Lately, North Korea has held a noticeable niche in the world media space: apart from anti-Pyongyang propaganda and memoirs by defectors there has developed a distinct demand for books about the DPRK meant for the mass audience and not so much scholarly as travelogue-like and essayistic in style.
Such works written from different angles include Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, North Korea Confidential by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, Forræderens Guide til Nord-Korea (A Traitor’d Guide to North Korea) by controversial Norwegian multimedia artist Morten Traavek, Great Successor by Anna Fifield, and books on North Korea by Oleg Kiryanov, Andrey Lankov, and Konstantin Asmolov.
In all likelihood this upsurge in interest is due not only to North Korea’s media image of a “rogue state” as such: the DPRK’s newly acquired nuclear-missile capabilities earned it the right to be seen not just as a country that wishes to join the nuclear club, but to be formally equal to all of its other members. Also, the authors of all these books, directly or indirectly, look for the reason for the North Korean regime’s unexpected resilience, which even the international community’s sanctions have been unable to shake loose.
In the meantime, even in the eyes of competent observers the image of North Korea is largely stereotypical. In a situation like this it is hard to pay due attention to both changes inside the country and the pace of such changes.
This is fraught with the risk of building a wrong communicative strategy, misinterpreting certain actions, or making mistakes in judging Pyongyang’s home and foreign policies.
With this in mind, the authors postulate that it is important to scrutinize the transformation of the DPRK’s official ideology and propaganda, especially its content and its transmission channels, because alongside the traditional forms and methods some new ones have manifested themselves.
What are these changes due to? First and foremost, within the framework of the DPRK’s political tradition the new leader is reformatting not only the political system, but also a number of ideological constructs. As far as Kim Jong-un is concerned, the generation factor has to be taken into account. Although from the standpoint of ethics and strategy he is a legal successor of his father and grandfather, a national leader who is still under forty and who has a better idea of how his generation sees the world. Consequently, his tactic looks more pragmatic.
Secondly, the imperatives of the current agenda play a role: although the DPRK is traditionally placed beyond the iron curtain, this curtain increasingly often turns out to be a mosquito net, and this cannot but be taken into account in both domestic policies and propaganda. According to the Future Strategy Research Institute of the Korea Development Bank (The Korea Times, 2020), North Korea has about six million mobile phone subscribers—a clear sign that the level of knowledge about the outside world is growing.
Thirdly, there has been soaring information pressure from the outside, with progress in science and engineering being used on a vast scale: South Korean NGOs systematically send to the North air balloons carrying not only leaflets, but also USB flash drives with “ideologically harmful” content (Birell, 2016; Greenberg, 2015).
It is noteworthy that in full conformity with the North Korean tradition one trend does not necessarily phase out another. As a matter of fact, newly emerging structures and methods are used in parallel to the old ones. The harsh statements by the leader’s sister, Kim Yŏ-jŏng, made on June 4, 2020 and later, are quite consonant with traditional rhetoric.
However seclusive the country may remain, the number of publications about it (especially those made in the DPRK in the Korean language), has been growing steadily, which is a clear sign to an attentive onlooker that the changes in very different spheres of life—from history and education to literature and cinematography—are continuing. The authors believe this is a reason enough to point to certain developments they regard as telling signs/markers of new trends in North Korean ideology and propaganda.
Russia’s main specialist on this issue is Alexander Zhebin, the author of several articles and a monograph entitled The Evolution of the DPRK’s Political System amid Global Change. There is a PhD dissertation by Inna Pankina, devoted to the sŏngun policies and Olga Maltseva’s article on “some special features of Kim Jong-un’s strategic policy.” Andrei Lankov has written quite much on this subject as well, but generally speaking, this theme remains largely unexplored, particularly so when it comes to the changes of the past few years.
Among Western experts, it is worth mentioning Brian Myers (2015) who interprets the DPRK’s ideology as radical nationalism; Cheng Chen and Ji-Yong Lee (2007) who proposed the idea of “National Stalinism” and in this context compared the DPRK with Ceausescu’s Romania; and Woo Jongseok (2016) who maintains that the role of the army is the main factor of the North Korean regime’s stability.
Special attention to studying the DPRK’s ideology is paid in South Korea. Although the two systems have been engaged in a prolonged standoff and the northern neighbor’s image in South Korea’s political circle is mostly negative, modern historiography has displayed a distinct trend towards abandoning Cold War clichés. Among the relatively recent studies Kang Hyesŏk’s dissertation stands out. The author uses an impressive range of sources to examine the DPRK’s ideological development process and arrives at the conclusion that there emerged a special form of “adaptive state nationalism” (chŏgŭngjŏk kukka minjokchuŭi) (Kang, 2017). Chŏn Miyŏng points to qualitative changes in North Korea’s nationalism under the new leader: culture and the arts in the DPRK are ever more strongly imbued with nationalism, while the preservation and development of national culture becomes an ideological task of “resisting capitalist culture which is penetrating into the country in the era of globalization” (Chŏn, 2018).
Departure from the term sŏngun, traditionally translated as the “military first” policy is a trend that is the first to catch the eye. In accordance with the sŏngun policy, it is the army and not the working class, that is the “backbone” and “driving force of the revolution” (Kim Jŏngŭn, 2003).
Under Kim Jong-un, the sŏngun mobilization rhetoric, which could be heard on any occasion during the period of severe challenges, began to fade into the background together with the term as such. In the new version of the Constitution sŏngun is mentioned only once and only in the past tense (it was removed from other parts of the preamble and also from Articles 3 and Article 59) and has practically disappeared from day-to-day propaganda (Constitution, 2019).
Starting from March 2013, the term of the 1960s—pyŏngjin—came into use again. This term implies parallel development of the defense potential and the economy, although during Konstantin Asmolov’s stay in the DPRK in 2016-2017 Professor Kim Changgyŏng explained that pyŏngjin was merely a continuation of sŏngun in the new conditions (Asmolov, 2018, p.180). However, on April 20, 2018, the 3rd Plenary Meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee issued a statement that the tasks of parallel economic development and creation of nuclear forces had been “brilliantly translated into life” and the focus now should be on building a socialist economy (KCNA, 2018).
In June 2016, the State Defense Committee (kukpang wiwŏnhwe) was replaced by the State Council (kungmu wiwŏnhwe), which would be more appropriately rendered into English as Committee for State Affairs (Chosŏn Sinbo, 2016a) (a name consonant with China’s State Council).
However, the army remains one of the ideological pillars of North Korean society and enjoys Kim Jong-un’s unflagging attention.
Another trend in ideology and propaganda is not so much putting Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il on an equal footing as mentioning them jointly, as the “Paektusan leaders.”
On all occasions when the term ‘Kimilsungism’ (Kim Il-sung’s ideas) was mentioned before, the newly-coined notion ‘ideas of Kim Il-sung—Kim Jong-Il’ is in use. The Kimilsungist Youth League in August 2016 was renamed to Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist. The most significant illustration of this policy is the renovation of the sculptural group on Mansu Hill. Next to the statue of Kim Il-sung there emerged a statue of Kim Jong-Il. Kim Il-sung’s head was altered to portray him at a later age. Monuments to Kim Jong-Il began to be built mostly at places associated with his activity, for instance, Kim Il-sung University.
In accordance with amendments to the 2019 Constitution, “great Comrade Kim Il-sung” was renamed to “great leader (suryŏngnim) Comrade Kim Il-sung”, and “Comrade Kim Jong-Il” to “great leader (ryŏngdoja) Comrade Kim Jong-Il” (Constitution, 2019). Just like Kim Il-sung, who enjoys the title of the country’s eternal president (correctly translated as “chairman”), Kim Jong-Il will remain in history as eternal General Secretary and Chairman of the Defense Committee.
Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism is interpreted as an “integral system of Juche ideas and the related theories and methods concerning the revolution and ways of building a new society, ‘elucidated’ by great Kim Il-sung and ‘developed in depth and in an all-round way’ by the great leader Kim Il-sung and the great leader Kim Jong-Il” (Constitution, 2019). It incorporates Juche ideas proper as the philosophical basis of the DPRK’s home and foreign policies, the Juche theory of revolution, and Juche methods of administration.
In a word, the introduction of the term ‘Kim Il-sung-Kim Jong-Il ideas’ by no means phases out the Juche ideas, but is an attempt to propose a broader umbrella notion that would cover everything that has been proposed by the leaders, with the Juche ideas remaining the frame and handle of this umbrella.
Another significant trend should be seen in the publication, started in 2017 on Kim Jong-un’s personal instructions, of an enlarged collection of Kim Il-sung’s works, which, as follows from the contents of the volumes released by now, will contain far more texts than the 100-volume collection of 1992-2012. There are three explanations for this, and they do not necessarily contradict each other.
Firstly, a greater share of Kim Il-sung’s legacy consists of “remarks on certain issues,” which as a rule were written down by the leader’s entourage. Collecting and cataloguing them is a no easy task, but it seems plausible that the publication was partially driven by the necessity to include newly found statements. Secondly, it should not be ruled out that in this way some new texts are generated intended to support the current changes with reference to “the founding father’s predictions worthy of a genius.” Lastly, in the process of collecting and cataloguing different sources the already known statements can be reinterpreted “for the purpose of creative analysis of the leader’s testament.”
Moreover, on July 7, 2020, the DPRK announced the release of the first book of a multi-volume edition entitled Together with the Nation (Minjokkwa Tŏburŏ), devoted to Kim Il-sung’s activity after Korea’s liberation (Chosŏn Sinbo, 2020a). This multi-volume collection was ordered by Kim Jong-un personally and is in effect a continuation of Kim Il-sung’s memoirs, which cover the period until 1945, with the author’s own narration leading until the second half of 1937. The fact that this new series is a continuation of the memoirs is underscored in many ways. The title itself, Together with the Nation, is an allusion to the title of Kim Il-sung’s memoirs With the Century (Segiwa Tŏburŏ).
As for attempts to create a cult of Kim Jong-un equal to that of his father and grandfather, there is no such trend at all. Although the new leader has accepted the rank of marshal and the songs in his honor in which he was referred to as a “young general” are now performed without the lyrics, no other traits of a personality cult are in sight. There are no ceremonial portraits or badges with his image, and even such titles as Brilliant Comrade or the Genius of all Geniuses, mentioned by North Korea watchers, are now practically absent from Rodong Sinmun pages.
Although in 2013 Kim Jong-un inherited from his father the title of the “great leader” (widaehan ryŏngdoja) (Chosŏn Ilbo, 2013), after the introduction of amendments to the Constitution this title was exclusively reserved for Kim Jong-Il, while Kim Jong-un has been mostly referred to as the “respected supreme leader” (kyŏngaehanŭn choego ryŏngdoja), with the word “respected” (kyŏngaehanŭn) (which is more correctly translated as “respected and loved”) also used in relation to Kim Jong-Il, when he was the “beloved leader” during the rule of the “great leader”.
Another remarkable detail is that North Korean shops have on sale special notebooks for writing down both leaders’ quotes. The covers of notebooks for Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-Il’s quotes are of the same color but differ from that meant for Kim Jŏng-un’s quotes.
Departure from the term sŏngun and the assertion of the term ‘Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism’ reflects certain changes in the DPRK’s political practices. On the one hand, the authorities are keen to stress that the emergency period in the country’s life is over; on the other hand, Kim Jong-Il takes a worthy place next to his father in terms of personality cult, while Kim Jong-un has shown no signs of creating his own cult so far. It would be hardly correct to state that the whole mythology is beginning to undergo a mild revision. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that Kim Jong-un, while staying within the framework of tradition, positions himself not as a sacral leader but as a head of state, and nothing human is alien to him. Suffice it to recall his speech at the military parade on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10, 2020, which the authors regard as a characteristic feature of new rhetoric (Chosŏn Sinbo, 2020b). Kim said aloud that he was unable to rise to the people’s expectations to the full extent, occasionally showed he was lost for words, and curtly said “Thank you.” This mode of behavior contradicts the previously shaped image of a leader who coins impeccable definitions. It is quite significant that Kim Jong-un ended his speech with words of praise addressed not to the Workers’ Party of Korea, but to the people.
Of special interest to many (including the mass media) is the component of the propaganda mix that would be very appropriately described as “metaphysical.” One of the brightest examples is the special “ability” of the leader to instantly travel in space by deforming (warping) it, which creates a feeling of his omnipresence (ch’ukchippŏp) (Chang Ŭngyŏl, 2020).
Such metaphorical descriptions are widely spread in the hagiography of the North Korean leaders. However, the official narrative has never literally attributed supernatural qualities to any of them. They remained products of the “folk epos,” which emerged during the anti-Japanese war and were reframed in journalistic essays and adventure books.
The DPRK’s official periodicals publish such articles from time to time. On the official website of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland one can read a digest of a story about a “warping leader,” which says that Kim Jong-un, too, uses “the same ch’ukchippŏp” (Uri Minjokkiri, 2019). Earlier, a similar editorial was published in Rodong Sinmun (Rodong Sinmun, 2018a). The emphasis on the metaphorical nature of ch’ukchippŏp is invariable. It is noteworthy that the coverage of these episodes in the Western press, which took note of them after Kim Jong-un in 2020 had “disappeared from the radar screens” for some time (Stickings, 2020; Heath, 2020), can hardly be called sensationalist by the current standards. Commentators remark in a matter-of-fact fashion that the North Korean media deny that the “great leader” possesses supernatural abilities (albeit “widely believed in the reclusive country”). Failing to notice the original message, they speculate that the personality cult propaganda is getting “more scientific and rational” (Mok, Wong and Jun, 2020).
Another widely spread misunderstanding concerns blood rhetoric as the nation’s distinguishing feature. The term ‘bloodline’ (p’itchul as genuinely Korean; hyŏlt’ong of hanmun origin) has been officially in use in the DPRK’s socio-political discourse at least since 1973. The latest version of the definition found in dictionaries states that the nation is a “unit of social life, which took shape historically on the basis of the consanguineous, linguistic, cultural and territorial commonality, which constitutes a stable collective of people sharing a common destiny” (Chosŏnmal Taesajŏn, 2020a).
At first sight this definition looks unambiguous: the nation is formed on the basis of biological kinship, but deeper analysis of Korean publications on this score provides enough reasons to suspect that the issue is far more complex. In 1985, the third volume of a 10-volume Anthology of the Great Chuch’e Ideas p’itchul was defined as a product of a “long historical process.” It was also stated that “the nation has a common p’itchul but is not a consanguineous entity (chojikch’e) such as a clan or tribe” (Kim Ki-bong, 1985, p. 73). This definition has developed further in the 2014 book Minjok Chungsimŭi Kyŏngnyun (Nation-Centric Governance), where ‘bloodline’ is described as follows: “p’itchul… in contrast to the commonality of clans and tribes, … formed in a natural way as a result of blood bonds between relatives and members of the family, is determined historically within a certain territory” (Rim, 2014).
Alongside this, as many researchers note, in the Kim Jong-Il era the understanding of p’itchul as an entirely biological (physiological) parameter prevailed not only in media publications, but also in some academic works (Krupyanko and Akulenko, 2017; Lee, 2018; Son, et al., 2009). However, lately this term has become metaphorical and does not necessarily indicate a biological link between individuals (KCNA, 2015). The trend towards certain “debiologization” of p’itchul is seen in modern ideological works. The 2014 book Study of the Chuch’e Nation Theory, while recognizing the biological aspect of the term p’itchul, stresses that with respect to the nation it can be interpreted as a “sociological concept” incorporating “ideological achievements, experience and traditions passed to next generations.” The author stresses that this interpretation of p’itchul “is not identical to p’itchul that is understood biologically” (Ch’oe, 2014, p.55). The author arrives at the conclusion that the biological aspect “is merely a physiological basis, and not a seed or sprout of spiritual qualities,” in other words, sociological p’itchul (Ch’oe, 2014, p.57).
It should be noted that in contrast to the early concept of “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden), which in the first half of the 20th century developed into full-scale Nazism, sacralized soil and called for getting back to the “roots” (Hildebrand, 1984), becoming, in fact, an antagonist of the ideology of modernity (Frøland and Irons, 2020). The commonality of territory (ryŏngt’oŭi kongtongsŏng), however, in accordance with the Kimjongilist interpretation of the Juche ideas is not believed to possess nation-forming qualities as such, but merely sets a spatial framework in which other processes take place.
Moreover, they especially note: “Our nation does not postulate that its biological structure was developing somewhat differently from other nations. The assertion of national supremacy on the account of biological racial features is a reactionary racial theory, while the absolutization of merits of one’s own nation and spiteful attitude to other nations is national chauvinism” (Rim, 2014). Departures from this definition, which appeared in North Korea’s official media these days should be seen from the angle of socio-political rhetoric and not as signs of changes in the domestic ideology.
The images of the “revolutionary bloodline” (hyŏngmyŏng hyŏlt’ong) or Mount Paektu bloodline (Paektu hyŏlt’ong) are an even more widely known traditional narrative of the DPRK. They are usually believed to be the exclusive markers of the ruling Kim family. However, as mentioned above, starting from a certain moment in the DPRK discourse the word hyŏlt’ong (and its vernacular Korean version p’itchul) alongside the basic meaning, including the consanguineous or genetic bond, acquired an interpretation that in the North Korean vocabulary is explained as a “figurative expression synonymous with a connecting thread that transmits the tradition of revolutionary activity through generations (Chosŏnmal Taesajŏn, 2020b). Kim Jong-un used this term in his speech at the 9th Congress of the Kimilsungist Socialist Youth League in August 2016. He said that Kim Jong-Il “opened a new period of complete thriving of the youth movement, which brings up young people to be devout successors of the great cause of the Juche revolution, who continue the Paektu bloodline” (Chosŏn Sinbo, 2016b). For this reason, in the Korean discourse the meaning of the expression ‘bloodline’ is sometimes very different from the first idea that may spring to an unprepared Western reader’s mind.
Traditional images and stories are being reconsidered in a sense, but without being profaned. The bloodline rhetoric is a bright example of such metaphorization, which turns the ideological discourse towards more common notions.
NORTH KOREAN PROPAGANDA IN THE INFORMATION ERA
Next, a few words about the new forms and methods of propaganda. In 2014, Kim Jong-un for the first time mentioned the idea of information wars on the Internet, which, he said, “must become a scene for the propaganda of our ideology and culture” and called for implementing plans for upgrading and informatizing the means of massive foreign propaganda, but at the same time “to put up a tight double and triple mosquito net” to prevent “capitalist poison” from getting into the country. He warned that defeatist attitudes were the worst risk in ideological work and stressed that WPK members should “change the party’s image” and analyze successes and setbacks (Kim Jŏngŭn, 2014).
In studying Kim Jong-un era propaganda foreign analysts tend to focus on the “digital trenches” or campaigns for maintaining a sound moral image of the nation, but for us it is far more important to examine the emphasis on internal problems and more open discussion of burning issues, which used to be discussed only within “the inner circle.” His speech at the stone-laying ceremony on the site of a future hospital in Pyongyang in March 2020 is one vivid example. Kim frankly and in very harsh terms spoke about typical construction flaws and examples of sloppy work and negligence (as well as the ensuing consequences, both economic and political ones) and warned in advance that he would be very upset should such things happen at this very important construction site again (Chosŏn Sinbo, 2020c).
On February 29, 2020, at an enlarged meeting of the WPK Central Committee’s Politburo, devoted mostly to measures for preventing a coronavirus epidemic, Kim Jong-un said that “within the framework of the state-run anti-epidemic system any privileges should be prevented by all means” (Vorontsov, 2020) and “slammed the manifestations of antiparty, antipopular and antisocialist behavior” (Zwirko, 2020a).
Articles critical of bureaucracy and corruption appear in the North Korean media regularly. For example, Rodong Sinmun published such stories on December 10, 2018 (Rodong Sinmun, 2018b). In 2020, such publications were more frequent. Several more followed in March (Kim Byŏngjin, 2020; Kim Jeongmin, 2020a, 2020b), in May (Kim Jeongmin, 2020c) and in June (Kim Jeongmin, 2020d). The authors warned that corruption could cause the ruling party to lose credibility with and support of the people.
The plenary meeting of the WPK Central Committee in Pyongyang on August 19, 2020 said outright that the targets of the current five-year development period, set at the 7th WPK Congress in May 2016, had not been met, for which there was no excuse, even though the country had “encountered unexpected and unavoidable problems.” For this reason, the lives of the people, “faced with adverse internal and external circumstances,” saw no improvement (KCNA, 2020).
Another example of such openness was the frank recognition that the youth was vulnerable to enemy propaganda. On April 3, 2020, Rodong Sinmun stressed the importance of ideological upbringing of the younger generation, which, the paper said, was a key target for the “ideological and cultural infiltration of our enemies.” The newspaper warned that young North Koreans were more prone to external influences because “they are inquisitive and sensitive and have not been taught to endure hardships” (Han, 2020).
Moreover, in an article published on May 26, 2020, the newspaper said that attempts to imitate even a single film or song without critical attitude to entertainment will leave a stain on national culture and result in the proliferation of “rotten bourgeois culture.” It was stated outright that in some countries that had been building socialism the government’s neglect of ideological work with the new generation resulted in a situation where the youth was the first to develop an addiction to “corrupt culture spread by the imperialists” and that the younger generation was particularly vulnerable to cultural “decadence” (Sŏ, 2020).
But at the same time it would be wrong to say that North Korea fights Western culture as a phenomenon.
As far as the “digital trenches” are concerned, the North Korean Internet meets the needs of an undemanding user well enough. K. Asmolov’s interviewees said there were noticeboards, dating sites, and even a MMORPG.
Responsible for the “digital trenches” is the operating system Kwangmyŏng (Shining Star), which has at least two important features. Firstly, the screenshots of viewed content are saved, and not deleted, which enables the personnel of the security services to instantly see what sites the user visited. Secondly, the digital signature system—the so-called “authentication files” (Ji, 2019)—prevents downloading of ideologically undesirable content from a flash drive picked up on a street.
In this context special mention should be made of the new methods of propaganda via social networks, addressed to foreign audience. This resource has been active for a rather long time already, but it was mostly filled by official propaganda content. Now it contains videoblogs allegedly made by North Koreans themselves, in an informal style that is pretty close to international or South Korean standards.
Firstly, there is the Echo of DPRK, which was just recently renamed to the Echo of Truth (2020). This channel, launched on August 20, 2017, at first offered mostly “impressions shared by American students” or videos of performing artists with disabilities, but in 2020 its format became more informal and diversified. Besides newscasts or extracts from Kim Il-sung’s memoirs (usually less than one thousand views) now there is a classical vlog (My favorite Grocery in Pyongyang), with more than 23,000 subscribers and 1.7 million views since its launch in August (Park, 2020).
A young woman vlogger, Un A (Ŭna), walks about Pyongyang and briefs the audience on the city’s places of interest in fluent English; Un A is fashionably dressed and looks to be 25 years of age. Researcher Meredith Shaw, of the University of Tokyo, says her videos look very much like Japanese or South Korean tourist vlogs (Zwirko and Hotham, 2020). The greatest attention of South Korean and other international media was attracted by Un A’s video of April 25, 2020, in which the young woman visited a supermarket to dismiss foreign media rumors about panic buying in Pyongyang amid speculations about the national leader’s failing health. “I think fake news is the last thing we need in the time of such a fierce battle with COVID-19, and it is another reason why we should remain vigilant,” she says in the video (Kang, 2020).
Another YouTube channel called New Korea (Yi, 2020) was launched in April 2020. It chronicles the day-to-day life of a seven-year-old girl, Ri Su-jin, and her family—the girl has breakfast, washes hands, plays the piano and speaks about her “abundant and happy life” (Roh, 2020). In one of the videos Ri Su-jin takes the viewers on a tour around her apartment building and the surroundings. She shows her piano, a fan, a velvet sofa, and an aquarium.
One more example of the same sort is the Twitter account @coldnoodlefan, which appeared in the summer of 2017 and, according to NK News, is believed to be connected with the company Sogwang involved in several lines of business, such as restaurants and the media. @coldnoodlefan promotes Un A’s videos in Twitter and in China’s Weibo (Zwirko and Hotham, 2020).
NK News says this format replicates methods employed by Russia’s RT and China’s CGTN. It speculates that its emergence was prompted by the results of visits to Pyongyang by the chiefs of Russian and Chinese government-run mass media and the conclusion of agreements on cooperation in the struggle against fake news (Zwirko and Hotham, 2020). It should be noted, however, that such propaganda would have had no chances to succeed without some tangible improvements in the quality of life. No outright public eyewash attempts were noticed. At least, according to Konstantin Asmolov, who had a chance to see for himself apartments of this class in the elite neighborhood Mirae during his visit to the DPRK.
Next, we should note changes in the methods of struggle against anti-North Korean statements made by defectors. The exposure of Shin Dong-hyuk—the central personality of “Escape from Camp 14” (Harden, 2012) is the best example. In October 2014, the North came up with video statements concerning Shin’s real biography and video footage to confirm it. According to Pyongyang’s side of the affair Shin was born not in a penitentiary, his father is still alive, the injuries he suffered were purely household ones, his mother and brother were executed in 1996 for killing a woman neighbor, and Shin defected after facing criminal charges for raping a 13-year-old girl. It is quite remarkable that the content’s presentation was somewhat different from North Korean television’s customary style: statements by his father and the victim’s mother in the studio sounded very sincere and natural (Kim Hanber, 2014). This by no means indicates that North Korea’s disclosures were not pre-rehearsed and are 100-percent trustworthy. But the new presentation format undoubtedly produced the desirable effect. After that Shin began to be openly criticized even by other defectors (Feast and Kim, 2015). In the end, in January 2015 Shin contacted his coauthor Blaine Harden to confess that he had incorporated some “fictive elements” into the story. Harden eventually acknowledged that in some respects Shin “moved things around” (Fifield, 2015). After some time, Shin quit big politics and social networks.
North Korea’s updated historical series is another trend that is worth mentioning. On July 22, 2018, North Koreans were offered the premier show of an eight-episode historical TV-series entitled “The Wild Ginseng Gatherers of the Imjin War” (Imjinnyŏn-ŭi simmanidŭl), which instantly drew much attention worldwide.
The series tells the life story of a peasant who gets involved in the events of the Imjin War (1592–1598). Cruel Japanese invaders, assisted by a Korean defector, invade Korea to get hold of the secret of cultivating Korean ginseng. Along with the class contradictions of Korean society of that time, the series brings up the issue of national traitors and stresses the sacred duty of each Korean to struggle for the freedom and independence of their homeland.
This series has many remarkable features that are absolutely new for the DPRK’s ideology and propaganda, and deserves a separate article, but here let us mention just some of them. Firstly, the visual picture made with the use of the latest technologies is of a very high quality and seems to replicate contemporary South Korean or Japanese TV-dramas. Special visual effects and martial arts fight scenes are no less impressive. Secondly, the plot is multilayered and intriguing, which makes it strikingly different from all previous products of this kind.
Unlike the movies of the 1970s and 1980s, “Ginseng Gatherers” is almost free from traditional playing up the role of the national leader. Of course, all positive characters in the series are outstanding personalities, but the focus is not centered entirely on them. The main message is the struggle for the homeland against external and internal enemies and the necessity of unity for the sake of victory. Another very important feature of the series is the name of the Imjin War, which is not referred to as the Imjin Patriotic War (a standard term widely used in the DPRK), but is described by a more traditional common Korean phrase Imjin waeran (Imjin Japanese Disturbance).
Most remarkable is the fact that the series was created with support from the North Korean trade company Changsu (Longevity), whose main line of business is the production and export of ginseng. The main theme of the serial, ginseng’s protection from external enemies, is in fact the company’s hidden advertising. The authors of the “Ginseng Gatherers” went as far as to make an open product placement. In the final scene the main character looks at a ginseng-shaped cliff, and seconds later the cliff transforms into a ginseng. The film ends with captions and subtitles that brief the viewer on the whole line of the company’s products, videos showing different stages of ginseng production, and documentary clips from the film sets.
The South Koreans’ reaction to the “Ginseng Gatherers” is quite remarkable. The next day after the airing of the first episode South Korea’s main news agency Yonhap published a lengthy review. In particular, it stressed the up-to-date presentation, the next episode’s teaserб and some other novelties.
The series earned praise from Chŏn Yŏng-sŏn, a research professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of the Humanities for Unification. He said that recent North Korean films and dramas , unlike previous products, had a sense of color and were quite flexible in terms of content and form (Yonhap, 2018). The author of another lengthy article on the South Korean portal Tanji ilbo (2018) put it even more frankly. He said that despite all the drama’s flaws, it is so well-made that it was not for the National Security Act it would have already had a million views on YouTube alone.
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It would be appropriate to conclude that the transformation of ideology and propaganda during Kim Jong-un’s rule proceeds along several tracks.
First. The attempts to upgrade the language of ideology and propaganda are largely targeted at the younger generation. They follow several guidelines and are implemented resolutely and successfully by and large.
Second. The content of propaganda is being changed far more moderately than its language, and its continuity and links with the ideals and doctrines of the past remain intact.
At the same time, the current ideology’s conformity with the doctrines of the previous leaders is not called into question. On the contrary, the media keeps saying that Kim Jong-un “continues the thoughts and intentions of the great leaders completely, without the slightest changes and in the original form” (Tang, 2014, p. 6).
Third. On the one hand, it is postulated that the period of emergency measures is over; on the other hand, the country’s problems are now discussed more frankly, and the permissible level of public criticism has grown. True, it is still way below the Soviet era’s glasnost, but quite a few critical statements that could previously be heard only within a circle of select few nowadays are pronounced ex cathedra.
Counterpropaganda is being changed, too. The videos slamming defectors look less bombastic and outspokenly scripted and rehearsed. Also, the nature of the charges put forward is addressed, above all, to the Western and internal young audiences, which are very sensitive about sexual abuse against minors.
At the same time, it would be wrong to say that the new trends unequivocally replace the old ones. They are rather a supplement to what is already in existence.
How can one gauge the effects of the change in North Korean propaganda? For the time being there are three indicative facts. First of all, this development is now monitored by such major media resources of great authority as NK News, which has released a series of detailed stories (Zwirko and Hotham, 2020).
Secondly, starting from June 4, 2020, Facebook began to supply the DPRK-related accounts of this type with warnings that publishers “are wholly or partially under the editorial control of their government.” And in August 2020, Twitter first “temporarily restricted” the account @coldnoodlefan and then suspended it for “violating the platform’s rules and publishing propaganda” (Zwirko, 2020b).
Also indicative are the lamentations by South Korea’s radio international KBS that experts believe it is practically impossible to stop the influx of North Korean digital content, particularly if it comes from such platforms as YouTube, Twitter or Instagram, whose servers are in third countries (KBS, 2020).
A large article in The Korea Times, published on August 21, 2020, noted that “in this way the regime is trying to dispel its status as a pariah state and instead promote itself as ‘a normal country’” (Park, 2020), and the question arises as to what extent this content may be subject to the National Security Act.
As far as the content and tactics are concerned, the presented material may be analyzed within the framework of constructivist concepts, which will prompt the most promising guidelines for further research into this remarkable phenomenon.
It might be worth examining the method of imitation and mirroring, which was thoroughly analyzed by Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev (Krastev and Holmes, 2019). In this context, at the propaganda level North Korea mirrors its southern neighbor (including soft-power elements and work through unofficial actors); at the strategical level it follows China’ example (a combination of the image of a responsible and independent country and a variety of restrictions, including technical ones, on hostile propaganda); and from the standpoint of ideology it imitates/introduces the practices observed in the Soviet Union in its last years and China (open criticism of corruption and bureaucracy at the official level).
Or it might make sense to employ Marshal McLuhan’s conceptual construct to identify certain changes in both information channels (official ones are coupled with unofficial ones and there emerges a certain distinction between internal and foreign propaganda, with greater emphasis on counterpropaganda as an attempt to defeat the opponents’ arguments not through defamation but with counterarguments), and in the target audience, which is younger and more foreign.
In his book entitled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man McLuhen says: “Today, the backward countries can learn from us how to beat us” (McLuhan, 1964, p.374). It looks like North Korea may well become a quick and capable learner. Although there are no signs it might attain a global victory in the information war, it is already quite capable of scoring tactical points on the domestic and foreign fronts.
The research was carried out at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences with support from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, Project #20-014-00020.
Korean names and terms in this text were Romanized according to the McCune-Reischauer system except for those that are widely used internationally (Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang, etc.). The names of the authors listed in the References are written in the way they were spelt in their original works.
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