News / Asia

'Pyongyangologists' Study North Korean Propaganda for Clues

VOA Korean service reporter Won-Ki Choi scours North Korean media for clues about an upcoming ruling party conference.
VOA Korean service reporter Won-Ki Choi scours North Korean media for clues about an upcoming ruling party conference.

North Korea has one of the world's most secretive governments, which masks the reality of its economic and political affairs from both outsiders and its own citizens. Determining the Communist state's plans is much like reading tea leaves in a cup. And with Pyongyang's announcement of the first ruling party conference in 30 years, observers are now scrambling to learn more.

Broadcasters with the Voice of America's Korean service take turns reading the news into a pair of microphones in a studio in Washington, D.C. Their director guides them through the program headed to North Korea, where authorities frequently try to jam the signal. But getting the news into North Korea is not nearly as difficult as getting it out.

To listen to Kate Woodsome's complete report, click here:



In the team's newsroom, senior reporter Won-Ki Choi squints at North Korean Web sites and photos of leader Kim Jong Il. As he turns to a news report about a recent typhoon, he says insightful clues can come from closely reading state media.

"This is what we call KCNA. North Korean official news agency. But the problem is that there's no real news at all," says Choi. "But if you read it carefully, this is just the story about the Typhoon Number 7, Kompasu. The interesting thing is that usually they do not report how many people were killed. Never."

For this month's typhoon, he says North Korean media took the rare step of broadcasting death tolls from a natural disaster.

"It means because of the flood, wind and the landslide, dozens of people were killed. For the first time they said that," Choi says.

He adds the unusual details would catch the notice of North Koreans. But determining exactly why state media wanted to catch their attention is more difficult.

 

Ruling party meeting

Choi thinks it could be linked to the upcoming ruling Workers' Party conference. The meeting was initially scheduled for the first half of September, but the date later passed without mention in state media. Choi says the typhoon report could be a way of subtly addressing the issue.

"So they should explain a little bit about that for their own people or outside. So my interpretation is that maybe some local people, local representative of Korean Workers' Party has not come to Pyongyang," says Choi.

It is a guess. Pure speculation. It is called "Pyongyangology." The last surviving offshoot of Kremlinology, the art of studying the Soviet Union's opaque central government during the Cold War.

Fact or fiction

The most important skill of a Pyongyangologist is the endurance to slog through mountains of propaganda, says Charles Armstrong, the director of the Center for Korean Research at New York's Columbia University.

"The language of North Korean media is very repetitive and full of clichés. But nevertheless if you know how to read them correctly, you can find interesting tidbits amongst all of these repetitive statements. You just have to know which ones to pay attention to," says Armstrong.

Clues are also found in photos and songs such as "Footsteps," a tune that has been blaring across the country for the past year, extolling the virtues of Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of Kim Jong Il.

Declaring that "Commander Kim is stepping forward," it is considered a succession anthem for the apparent heir to the world's only Communist dynasty.

Computer numeric control

North Korea is also priming the public for the change with the catchphrase "Computer Numeric Control," or "CNC," a slogan now familiar in news reports and propaganda posters, says Columbia University's Armstrong.

"This seems to be a way of creating a language that would legitimize Kim Jong Un as the leader of the new generation that's more technologically savvy and taking North Korea rather belatedly into the 21st century."

The messaging campaign appears to be working, according to Paul Estabrooks, Senior Communications Specialist for the Christian advocacy group Open Doors International, who visited Pyongyang last month with a tour group from China.

Changing titles

"Historically, Kim Il Sung, the founder, was always called the 'Great Leader.' And his son, Kim Jong Il, who is today's leader, was called the 'Dear Leader,'" notes Estabrooks, adding that the nomenclature has changed.

He says Kim Il Sung was only referred to as "President" or "Eternal President" during his trip, and that  Kim Jong Il was always referred to as the “Great Leader,” a term previously reserved for his father.

"And never did we hear last month [Kim Jong Il ] as the term 'Dear Leader.' And I believe it's because they're saving that term now for the next generation, for Kim Jong Il's son," Estabrooks says.

North Korea's state-run news agency has announced a new date for the Workers' Party conference: September 28.

Until then, back in Washington, VOA's Korean service is pouring through more North Korean propaganda, trying to sort fact from fiction.

You May Like

Reports of Mass Murder on Mediterranean Smuggler’s Boat

Boat sailed from Libya with 750 migrants aboard and arrived in Italy with 569 More

Video New Thailand Hotline Targets Misbehaving Monks

Officials say move aims to restore country’s image of Buddhism, tarnished by recent high profile scandals such as opulent lifestyle, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as child sex abuse More

Study: Dust from Sahara Helped Form Bahama Islands

What does the Sahara have in common with a Caribbean island? Quite a lot, researchers say More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train in Underwater Labi
X
George Putic
July 25, 2014 7:25 PM
In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid