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

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race in military confinement to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey 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.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid