This essay was originally published at The Conversation on 19 December 2014, and is reprinted with permission.
The release of The Interview, an American comedy depicting the death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, has been cancelled. A massive cyberattack on Sony, widely blamed on Pyongyang, and apparent threats against cinemas showing the film made it clear just what can happen when you release a film that makes fun of the Kim regime.
But only days before, North Korea had staged a major propaganda event of its own. At a rather strange press conference held in Pyongyang, a 29-year-old Texan named Arturo Martinez described, among other things, American government involvement in UFO cover-ups and cocaine trafficking.
Having tried to swim across the Han river to North Korea in order to deliver this message, Martinez seemed to share motivations with Matthew Miller, the American who previously sought “asylum” in North Korea and whose release preceded Martinez’s arrival by just two days.
The North Korean “reporters” present looked mystified at times, but the authorities seemed happy to see a foreign guest broadcasting his validation of the North Korean system and the ostensible hypocrisy of American human rights norms.
Martinez is an extreme and somewhat tragic example, but there is no doubt a full-scale propaganda war going on between the West and North Korea. While the Martinez case will probably be proven to be a misstep on Pyongyang’s part, it’s hard to otherwise deny that North Korea has become more skillful at spinning a counter narrative, and muddying the waters of information.
Indeed, the level of propagandist skill Pyongyang is now displaying is rather more sophisticated than observers in the West acknowledge.
Playing the game
We too often depict North Korea as a passive recipient of our propaganda, and in some cases as a pure victim. The “Interview” debacle is a case in point: a fictionalised assassination of Kim Jong-un in a movie full of juvenile humour provokes North Korea’s towering rage, and the international incident of the hacking episode is the result.
But over-egged threats to kill foreign leaders have also been a central part of the North Korean arsenal. Pyongyang directs personal threats at the South Korean president with abandon, threatening to blow up the Blue House. Lee Myung-bak, the previous office-holder in Seoul, was called a “rat” by DPRK state media and his effigy either stabbed to death or attacked by German shepherds on various occasions.
Fortunately for Pyongyang, some Western voices are happy to contextualise any North Korean death threat or insult as being more or less “our” fault.
At a recent academic panel I observed via a livestream in Washington DC, an American reporter who had been in Pyongyang was asked if she had explained to her North Korean understudies how offensive we might consider state media descriptions of President Obama as “a black monkey”. In response, she essentially wrote off the statements as a time-delayed response to American racism during the Korean War.
While racism was indeed part and parcel of the Korean War, softening North Korean attacks by seeing the country as a kind of eternally-wounded adolescent is misperception, and the North Korean leadership has no reason to be so subtle.
Indeed, the Korean War remains an explicit touchstone of regime propaganda. One of Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong’s first public on-site inspections with him was to the Sinchon Massacre Museum, a small city south of Pyongyang that was the site of war crimes in 1950 that were (erroneously) blamed by the North Koreans on the US.
Standing under a wall asserting that 35,000 civilians had been butchered in the city, Kim Jong-un called the Americans “cannibals” and urged more patriotic education. The horrors of the Korean War, to him, were his own ultimate answer to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into human rights in North Korea.
The human rights propaganda battleground is particularly fraught this year. While the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea and its gaunt advocate, Justice William Kirby, have taken the advantage in meeting halls in New York and Geneva and in international media, North Korea has struck back in new and different ways.
In addition to unleashing its notoriously reticent diplomatic corps for interviews around Europe and New York, within Pyongyang there have been a number of “re-defector” press conferences, staged events to celebrate the return of people who had previously fled the state. They are now put forth to discuss how well cared-for they are in North Korea.
When rumours crop up that the “re-defectors” have been executed, the North Koreans wheel them out again, as recently happened with the “Laos Nine”, a group of early teenage North Koreans who are expected to smile for the cameras on demand.
North Korea has also been going after de facto “celebrity defectors” who haven’t returned, such as Shin Dong-hyuk. Using his father as a counterweight, the state has been purporting to “expose” Shin by means of an unflattering video. Yet in the video, terrible things are admitted by the state – such as that Shin’s mother and brother were in fact executed, and that he had a hand in their arrest.
In effect, North Korea was confirming the most horrifying elements in Shin’s story in order to call other aspects of his account into question. Even the background soundtrack of the film indicated Pyongyang’s concern that the source be validated.
During a story about how Shin supposedly got a huge scar due to a dog knocking over a pot of boiling water (rather than during his captivity in a gulag), a dog conveniently barks in the background. But that the state felt the need to put the video out in the first place is the most striking aspect of the whole matter. The North Korean propaganda apparatus is no longer content to be only a target in the international arena.
The Interview story will probably burn on for a while, and the world will forget about Arturo Martinez’s conspiracy theories, but the propaganda conflict between North Korea and the West (including Japan) will continue. To see recent events as some kind of unprecedented aberration would be to miss the point completely.
Both sides in North Korea’s conflict with the West are going to continue to sling around whatever implements they can find in the mission to discredit the other. Nasty things will be said, and names will be called. Perhaps productive diplomatic meetings can take place in spite of all of this noise, and cultural diplomacy can and will continue. Maybe, as in the case of the US and Cuba, a way forward can be found.
But in the meantime, any positive signals (such as they are) will have to be inferred through a great deal of noise, awful film scripts, and the occasional paranoid testimony.