North Korean Internationalism: A Contrary View

In the wake of media reports lambasting the North for failing to carry the entire FIFA 2010 World Cup on state television, the blog of the French-Korean Friendship Association offers up a vigorous defense.

In an essay entitled “International News in the North Korean Media,” the Friendship association argues for the value of the Rodong Sinmun and the DPRK education system.

Why? Because, according to the association, the North Korean press lacks the very Sarkozy family gossip that fuels the Parisian tabloids (a similar vein into which this very blog dipped not so long ago), and engages in more systematic and specific analyses of the global financial crisis than can be found in the Western press.

Moreover, the essay goes on to say, North Korean international news articles tend to dwell on countries with whom the DPRK has good relations (such as Cuba and Russia), offering a very different and welcome departure from South Korean media which tends to be focused more, they argue, on American pop stars.

While the above points are primarily value judgments on American/French/South Korean media excesses, the final main point of the essay does bear thinking about: The North Korean populace is very well educated regarding the geographies, economies, and political systems of countries the world over.

This point is so rarely mentioned as to appear ridiculous.  I recall picking up a map on a paper fragment, rendered meticiulously in pencil with 183 world countries, each labeled as if on a quiz, which had been confiscated on Koje Island in 1952 from a group of North Korean prisoners trying to study the globe.   Although I was sitting at a big maple desk in the New York Public Library Special Collections area, my head deep in a box of North Korean propaganda material, for a moment I was sucked into the world of the prison camp and the hardscrabble struggle for literacy in multiple forms.   This map therefore impressed itself upon me and, though credence is not needed, lends some credence to an argument put forth by internationalist French left-wing socialists whose viewpoints would normally be dismissed axiomatically by sites like the Daily NK as mere “apologists.”

Why apologize for facts?  The North Korean people — at least those who are still attending middle and high school, and not skipping class to pick edible weeds, do patch farming, or smoke methamphetamine in Hamhung — have a better grasp of world geography and political/economic structures than do students in the United States.   And while the North Koreans tend to be shorter and exist under a regime that engages in reprehensible behavior, the education offered up by the DPRK does function as more than a vehicle for the Kimist personality cult, and, perhaps, can even serve as the cornerstone for North Korea’s coming internationalization.

For more about the foundations of North Korean internationalism in the media publications from 1945-1950 (an handsome collection of which was captured by the U.S. Army and is available at the U.S. National Archives), see the following article:

Cathcart, Adam, and Charles Kraus. Internationalist Culture in North Korea, 1945-1950.” The Review of Korean Studies 11:3 (September 2008): 123-148.

A pdf of our article can be accessed here (click on “Review of Korean Studies” on the left [it’s the only English text on the page; hard to miss it] and go to Vol. 11, No. 3; the table of contents for the journal is also available on this Korean Studies site (in French).


  1. If you were a child in a small closed off country that was basically flattened 60 years ago prior, then you would of course know more about geography than American chuildren. When you are born as an American cintzen into the New Roman Empire then there is really no reason to learn about the globe. Mainly because you know that 95% of it will not pose a threat to you. Like the old saying goes, War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, not peace. In other words if you lived in New York City all your life then why would you need to learn where [insert small town USA] is on the map. Unless it is within your strategic interest to.

    1. Thanks, Ditto — these are very good points re: centrality, and the notion of motive in North Korean geographical studies…perhaps they aren’t looking for allies. Although today’s KCNA does seem to have an awful lot about Mexican and Peruvian Kim Jong Suk worship…

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