With Kim Jong Un saying his country has a miniature nuclear warhead that can fit on a missile, North Korea's often bellicose international messaging is in the spotlight, again. VOA’s Brian Padden in Seoul recently spoke to an authority on North Korean propaganda to discuss how North Korea’s public diplomacy outreach has done a very poor job of defending itself against world condemnation following the country’s fourth nuclear test and recent long-range rocket launch.
I am speaking to Brian Myers, Associate Professor of International Studies at Dongseo University in South Korea. His 2010 book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, is an examination of the propaganda produced in North Korea for internal consumption. Thanks for doing this today Brian.
Myers: Sure thing.
After the U.N. imposed new tough sanctions last week on North Korea, its military responded by firing projectiles into the sea and the country’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un ordered the military to be prepared to use nuclear weapons. North Korea announced it will boycott the UN human rights council. It’s state media made graphic and derogatory comments about South Korean President Park Geun-hye and a US student being detained in North Korea was marched before cameras to “confess” his crimes for trying to steal a propaganda sign.
Why does North Korea present itself to the world so poorly, through threatening, through scornful personal attacks and with implausibly staged confessions?
I think we need to keep in mind that North Korea has always been an ultra nationalist state. I deferred from many Pyongyang watchers In that I do not consider this to be a communist or a failed communist state.
It’s an ultranationalist state, which is mainly interested in influencing the South Korean nationalists left, which is very different from the left wing in the United States.
The sort of crude idiom which we Americans would associate with Donald Trump or Rush Limbaugh is here in South Korea More the traditional province of the left which has mocked president Park Geun-hye itself in language and satirical art that an American would consider really beyond the pale.
When she was running for president in 2012, there was a revolting painting of her on a gynecologist chair with her legs spread apart. And many on the left here found that hilariously funny. So Pyongyang’s rhetoric does not of appall its target outside audience to quite the same extent as it appalls to maybe Americans and Western Europeans.
And I should also point out that the Korean word me-yung which features prominently in North Korea propaganda does not have quite as harsh a ring as the English word bitch has. It’s bad but not that bad.
As for the bellicosity and the belligerence, North Korea is I think quite frustrated by the West’s persistence in regarding it as a communist state because that misperception leave the west to assume that North Korea is not that much of a threat.
The communists had nuclear weapons for decades and never used them. And this is why even now Washington seems to think the worst-case scenario is that the North Koreans are going to sell atomic material to terrorists.
So this rhetoric is the North’s way of saying to Washington, ‘You guys better keep us on the front burner because we are just as ready to fight and die as your enemies in the Middle East are.
Are these provocations and public confessions more aimed at an internal audience and are they still effective in present day when more outside information is able to get into the North?
Let’s remember that confessions have a very long history going back to the Korean War. The regime has always reveled in showing images and footage of Americans crying and begging for mercy.
If you go to the war museum in Pyongyang, you’ll see a lot of prominent space devoted to this kind of thing and the attention to the USS Pueblo’s crew in 1968 resulted in a year-long feast of this kind of stuff.
Kim Il Sung always said the Korean people should not be afraid of The Yankees. They should realize that the Yankees can be beaten and these images serve that end.
Now it’s true that the North Korean people do have more access to outside propaganda then they used to. And I think this is one reason perhaps paradoxically why the North Korean export propaganda is much more bellicose than it used to be.
In the old days the regime could make very peaceful noises to the outside world and very bellicose racist noises in what I call megaphone propaganda, the sort of thing that North Koreans get in their farms and factories.
But now as more and more North Koreans access outside sources of information, the regime is under much more pressure to speak in one voice. And that means making much the same warlike and often racist noises in export propaganda that it has always made on the home front.
North Korea may have a case to make that it needs nuclear weapons to deter what they see as a threatening outside force, that the US already has nuclear weapons, but it makes the case so poorly, with this bellicose language. Is the leadership so isolated or out of touch that they don’t realize they could do a better job of communicating?
I think we need to realize that they take their ideology just as seriously as radical Islamists take their own ideology. You can argue that the Islamic state could do a better job of presenting itself to the outside world.
And yet it behaves the way it does because it genuinely perceives itself as righteous, as doing what has to be done.
And with the North Koreans I think it’s the same thing. Those are ultra nationalists who are genuinely outraged by the presence of Americans troops in South Korea, who remain genuinely committed to reunifying the peninsula.
And this is the problem with ultra-nationalists everywhere is that it’s very difficult for them to put themselves in the shoes of other nations, of other races and has great difficulty presenting itself in a sophisticated way to them.
But I’m not sure they are actually hurting their image too much. There are plenty of “soft liners” still out there in the west who spin this belligerent rhetoric as the expression of a genuine fear of American attack, or even as a tragically counterproductive cry for dialogue.
And many people take his rhetoric as an excuse to say to the Obama administration ‘We really got to start talking to these people on their own terms before something horrible happens.’
Is it the case that this strategy of provocations worked in the past and is the situation different now with Washington, Seoul and even to a degree Beijing less willing to compromise?
The west really has habituated not just against the nuclear tests and the missile tests themselves, but also against this language. North Korea has been at very high pitch of warlike rhetoric for the past 20 or 30 years, and I think it is certainly the case that the outside world is not as worried about North Korea as it was in the early days of the nuclear crisis in the 1990s.
PADDEN: All right. Thank you very much.
Myers: Thank you.