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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Internet Loves Kim Jong-un Gags, but What Does North Korea’s Propaganda Mean

As my colleague Choe Sang-Hun reports, North Korea’s state news agency released the latest in a series of saber-rattling images on Friday, this time showing the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, studying what the agency called “plans to strike the mainland U.S.”

Since mocking North Korean propaganda featuring Mr. Kim has become something of a reflex for his peers in the West, the Internet’s attention was quickly focused on the comic possibilities of a military chart behind the young leader in the photograph, tracing what appeared to be trajectories of North Korean missiles aimed at major cities in the United States.

After one blogger’s detailed analysis of the image suggested that the unlikely target of Austin, Texas was in the firing line, Twitter lit up with a spate of “Why Austin” jokes, as Max Fisher of The Washington Post explained.

When pondering what all this means, it is easy, perhaps too easy, to focus on the accidental comedy in these photographs of North Korea’s unimposing young leader, and in the series often-bizarre propaganda videos and poorly Photoshopped images of war games that preceded them.

A recent North Korean propaganda video, posted online by The Telegraph.

To find out what an expert on North Korean propaganda made of the current campaign, The Lede contacted B.R. Myers, a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University in the South Korean port city of Busan. Mr. Myers, who spent eight years studying the nation’s propaganda for his book, “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters,” answered questions from The Lede on Friday via Gchat. Below is a transcript of the complete conversation, edited for clarity (with links to related articles added to some of Mr. Myers’s answers).


We are wondering, essentially, what you make of these recent videos flowing from North Korea. Is this really some sort of escalation in rhetoric for them or has the Internet just woken up a bit more to the phenomenon


The rhetoric itself has not escalated significantly over last year. And it’s been almost 20 years since North Korea first talked of turning Seoul into a sea of fire. I get the feeling that North Korea’s long-range missile launch and the nuclear test have both lent a new force to the old rhetoric.

Video from North Korean state television of a military parade this week, posted online by The Telegraph.


Is the impression we get via these Web videos similar to what they broadcast on television, and what you see in other forms, or are we in the news business guilty of hyping the most inflammatory material do you think


That’s a good question. We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked. The North says “If the U.S. or South Korea dare infringe on our territory we will reduce their territory to ashes,” and Seoul responds by saying it will retaliate by bombing Kim Il-sung statues. And so it goes. I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences. And I have to say from watching North Korea’s evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think. The announcers spend the first ten minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.

The regime is exploiting the tension to motivate the masses to work harder on various big first-economy projects, especially the land-reclamation drive now underway on the east coast. Workers are shown with clenched fists, spluttering at the U.S. and South Korea, and vowing to work extra hard as a way of venting their rage.

It is all very similar to last year’s sustained vilification of South Korea’s then-president Lee Myung-bak, when you had miners saying that they imagined Lee’s face on the rocks they were breaking, and so on. The regime can no longer fire up people with any coherent or credible vision of a socialist future, so it tries to cast the entire workforce â€" much as other countries do in times of actual war â€" as an adjunct to the military. Work places are “battlegrounds,” and all labor strengthens the country for the final victory of unification, etc.

A recent North Korean news report posted online by a supporter of the government.


That’s very interesting â€" I have to say we don’t even see the South Korean threats…. Are regular TV transmissions from the North blocked in the South, over the airwaves


Yes, they are blocked as a rule. After a relaxation of the rules governing access to North Korean materials during the “Sunshine Policy” years, the government here has again become quite strict about such things.


A few final questions. First, does it seem to you that there has been any observable change in the propaganda since the change at the top Second, what did you make of that strange episode with the U.S. TV crew bringing Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang Was that a sign of a potential opening or just the sort of event that has gone on for years with visitors less well-known to Americans And finally, are you at all concerned that our coverage of the propaganda in the western media as something wacky and sort of comic is inappropriate, in that it shifts focus away from the hard realities of life in North Korea


To answer the first question, I think that the international press exaggerated the extent to which Kim Jong-un departed from the leadership style of his father. He has a Kim Il-sung haircut, and the propaganda apparatus is happy to play up the resemblance, but from the start of the hype in 2008-2009, he was presented to the masses as a taejang or four-star general. That was years before he was officially promoted to that rank, by the way. And the first documentary about his life played up his military-first credentials, portraying him as an even more exclusively military figure than his father had been. Kim Jong-il, after all, spent his first decade or so of public life posing as an expert on film and ideology.

When Kim Jong-un took his wife around with him, the West was quick to see this as a sign of Gorbachev-like tendencies, when in fact Kim Jong-il had taken his second wife (the current leader’s mother) around with him on public visits; even though her presence wasn’t broadcast, it’s clear from the video footage of those visits that has since become public that the North Korean people knew who she was and accepted her as a kind of first lady. In any case, one of the main slogans of the propaganda is “Kim Jong-un is Kim Jong-il.” He’s compared to his father much more often than to his grandfather. And he is certainly continuing on the same military-first path.


Fascinating â€" we’ve previously quoted your explanation of the state’s military-first nature.


Second, the Dennis Rodman affair was very similar to the New York Philharmonic affair of 2008. In both cases the North Koreans were able to convey the impression of openness to the wishfully thinking West while at the same time showing to their own people the international appeal of their leader. All visitors to the country are treated in the media as pilgrims or as penitents.

As for your third question, I think the media underestimates the extent to which North Korea reads its own press. This is why you have Americans pleading in op-ed pages for “subversive engagement” with Pyongyang, as if the North Koreans would not think of actually reading one of our newspapers. And all the ridicule naturally poses a problem to a regime that derives almost all its legitimacy and popular support from the perception of its strength and worldwide renown. That doesn’t mean we need to censor ourselves the way the South Korean press did during the “Sunshine Policy” years, but we do need to realize how serious the situation is.

In a North Korean “historical” novel published last year, “Oseongsan,” a general looks at a twenty-year old Kim Jong-un and says, “That’s the man who’s going to lead the holy war of unification.” I have a hard time just chuckling about things like that.

Can I mention one more thing


Absolutely, yes.


One of the few things that has restrained the North Koreans over the decades has been Pyongyang’s reluctance to alienate the South Korean left. I wonder now if, after two successive elections of the more hardline presidential candidate (the current president having been elected with an absolute majority of votes), the North may have given up on South Korean public opinion altogether.

The rapid aging of the South Korean electorate certainly does not bode well for the prospect of another “Sunshine Policy” in the near future. This may be one reason why the propaganda apparatus’ denigrated President Park as a “skirt” â€" a clear indication, by the way, that we are not dealing with a far-left regime up there but a far-right one. And I notice from the TV broadcasts that many of the people in the man-on-the-street interviews talk of how they would love to give the “sea of fire” treatment to Seoul and Washington almost as if they were the same enemy territory. If the regime has given up on winning over the South Korean electorate, things could get much more dangerous than they already are.