Monday, October 31, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: "Journalism" in North Korea (Part II)

[Series Index]

This is a continuation of Mr. Joo Seong-Ha's discussion about "journalism" in North Korea. Below is the translated article.
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The previous post explained the types of North Korean newspapers and the lives of North Korean reporters. This post will discuss how Rodong Shinmun is organized and edited.

Rodong Shinmun has six pages per issue, which is the only North Korean newspapers to do so. Other papers have four pages. Since newspapers are folded and opened, usually they increase or decrease by four pages. A regular South Korean newspaper nowadays usually have 32 pages, sometimes going to 28 pages or 36 pages depending on the amount of advertisements it has to carry. But the six pages of Rodong Shinmun is essentially three sheets of newspaper-sized paper. So the two sheets of paper are connected, but the last sheet of paper comes out as an insert. North Korean people also refer to the first four pages as "main paper," and the fifth and sixth pages as "insert."

Newspapers around the world carry the most important news of the day on the front page. But the front page of a North Korean newspaper carries stories about the current status or deification of Kim Jong-Il, making it the least readable page. North Koreans simply glance over the front page, and turn it over. Day after day, the contents of that page rarely change. In the 1990s when I was living in North Korea, the front page usually carried a story of Kim Jong-Il visiting a military base. Even a collection of years' worth of newspapers rarely sees any change in the pictures and the stories on the front page.

The front page usually carries a picture of an expressionless Kim Jong-Il, standing with soldiers stiff with tension. In the second page, there are pictures of Kim Jong-Il smiling while examining the different parts of the base guided by high ranking officers, pictures of soldiers putting on a performance before Kim Jong-Il, pictures of Kim Jong-Il visiting the mess hall, appearing to be satisfied while holding a cucumber or herbs. Of course, North Korean people are fully aware of the common knowledge that the vegetables at the mess hall are not available all the time -- they are collected at the battalion level to make Kim Jong-Il happy, and the officers take them back after Kim Jong-Il leaves.

North Koreans have been seeing this same picture for over a decade.

Kim Jong-Il's visit, reported on Rodong Shinmun
The stories on the front page usually discuss that on so-and-so day, Kim Jong-Il gave an on-site instruction for such-and-such base of the People's Army, accompanied by so-and-so, giving an address about such-and-such that inspired the troops, etc. -- and the stories are the same all the time. Even the course of Kim Jong-Il's visit is the same: first, pay respect at Kim Il-Sung's memorial, then climb up the fortress, then visit the mess hall and then watch an "impromptu" performance at the hospital beds, then concluded with gifts of binoculars and automatic guns and a group picture. I saw this every year for five years before I defected.

Therefore, North Korean people rarely care about the front and second pages. Even the third page covers the stories of the mercy and virtue from the party and the leader, and the loyal subjects who did certain things to repay the mercy, etc. -- all stories about which North Koreans do not care. The most popular pages for North Koreans are the fifth page covering South Korea, and the sixth page covering international affairs. On this topic, I will elaborate further in the next post.

The text on Rodong Shinmun is written horizontally, and Chinese characters or English alphabets are rarely used. The paper is 40.5 cm horizontally, 54.5 cm vertically. Compared to a South Korean paper, it is longer horizontally by 1 cm. It has eight columns, which make it appear a little cramped compared to South Korean newspapers which usually use seven columns. It uses eight point Myeongjo font, which is very small. But when it refers to either the names or quotes of Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il, a different font is used to make them more noticeable. This stylistic rule is common to all newspapers and magazines of North Korea.

North Korean newspapers, including Rodong Shinmun, have no section for advertisement in an attempt to repudiate commercialism. Because of that, all six pages are completely filled with news articles. Considering the smallness of the font and the fact that the entire page is filled with articles, Rodong Shinmun would be about the same as a 12-page South Korean newspaper in terms of the amount of stories. However, the local Pyongyang Shinmun occasionally carries a notice that a certain store is selling a certain product. Of course, if you asked a North Korean reporter, he would absolutely deny that the story is an advertisement, and insist that it is an informational service for the people.

It does not appear that a North Korean newspaper will carry an ad any time soon, as Kim Jong-Il himself severely dislikes advertisements. In a meeting with the heads of South Korean media held in August 2000, Kim Jong-Il said: "I really like KBS TV because it has no commercial. I only watch KBS [among South Korean TV stations.] I also like NHK [Japanese TV station] because it doesn't have any ads, it has good coverage on international affairs, and its programs are gentleman-like and conservative. But I am not even sure if the Chinese CCTV and Russian TV are officially run, because they are such a mess. There should be a TV station that presents the national voice, without the ads ... I respect NHK and BBC."

Because of Kim Jong-Il's preference, anyone who dared to put on an advertisement would immediately face a burial. And of course, no one would even try without wanting to wager his life. Considering that, Rodong Shinmun might be the most expensive paper in the world on which to advertise.

As an aside, in the same meeting with South Korean media chiefs, Kim Jong-Il drew attention by praising the North Korean media: "North Korean media may not be as quick as South Korean ones, but they do not fall behind South Korean ones when it comes to accuracy. We are far more accurate." I don't know if he truly believes that North Korean newspapers are accurate -- but it will be strange if he truly believes that. Kim Jong-Il also said he reads all North Korea-related news in South Korean newspapers, and even said that he is enjoying a serial novel being carried on Seoul Shinmun.

This post was heavy on Kim Jong-Il, but I had no choice -- North Korean media is so strictly based on Kim Jong-Il's orders that without referring to Kim Jong-Il, there is no way to explain North Korean media. Once we glean the media philosophy of Kim Jong-Il, we can easily resolve the curiosity about why North Korean media behaves a certain way. Then how would North Korean people receive the North Korean newspapers so thoroughly observant of Kim Jong-Il's preference? That is the story for the next post.

김정일이 재미있게 보는 남한신문은? [North Korea Real Talk]

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  1. Looking at the original Korean article, I was happy to see that Mr. Joo leaves out the honorifics bestowed by some of his colleagues when mentioning Kim Jong-il.

  2. Not to be overly pedantic but shouldn't the second sentence of the second paragraph read,"...making *it* the least readable page."

  3. Please feel free to be pedantic when it comes to spelling, grammar, etc. Correction was made.

  4. Thanks for this info. I visited North Korea in August with a Caucasian friend who is conversational (though not fluent) in Korean.

    Though we had both read extensively about the DRRK before visiting (including Andrei Lankov's great book), we both walked away thinking that there was still much subtlety we missed. So I greatly appreciate your DPRK related posts. Please keep them coming.


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