Thursday, December 01, 2011

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

[Series Index]

This is a continuation of Mr. Joo Seong-Ha's discussion about "journalism" in North Korea. Below is the translated article.
*                    *                     * 

Just going by our common sense, North Korean newspapers are strictly a propaganda mechanism for the labor party, a boring newspaper filled with stories deifying the Kim Il-Sung family. Not only are the stories critical of the regime completely forbidden, but also are the stories about accidents, crimes, disasters or polls. It would difficult to find a newspaper that has a more inflexible and archaic editorial policy. Most articles are about the same 10 years ago as they are now. Therefore, one could easily come to a guess that North Korean people would totally avoid reading the newspaper.

But the reality is quite different -- North Korean people are truly diligent in reading the newspaper. Of course, it is not as if any North Korean can read the newspapers just because they want to read them. Because the newspapers are also rationed by the regime, one cannot read the newspaper unless one is at a certain social level.

Newspapers are popular in North Korea because there are few other channels by which people can learn the world affairs. Although there is a central television station, televisions are difficult to watch because areas outside of Pyongyang only receive a few hours of electricity a day. Also, the news on TV is only about 30 minutes long, again mostly devoted to what Kim Jong-Il has been doing. Further, there really is nothing much to read other than the newspaper. There are only a few magazines, whose copies are so few in number that regular people hardly have even seen one. Except for the books about the Kim family, there is hardly any North Korean literature either. Because of that, seeing any printed material in North Korea is itself a joy. Reading is one of the few joys in North Korea, given that there is practically no television, no Internet, no books, no places to drink and hang out, no karaoke (unlike South Korea) and no culture of leisure.

The first three pages of Rodong Shinmun is boring, as they are devoted to news about Kim Jong-Il. But the last three pages -- domestic news on page 4, South Korean news on page 5 and international news on page 6 -- carry a different story every day. Personally, when I was living in North Korea, I felt alive whenever I read the newspaper.

North Korean people read pages 5 and 6 very, very closely. Of course, South Korea-related news are strictly focused on:  propaganda about reunification; denunciations of the South Korean government, capitalists and American imperialists, and; the superiority of the socialist system by highlighting the dark areas of South Korean society. The international news likewise focuses on:  expose on the irrationality of the rotten capitalist societies; solidification of anti-American alliance, and; the rise of North Korea's international stature, etc.

However, North Korean people already know that much. So as they read those articles, they use their imagination to picture the outside world. Take, for example, the war in Iraq. When the war broke out, North Korean newspapers would report:  "Iraqi army is bravely battling against America's imperial army, downing two fighter jets and five missiles." With this report, North Korean people would think:  "Ah, there is a war in Iraq. There would have been a lot of fighter jets, and they only got two. They have no chance -- America would win pretty soon." And in fact, the reports on the exploits of the Iraqi military would decrease over time, and then completely disappear from Rodong Shinmun. Then the people would think:  "Iraq is losing the war." Some time later, upon seeing the reports that say "Iraqi patriots are bombing the American military base in Baghdad," North Korean people would think:  "So Iraq is now under American rule."

The same goes for news about South Korea. Rodong Shinmun frequently carries a critical article that say, for example: "The South Korean puppet government sentenced one year in prison based on a fraudulent National Security Act to a patriotic young man who posted an article praising Dear Leader on the Internet." Then North Korean people would think:  "Just one year -- what a great country. We would be shot immediately if we praised the South Korean president."

In an actual case, a South Korean college student Im Soo-Gyeong visited Pyongyang in 1989, and was sentenced to five years in prison in South Korea. Every day, North Korean newspapers denounced the "barbaric acts of South Korean fascist thieves who sentenced five years to a patriotic young woman." But instead, North Korean people thought:  "If one of us went to Seoul and came back, not only ourselves but also every one of our relatives would be killed -- we are the true fascists."

In this manner, North Korean people rarely accept the regime's propaganda at face value, but instead picture the outside world with their imagination. And the result of their imagination is in fact much closer to the truth compared to what is written on the Rodong Shinmun. Even the boring Rodong Shinmun can be pretty entertaining if one reads it as if solving a riddle. Because North Korean people constantly approach the newspaper this way, they have a highly developed sense of reading between the lines and appreciating the hidden meanings.

North Korea's propaganda bureaus are largely aware of this also. It may have overdone in its criticism of South Korean dictatorship such that it created a blowback, but such mistakes are rare today, perhaps because of experience. This year, North Korean newspapers has been silent on the "Jasmine Revolution" of North African and the Middle East. Previously, they would have written a propaganda like:  "The people rose up to drive out the puppet regime of the American imperialists and achieved independence." But this time, it has been strangely quiet. I believe that North Korean newspapers learned the fact that keeping quiet is the best strategy, because they know that the people will read it differently no matter how they write it.

If the newspapers do not report a story at all, it would be difficult for North Koreans to understand what is happening in the outside world. But just as soon as the newspapers try to spin the facts in their favor and report, North Koreans appreciate the situation right away based on their excellent imagination.

President Abraham Lincoln said: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." It is as if he was watching North Korea.

뛰는 ‘북한 신문’위에 나는 ‘북한 주민’있다 [North Korea Real Talk]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Thanks for translating these - really interesting stuff!

  2. my favorite so far out of the journalism series. great article, thanks for translating.

  3. This was so interesting! Thanks for your super translation!


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...