If Donald Trump manages to stride into North Korea and meet Kim Jong-un, for once his tweets and non sequiturs at rallies in Rust Belt states will not precede him – at least for the North Korean public. In a country with miniscule rates of international internet access and some of the tightest censorship controls in the contemporary world, what the North Korean people see and read is different in the extreme from our dominant narratives.
How have North Koreans been encouraged by their state to perceive the developments of the last 10 weeks? As of writing, the country’s media is keeping silent on the prospect of a Kim-Trump summit, a tactic that is not all that surprising given the sheer amount of sensitive work there is to do behind the scenes. An examination of North Korean public media since the beginning of 2018 nevertheless has its benefits. It reveals a few aspects of what Kim is ultimately looking for with the overall charm offensive that has been ongoing since the beginning of 2018, and how North Korea looks to manage its information strategies relative to diplomacy and internal control in the months ahead.
This is therefore not a story about rumors, or foreign media penetration of North Korea by the multitude of projects and outlets whose goal it is to “break the information cordon” exercised by the Workers’ Party of Korea. The regime has done extremely detailed work to to tilt the field of technology in its favor, using mobile phones as another implement of surveillance and putting forward new information strategies to both mimic and control outside influences.
For purposes of this small study, we assume an audience of primarily urban North Koreans who may have one foot in the markets but another in the Party or state structures within North Korea. In other words, the consumers of North Korean state media internally might be workers in state institutions or students who are members of socialist organizations.
This means placing our focus primarily on Pyongyang, where the material is all produced, but also keeping in mind peripheral urban areas and provincial centers like Sinuiju or Haeju, areas where the regime has been trying to extend its capacity and the gospel of “byungjin” style prosperity and basic capacity. In describing the difficulty of watching any of the Olympic competition from within North Korea, Choe Sang-hun reminds us that “among its rural people TV sets remain a rarity.”
Yet even in border cities where security is tight, such as Kaesong on the southern frontier or cities like Musan or Hyesan in the north, energy can be relatively plentiful. In the northern border areas, mining, forestry, and hydropower may be major concerns; these regions are more likely to be visited by Premier Pak Bong-ju than Kim Jong-un. In these smaller cities as well as Pyongyang, the Workers’ Party has to make an effort to provide information about the country’s ostensible success on the world stage, and prepare and mobilize the population also for a broader conflict.
A huge amount of state effort clearly goes into reaching these audiences, including the production of a large number of mobile devices preloaded with regime-friendly content. But do North Korean consumers of state media believe what they are watching? In the double preface to the 2011 paperback version of his enviably successful book The Cleanest Race, B.R. Myers notes that “most [North Koreans] remain admirers of Kim Il Sung” and argues that “we cannot keep carrying on as if the dictatorship did not enjoy a significant degree of mass support.” Myers conveys an anecdote from the rainy outskirts of Wonsan of a woman working without any oversight, using her gauntly loyal and indelible image as a corrective to “the more sensational Western reports of a society that has turned its back on the Kim regime.”
Even Barbara Demick, who is well known for writing sympathetically about North Korean defectors, acknowledges that things have changed somewhat for the better in the domestic economy under Kim Jong-un, in spite of all the sanctions that have resulted from his obsessive missile and nuclear testing activity. Like the small crowds gathering outside of the Russian embassy on March 13 to view a photo display about the Russian election, North Koreans in Pyongyang indicate with their behavior that a strong hunger for more information from the outside world can absolutely coexist with political loyalty.
A close reading of the back pages of Rodong Sinmun, former British ambassador to North Korea Jon Everard told me in February, reveals nuggets about delegations and foreign news. Even North Korean exiles who despise state propaganda as a “smokescreen” of untruth still obsess over details from still images broadcast from crucial state meetings, or pay careful attention to how and when officials turn up in state media. Assuming that urban and nonincarcerated North Korean audiences for state propaganda are simply turned off or immune to the content being produced is not really a viable analytical position.
Soft Power Play
Healthy and predictable doses of self congratulations seen in North Korea's editorials on the Olympics emphasized the charm offensive, the diplomacy, and the games themselves. North Korean diplomats were clear to lay credit, predictably, at the feet of Kim Jong-un, giving a sense of norms back at home.
At the United Nations, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho conveyed a note to the Security Council hailing the new and improved negotiations environment as having arrived “entirely thanks to the noble love for the nation by .... Comrade Kim Jong-un, his will for reunification based on devotion to the country and people and his great and courageous determination to safeguard peace.” The North Korean Foreign Ministry echoed these themes on March 3: “Thanks to our noble love for the nation and great determination to terminate confrontation with fellow countrymen and achieve peace on the Korean peninsula, the north and the south together have ensured successful holding of PyeongChang Winter Olympics and are now opening a new chapter of reconciliation and cooperation.”
Since Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, North Korea has oscillated in typical fashion between war and siege themes and extolling life in the glorious and well-resourced bubble of state socialism in North Korea. Nuclear weapons are meant to provide security in this equation, rather than being the sand in the gears and the reason behind why North Korea is being so heavily sanctioned.
North Korea has hardly backed away from its self-regard as a new nuclear power in its state media in 2018, but it has tempered its incorporation of these themes in its cultural exports. In our 2013 article on North Korean soft power, Steven Denney and I argued that North Korean cultural diplomacy is often undertaken as a supplementary effort to draw foreign attention to the country’s military developments, which are then reflected back into domestic themes about North Korea’s centrality to global politics. What was interesting about the Olympics offensive is how disciplined the state was about intentionally not using the situation to drive home its nuclear strength – other than the February 8 military parade and images of missile launches in some subsequent music videos.
Instead, the Olympics allowed the country to bring forward more images of facilities like the Masikryong ski resort, which is meant to be seen internally through the lens of North Korean domestic economic propaganda, and ratifying Kim Jong-un’s personal strategy of emphasizing how such investments of state funds will ultimately benefit the population.
It was therefore important for North Korea not to sabotage the whole venture for minor reasons; thus there were relatively few critiques of South Korean media that resulted in cancellation of Olympic aspects. Only a prospective joint concert at Mt. Kumgang was cancelled on pretext of disrespectful South Korean media reports. This was a huge difference between previous rhetorical attacks on South Korean newspapers, down to listing their GPS coordinates and noting that they had been targeted with artillery.
South Korean media fixated on singer Hyon Song-wol, and this was also made note of in North Korean domestic reports. Hyon’s journey was shown in North Korea with pretty conservative concert pictures, but with coverage at a level near that of Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister.
In some ways more interesting than Hyon’s high profile was the smaller message sent by the ensemble itself, Samjiyeon Orchestra. The orchestra’s name includes a reference to the Kim personality cult – Samjiyeon is a small resort town at the foot of Mount Paektu and is a site of pilgrimage for North Korean propaganda workers and students. Kim Jong-un has used the place to indicate the odd mix of elements that are characterizing his rule: family personality cult and dictatorship (he went there when hatching the Jang Song-thaek purge in winter of late 2013) along with dedication of images of prosperity and even affluence for the ultra-loyal.
The Samjiyeon Orchestra is not associated as heavily as the Moranbong Band with the trappings of the byungjin line – they have not been used as major conduits for foreign policy “soft power” work nor have they been the host of important images of nuclear development. Moranbong concerts have in the past served as much more important venues for disclosing photos of nuclear and missile development, whilst also promoting the constructive side of the byungjin line in terms of higher levels of conspicuous consumption for urban women in particular.
But when it came to the women at the Olympics from North Korea, not everyone was convinced of the effectiveness of their approach. Pouring cold water in Geneva, Julian Braithwaite, the U.K. representative, said to a human rights committee on March 12 that the cheerleaders were “hand-picked, carefully monitored, and reportedly sent for re-education on their return home.”
Personality Cults and Dialogue
Kim Yo-jong, who served as her brother’s personal emissary in talks with South Korean leadership in Seoul, was held up for a couple of days in state media coverage. KCTV still images showed her talking with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the concert of the Samjiyeon orchestra – an act that was as remarkable for the uncensored showing of the South Korean executive’s handsome face as it was for its holding up of Kim Yo-jong as a top regime spokesperson. It might be that this is regarded as a sign of Kim Jong-un’s relative liberality at home, or his confidence that a brief insight into the misguided Koreans in the South would not result in an uproar.
But other members of the group received attention as well. Cultural bureaucrat Choe Hwi has worked closely with both Hyon and Kim Yo-jong, and he has been playing a relatively significant public role since returning from the South, giving commendations to athletes and supervising ideological meetings.
As for Kim Yo-jong, she has not been painted as a successor figure since returning in the least. The footage of her return to Pyongyang was minimal, in that the ceremonial duties and red carpet were laid out for North Korea’s nominal president, former foreign minister, and ultimate survivor Kim Yong-nam. She has been elevated, to be sure, but this is part of a longer process that has been ongoing for nearly a decade now. A pro-mainland Chinese magazine based in Hong Kong reported that Kim Yo-jong had started her roles within the Workers’ Party in 2009, around the same time that her brother Kim Jong-un was being gradually elevated symbolically as successor, but that her portfolio was more focused around her father’s appearances.
It is still an important moment to look back on, however, and in part to understand how North Koreans themselves have been encouraged to see her appearance. Some North Koreans with telephone access to the outside world described her appearance in Seoul as relatively modest, particularly when juxtaposed against Kim Jong-un’s more lavishly-appointed wife Ri Sol-ju.
But Kim Yo-jong is also capable of inspiring flashes of anger from the state against its external foes. In a remarkable statement released before the Olympics ended, the North Korean Foreign Ministry critiqued U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as “unpardonable” for “absurdly slandering” Kim Yo-jong, which was then likened to the North Korean people and their need to “punish without mercy those insulting the dignity of the supreme leadership.” Given the forthcoming back-and-forth that would lead to Donald Trump’s accepting what sounded like an invitation from Pyongyang, the conclusion of the piece bears looking at again, since ultimately it did pivot to the president:
Trump, who is taking such bete noire as Pence under his wings, should be well aware that we will never beg for dialogue in any case and, particularly, have no dealings with those viciously slandering the dignity of our supreme leadership and government. We will never have face-to-face talks with them even after 100 years or 200 years. This is neither an empty talk nor any threat.
If North Korea is going to levy threats at Donald Trump, they will do it as a group, which for many North Koreans means through a matrix of organizations locally. In the few days after Kim Jong-un claimed a complete nuclear deterrent in his New Year’s speech, many North Koreans were not celebrating in their offices or apartments, but out shovelling manure in the fields around the country’s cities.
The agit-prop machine will continue to do its work, and somewhere through the filters, the people will become aware of if their quasi-divine leadership ever meets with Donald Trump at all.