jung-min who I have been admiring throughout my time in theatre. I was honored to have had such an opportunity.

“I always thought and questioned when I would I have an opportunity to ever have a chance to act while making an eye contact with such a great actor Hwang Jung-min.  When I was shooting with him for the first time, I was so nervous therefore I was shaking, however I continued on with my acting and through acting I felt catharsis, and I wanted Hwang Jung-min to give out some acting advises but unfortunately he never did.” Park Hae-soo chuckled and shared his first impression of working with Hwang Jung-min.

Since the actor participated in “Squid Game”, “Money Heist”, “Narco-Saints”, and more highly well known series showcased by Netflix, his received a nickname of “Official of Netflix.”

“At first, I was called as the son of Netflix, however it slowly transformed into a big brother of Netflix to the official of Netflix and now some are saying I am a shareholder of Netflix”. He laughed while describing the transformation of his nickname throughout the time.

Continuing on, “I didn’t really give a lot of thought into where the series premiered, however, I had an opportunity to participate in a lot of Netflix series and because I did I was able to meet so many international fans and I started to question, how.  I am not sure how or why but I think it wise to continue on with the flow.”

Park Hae-soo was nominated as the outstanding supporting actor in a drama series at Emmys Award for his appearance in Squid Game, unfortunately he was not granted the award.

“I didn’t have a high expectation to be honest but at the same time I guess I wanted the award as well.  I had my acceptance speech written by my mother in my pocket inside my tuxedo. I hope one day, I will have an opportunity to read my acceptance speech.”

Park Hae-soo who has been participating in a global advertisement campaign of “Squid Game” for the past one year, stated that his perspective as an actor has changed. The actor recently signed a contract with an American agency and is currently in a negotiation on foreign activities as well.

“After spending some time abroad, I want to experience more things. By being influenced by various culture and numerous foreign perspective I have become more solid and whole, I have higher respect of South Korean creations and thing that we do, also I feel more motivated to challenge myself as an actor to become more mature and as a better actor.” (END)

(C) Yonhap News Agency. All Rights Reserved

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[INTERVIEW] Park Hae-soo on creating his character in 'Narco-Saints,' 'Squid Game' success

Park plays undercover NIS agent in new Netflix series

By Lee Gyu-lee (gyulee@koreatimes.co.kr) | 2022-09-21

Park Hae-soo plays the role of Choi Chang-ho in Netflix's new crime thriller series "Narco-Saints." Courtesy of Netflix

Actor Park Hae-soo, who rose to prominence in Korea through the 2017 tvN series "Prison Playbook," found global stardom last year with his role in Netflix's biggest hit series "Squid Game." 

Taking on several of the platform's original series and films since then, the actor has recently played a National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent named Choi Chang-ho, who goes undercover as a businessman in the new crime thriller series "Narco-Saints."

"When I first got the script, it felt like a movie with a long saga. I got curious how they would bring it to life, and how they would depict (the story)," Park told The Korea Times in an interview held at a cafe in central Seoul, Tuesday. 

"Choi is a character that can show two different sides, which drew my interest."

Park Hae-soo / Courtesy of Netflix

Led by filmmaker Yoon Jong-bin, who is known for the 2012 crime film "Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time" and the 2018 drama film "The Spy Gone North," the series is based on the true story of a civilian carrying out a government mission to capture a Korean drug lord in Suriname.

The civilian, an ordinary patriarch named Kang In-gu (Ha Jung-woo) who moved to the South American country to start a fish trading business, gets falsely accused of smuggling drugs. He learns that local priest Jeon Yo-hwan (Hwang Jung-min) is actually the kingpin of the country's drug cartel and joins Chang-ho (Park), the U.S. branch head of the NIS, to take down Yo-hwan.

Park's character Chang-ho is a straitlaced agent, but as he goes undercover to approach Yo-hwan, he disguises himself as a rough, cunning businessman named Goo Sang-man, seeking to supply drugs for Yo-hwan. The actor shared that he didn't try to separate the two characters completely. 

"They are both the same person, and it wasn't like Chang-ho, as an agent, was skillful enough to play a double role (between Chang-ho and Sang-man). I wanted a little bit of cunning to go with the businessman character, rather than making it overwhelmingly spirited or dynamic. I just tried to bring out the playful side of me (when playing Sang-man)," he said, adding that he took part in styling Sang-man. 

"We had a lot of discussions on creating the look on how far we should go to transform him into Sang-man. I didn't want the character to go overboard (with the outfit) because then he will look suspicious."

A still during the filming of the series "Narco-Saints" / Courtesy of Netflix

Chang-ho had spent years hunting down Yo-hwan. Park said he had to find a justification for his character's tenacity in capturing the drug lord. 

"It was difficult to create the character simply based on dedication to the country. I needed more motivation," he said. "He had to put a civilian into this conflict and I don't think he would've done it with just dedication. I felt he would have a sense of obsession and responsibility to capture Yo-hwan."

Park had recently gotten back from the U.S. after attending this year's Primetime Emmy Awards last week with the "Squid Game" team, which won a total of six Emmys including Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Actor for a Drama Series. 

The actor said that the hit series' U.S. campaign in the past year has led him to widen his perspective and set bigger goals for his acting career. 

"I used to be the type of person who pays whole attention only on the thing I focus. But during my time abroad, meeting new people, I came to have a perspective to see a bigger, wider picture," he said, adding that he hopes to take on global projects. "I feel very grateful and have earned a great sense of courage." 

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'Narco-Saints' tops weekly viewership chart for non-English series on Netflix

By Kim Boram (brk@yna.co.kr) | September 21, 2022

▲ This image provided by Netflix highlights that "Narco-Saints" placed No. 1 on Netflix's weekly top 10 chart for non-English TV shows for the week of Sept. 12-18. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

SEOUL, Sept. 21 (Yonhap) -- Netflix's new South Korean series "Narco-Saints" has risen to the top of the streamer's latest weekly viewership chart for non-English TV shows in its second week.

The undercover crime thriller, released on Sept. 9, marked 62.7 million hours of viewing for the week of Sept. 12-18 to lead the official top 10 list for non-English TV programs available on the service, according to Netflix on Wednesday.

It gained four notches from fifth place a week earlier, ending the seven-week-long reign by the smash-hit Korean legal drama "Extraordinary Attorney Woo."

The six-part series about a businessman who takes undercover missions to capture a drug kingpin in a South American country is the ninth Korean-language show that has topped the weekly chart for the category, including the global sensation "Squid Game" (2021) and "All of Us Are Dead" (2022).

The series made the top 10 on the most-watched non-English TV show table in 82 countries over the one-week period and topped the list in 18 nations, including South Korea, India and Taiwan.

"Woo" dropped to fourth place with a viewership of 22 million hours, staying on the popularity list for 11 weeks in a row.

The Korean soap opera "Young Lady and Gentleman" was viewed for 18.5 million hours over the cited period to finish fifth, while the mystery drama "Little Women" landed at No. 9 on its second week of release with 13 million hours. (END)

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[Herald Interview] Park Hae-soo wants ‘Narco-Saints’ prequel

By Lee Si-jin (sj_lee@heraldcorp.com) | Sept 23, 2022

Park Hae-soo (Netflix)

Actor Park Hae-soo has been on a roll since playing Cho Sang-woo, the best friend of Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae) and one of the finalists of the bloody competition in “Squid Game.”

"Money Heist Korea -- Joint Economic Area” soon followed in which he played a gang member who goes by the code name "Berlin."

And now "Narco-Saints," in which Park plays Choi Chang-ho, a National Intelligence Service agent, is on top of Netflix's non-English language series chart.

Though the story of skate businessman Kang In-gu (played by Ha Jung-woo) was interesting, the actor said that he wishes he could meet the National Intelligence Service agent who organized the plan to capture Cho Bong-haeng, a South Korean drug lord operating in Suriname between the late 1990s and early 2000.

“I was told that such a meeting would not be possible due to safety reasons. All I know is that the stories about him are being told and passed down in the country’s spy agency,” Park said during an interview with reporters at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, central Seoul.

“I really wanted to ask him how he made the decision to send an ordinary civilian on such a dangerous mission. The plan -- to capture the drug lord -- took many years to execute. I wanted to know his physical and psychological state to truly understand agent Choi Chang-ho,” Park told The Korea Herald.

While he felt lucky to have starred in the series that centers around Kang In-gu, the 40-year-old actor said that Chang-ho stories could capture the viewers' attention as well.

Park Hae-soo stars the NIS agent Choi Chang-ho in "Narco-Saints" (Netflix)

The actor said that he and the director went over the agent's back story in a lot of detail, although the storylines were not directly used in the drama.

“Yoon Jong-bin is a terrific director. We did not shoot scenes with the camera, but the director shared a detailed history and mapped out the timeline for Choi Chang-ho,” he explained.

When asked whether he wanted another series featuring Chang-ho’s saga in greater detail, Park excitedly nodded his head in agreement.

“I heard from the director that ‘Narco-Saints’ had a closed ending. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Chang-ho’s journey to capture Korean pastor Jeon?” Park said.

Korean intelligence agent Choi Chang-ho (played by Park Hae-soo) meets Kang In-gu for the first time in "Narco-Saints." (Netflix)

“There are lines that hint at Chang-ho’s past activities. He says that he can empathize with Kang’s father, because he also worked overseas for three years. I look forward to seeing news about a ‘Narco-Saints’ prequel,” the actor said.

Park delivers outstanding performances in crime and action thrillers, but his interest lies in the comedy genre, according to Park.

“One of the recent films that I watched was Brian De Palma’s ‘Carlito’s Way,' I was studying Al Pacino's performance. But I really enjoyed ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,’ which stars Nicolas Cage. I always loved comedy films, like ‘Castaway On The Moon’ and films produced by director Ko Bong-soo,” the actor said.

Park said he wishes to expand his range as an actor with a role in a comedy, explaining that it was the hardest genre for actors.

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Fact is wilder than fiction when it comes to Netflix's 'Narco Saints'

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr] | September 26, 2022

Netflix’s hit original series “Narco-Saints” is inspired by true events. The show revolves around a character that is based on drug lord named Cho Bong-haeng who was active in Suriname from late the 1990s to early 2000s and the mission by the NIS, Drug Enforcement Administration and an ordinary entrepreneur to catch him.[NETFLIX]

It’s the early 2000s — you are a typical Korean man in your 40s, an ambitious entrepreneur who’s launched a business in the far-away country of Suriname in South America, hoping to reap success as the breadwinner of your family. However, your plans go up in flames when your business partner commits fraud, leaving you at a loss about what to do.  

It seems like you’re at the darkest hour of your life, when you’re suddenly contacted by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). They want your help to catch your business partner — who astonishingly turns out to be a drug lord whose name is on Interpol’s most-wanted list. 

Sounds familiar? It’s the loose summary of the first two episodes of Netflix Korea’s popular original series “Narco-Saints,” which revolves around an ordinary entrepreneur portrayed by Ha Jung-woo, who strikes a deal with secret agents to go undercover to capture a Korean drug lord, portrayed by Hwang Jung-min, who is active in Suriname under the guise of a pastor. 

Many would be surprised to know the series is based on the real story of a drug lord named Cho Bong-haeng who operated a massive trafficking organization in Suriname between the late 1990s and early 2000s, and an ordinary entrepreneur who went undercover for the NIS to infiltrate the drug organization with the ultimate purpose of capturing Cho. 

Cho was captured at Sao Paulo International Airport in July 2009, and was transferred back to Korea in 2011 where he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100 million won. While Cho’s crimes were reported in detail by prosecutors and media, exactly how the drug lord was captured was shrouded in mystery. 

Entrepreneur K

One of the main figures in Cho’s capture was later revealed to be the ordinary entrepreneur, only known to the public by his initial K. His background and his involvement in the NIS mission was revealed in October 2011 in an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. 

Ha Jung-woo portrays a character based on a man only known by the initial K. K was initially contacted by the NIS after he lost his business due to fraud by Cho Bong-haeng. [NETFLIX]

The Korea JoongAng Daily compared the article written by journalist Kang Kap-saeng and excerpts from the Netflix series’ by director Yoon Jong-bin and actor Ha, who had their own meeting with K, to compare the true story and the on screen adaptation.  

Yoon wrote script based on evidence compiled by prosecutors and the NIS, including recordings of K during undercover operations. 

“What I was most curious about K was this man’s motive behind dedicating three years of his life, away from his home and family, to work undercover for a spy agency,” Yoon said at a press interview at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, central Seoul, on Sept. 15, explaining that he interviewed K three times to get detailed information about his journey. 

“My first impression of K was that he was like a soldier, a sergeant,” Yoon said. “He looked really rough, someone who’s really gone through the mill — his skin was really tan, and I was immediately convinced that if it was someone like him put in the operation, he could pull it off.” 

“K and his family visited us on our second day on the set, and I felt great energy from him,” Ha said. “Even though he's of an old age, he looked brawny and energetic enough that he could still climb up a mountain in the blink of an eye. 

“Like his character, he was the breadwinner from a young age and is known to have had a tough life to provide for his family,” Ha said. “I came to learn that he played a huge role in the Suriname operation.” 

K first came to know Cho in 2006, when he partnered up with a friend to invest his entire fortune of 200 million won to launch his own business in Suriname. Instead of importing fish as in the Netflix series, his business was to supply welding rods for ships. Cho was his friend’s business partner. 

“The business flourished, but Cho was the middleman,” K said during the 2011 interview. “But Cho didn’t pay us anything. When we brought the issue up, he gave lame excuses, saying that [the clients] didn’t pay him. After some time, I got used to the language and the geography and personally visited them [the clients]. They told me they all gave the money to Cho. He snatched the money in the middle [...] That all happened in the three months after I arrived in Suriname. We tried as best as we could to revive the business, but there was no way, so I requested for help from the Korean embassy in Venezuela in November 2007.” 

Cho Bong-haeng

Cho, unlike the drug lord/pastor as the series paints him, did not start off his life of crime with drugs. He first arrived to Suriname in the 1980s and stayed there for eight years as a marine engineer. His life of crime began in Korea when he stole 1 billion won under the pretense that it was being used for the construction of buildings. When he began to be investigated by police, he fled to Suriname, obtained nationality in 1995 and set up his own fish factory, which was a cover-up for oil theft. He turned to drugs as smuggling oil grew more difficult due to escalating prices and rigid trade control. 

Hwang Jung-min, on the far left, portrays portrays the character based on the drug lord Cho Bong-haeng. Unlike in the series, Cho did not disguise himself as a pastor for his crimes. [NETFLIX]

Cho was a natural at persuasion, skilled at drawing people to his side and networking. He had good relationships with high-ranking officials and police, and was well-acquainted with the former Surinamese president Desi Bourtese, who, during the time of Cho’s crime, was a military strongman. 

However, the real Cho was no pastor. Yoon added this plot point for the story’s plausibility. 

“I thought, what kind of person and what profession would feel reliable, trustworthy, while simultaneously give out the vibe that he is a man of authority,” Yoon said. “And only the profession of a pastor came to my mind. I personally have no feelings against the church.” 

Cho turned his full attention to drug smuggling when his oil trafficking business failed. He used Koreans in Suriname as drug mules, targeting poor housewives and college students, saying that he would give them 4 to 5 million won to carry jewelry — which contained cocaine — to Europe. 

One of the housewives, who claimed she had no idea that she was carrying drugs, was caught and arrested in France in October 2004. She was 37 years old. Only known by her surname Jang, her story was adapted into a film “Way Back Home” (2013). 

When asked about Cho’s current whereabouts, Yoon replied that it remains “unknown, as both the NIS and prosecutors said that they can’t reveal that information.” 

On Sept. 17, local media outlet Channel A reported that Cho had died on April 19, 2016, at a hospital in Gwangju. He was 64 years old. His cause of death was noted as high blood pressure and heart failure. 

Cho served five years of his sentence at a prison in Haenam, South Jeolla, before he was released due to poor health. 

K the father

During the 2011 interview, K said he agreed to help the NIS because he “didn’t want to be a disgraceful father” to his two daughters and son. 

“If I leave here now, I would only be a loser, and I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything if I go back to Korea,” K said. 

To catch Cho’s attention, K intentionally went around the region causing havoc in casinos and clubs. With the NIS and Drug Enforcement Administration, K convinces Cho that he should be the middleman between Cho and a fictional Korean-American drug dealer active in Korea. 




Ha, who had met with K on the set of the series, described him as “brawny and energetic.” Director Yoon Jong-bin described K as “as someone who’s really gone through the mill.” [NETFLIX]

The real events seem to be even more preposterous than the series. Unlike K's character, who had NIS agents by his side to infiltrate the drug organization, K was alone in dealing with Cho. 

K slept with a gun underneath his pillow and admitted that there were times he questioned his choice. 

“If something went wrong, I was worried I’d never get to see my family again,” he said. “By then, however, I'd gone too far to go back.” 

Cho was caught in Brazil in July 2009, reluctantly drawn out by K under the pretense that the drug dealer demanded to meet Cho in person before closing the big deal. One of the biggest difficulties in capturing Cho was that there was no extradition treaty between Suriname and Korea at the time. 

When Yoon asked K his reason behind letting his story be adapted into a series, K said his story was all he had left of his adventure in Suriname. 




Unlike the character based on him in the series who had assistance from other undercover agents, K was alone in infiltrating the drug trafficking organization. [NETFLIX]

“I went to Suriname for my business to earn money but instead ended up losing all of it, and spent the most important three years of my life away from my family,” he said. “There’s nothing left [of this journey] but my story. Even when I tell my colleagues or friends about it, they don’t believe me. They treat me as a madman.” 

Yoon said K’s thoughts were reflected for the ending of the last episode. 

“It was very moving,” Yoon said, “that this ordinary man gave his story without any intention of profit, but just for the sake of having his story told.”  

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