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 In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs