By Hannah Beech
May 14, 2017
On May 2nd, as a U.S. carrier-strike group cruised the waters off the Korean peninsula, anticipating that North Korea might soon conduct a sixth nuclear test, Pyongyang’s propagandists were ready with an apocalyptic prediction. “Our preemptive nuclear attacks will bring the provocateurs nothing but tragic consequences,” an English-language commentary in Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, warned. “South Korea will be submerged in a sea of fire, Japan will be reduced to ashes, and the U.S. will collapse.”
On May 14th, Pyongyang test-fired at high trajectory a missile that soared for half an hour before plunging into waters between North Korea and Japan. No sea of fire engulfed South Korea; Japan and the U.S. remained very much intact. Still, the fact that the missile test occurred just days after the South had inaugurated a new President, Moon Jae-in, who had pledged to engage with the North, confirmed Pyongyang’s impulse for provocation. This test marked a step up in the North’s threats, something usually effected with words alone. Last month, the official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, had responded to U.S.-South Korean Navy drills by railing against the “U.S. imperialist aggressor forces and warmongers of the south Korean military.” On April 27th, a North Korean-run Web site featured a nearly two-and-a-half-minute video in which a military target was superimposed over the White House and a blaze of fire engulfed the U.S. Capitol.
By North Korean standards, this latest propaganda onslaught was neither remarkable nor particularly bellicose. In 2014, a KCNA article quoted a person, identified as a North Korean steelworker, who characterized Barack Obama as a “wicked black monkey.” Another story likened South Korea’s recently ousted President Park Geun-hye, who had taken a hard line against the North, to a “vile prostitute serving the U.S.” Yet another conservative former South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, was described with “sweats, snivels and tears all over his face.” (KCNA has not critiqued Moon Jae-in, the victor in the May 9th South Korean Presidential elections, perhaps because of his softer stance toward the North.) If nothing else, Pyongyang’s propaganda czars know how to exploit the bounty of a thesaurus.
North Korea’s rhetoric has remained on a war footing for decades, a reminder that even though the South and North laid down their guns after a 1953 armistice, no enduring peace treaty was ever reached. Donald Trump may have warned Reuters on April 27th of a potential “major, major conflict with North Korea,” but, from the point of view of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the war never stopped. In a May 8th salvo, a Rodong Sinmun commentary accused Trump and his “henchmen” of pursuing a “hostile” North Korea policy that reflected a “dull-witted and wild character.” With South Korea’s new President Moon adopting a conciliatory tone in his May 10th inaugural address, even expressing a willingness to visit Pyongyang, Rodong Sinmun attempted to pick apart the U.S.-South Korean relationship. “The U.S. is going to flee from south Korea after igniting a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula,” predicted a May 11th English-language editorial. “This is the sinister intention of the U.S. vociferating about ‘solid alliance’ with south Korea.”
The prickliness of North Korea’s messaging also can be read as an evolutionary strategy, akin to a hedgehog showing its spines to protect its pink underbelly. “Even with its nuclear program, North Korea is a weak country with an outdated military and a very small population,” Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University, in Seoul, told me. “The only card they hold is to appear completely irrational and unpredictable. When they say they will wipe South Korea and the U.S. off the map, this propaganda gives an image of crazy zealots, who could do anything. They want the world to believe this image.” In asymmetric warfare, belligerent propaganda—not to mention nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that may one day reach the U.S. mainland—is a useful tool.
The North Koreans learned the art of spin from the Soviets, who, along with the Chinese, provided exile and ideological backing to Kim Il-sung, the founder of the dynasty that has ruled North Korea for three generations. Lankov, who grew up in the Soviet Union and studied at Kim Il-sung University, in Pyongyang, says that it is often easy to translate North Korean propaganda into Russian because many idioms were converted from Russian into Korean word for word, with little regard for Korean grammar or linguistic order.
After the Soviets and the Chinese supported a failed coup attempt against Kim, in 1956, the North Korean regime distanced itself from its mentors and tried to position itself as a third force in socialism. The attempt to influence the global socialist movement was not as far-fetched as it might seem today. The North Koreans continued to build socialist-realist edifices around the world, such as the Independence Memorial Museum in Namibia and the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal, until United Nations sanctions began to make such projects toxic over the past couple of years.
Decades of a centrally planned command economy have transformed North Korea into Asia’s poorest country, one that has twisted inward. “You read their propaganda from the nineteen-sixties, when they were interested in world revolution and civil-rights movements, and it’s rich in detail about the outside world,” Peter Ward, a sociology postgraduate at Seoul National University, who has studied North Korean propaganda, told me. “But by the nineteen-eighties, they knew nothing about the outside world. It’s kind of depressing how ignorant they are.” Instead, North Korea’s ministry of spin burnished a personality cult that glorified Kim and, later, his son, Kim Jong-il, and grandson, Kim Jong-un, who rules today. Even the Soviets, who, during Khrushchev’s tenure, turned away from the hagiographic excesses of the Stalinist era, found the deification of the Kim family absurd.
In recent years, North Korean propaganda meant for foreign audiences has scaled back some of its idolatry. Kim Jong-un may be known within the country as the Respected Supreme Leader, but he is often referred to in Mandarin, Japanese, and English translations by the more prosaic title of chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea. But the domestic fawning continues.
Last month, Kim appeared, jovial and well-fed, as he inspected the Thaechon Pig Farm of the Air and Anti-Air Force of the Korean People’s Army and dispensed “field guidance” to the Pyongyang Mushroom Farm. Readers of North Korean official media learned that, when it came to mycological agriculture, Kim “not only dispatched competent designing and construction forces for its construction but took a benevolent measure for solving all problems arising in its construction.” (For his part, Trump told CBS late last month that he considered Kim a “pretty smart cookie.”)
The people responsible for writing these dispatches graduated from the best universities in North Korea, like Kim Il-sung University and the Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages. The propaganda positions insure lives of privilege, with access to vehicles and laptops. “There is a lot of competition for these state jobs,” Fyodor Tertitskiy, who just earned his Ph.D. from Seoul National University and has written on the Kim personality cult, said. “If you are the cream of society, why would you work against a system that brings you opportunity?”
North Koreans are subject to a never-ending stream of scaremongering from the regime’s propagandists, warning that Western imperialists and South Koreans are intent on forcibly unifying the peninsula. “When the North Korean state talks about turning Seoul into a sea of fire, that’s deliberate for its own people, more than for a foreign audience,” Ward said. “The point is to keep their people scared and alert and united.” A report from the rand Corporation last month concluded that, while those at the apex of North Korean society might harbor some reservations about their thirty-three-year-old leader, “the North Korean regime has made every effort to indoctrinate North Korean elites into believing that unification would be disastrous for them.”
North Korea’s messaging has been loudest at the D.M.Z., which has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953. For months now, like in years past, the North’s loudspeakers have delivered across the border a barrage of martial rhetoric and syrupy ballads extolling the purity and superiority of the North Korean state. The South has responded with its own aural attack: K-pop, the catchy musical genre that is popular across Asia. Among Seoul’s D.M.Z. d.j. selections? “Bang, Bang, Bang,” by the South Korean boy band Big Bang.