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

Video On the Scene: In Gaza, Darkness Brings Dread and Death

Palestinians fear nighttime raids, many feel abandoned by outside world, VOA's Scott Bobb reports More

African Small Farmers Could Be Key to Ending Food Insecurity

Experts say providing access to microloans, crop insurance, better storage facilities, irrigation, road systems and market information could enable greater production More

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge 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.
Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelteri
X
Scott Bobb
July 30, 2014 8:16 PM
Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video A Summer Camp for All the World

VIDEO: During workshops and social gatherings, the Global Youth Village summer camp encourages young people to cooperate and embrace their differences, while learning to communicate with people from other countries. VOA's Deborah Block has more.
Video

Video From Cantankerous Warlock to Incorruptible Priest, 'Harry Potter' Actor Embraces Diverse Roles

He’s perhaps best known as Mad Eye Moody, the whimsical wizard in the Harry Potter franchise. But character actor Brendan Gleeson's resume includes dozens of films, and he embraces all the characters he inhabits with equal passion. In an interview with VOA’s Penelope Poulou, Gleeson discussed his new drama "Calvary" and his secret to success.

AppleAndroid