Propaganda in the age of Kim Jong-Un: A discussion with Professor B.R. Myers

What follows is an email discussion between myself and Professor B.R. Myers of Dongsoo University, author of “The Cleanest Race” and “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” and keeper of the Sthele Press blog. At the end of the discussion, I thought readers might enjoy reading it, and Professor Myers graciously agreed to let me print it here.

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Stanton: A few weeks ago, a commenter at my blog cited your work as evidence that North Koreans probably still believe in their political system. That raises several questions: first, do North Koreans believe in their political ideology; second, do they believe in Kim Jong Un; and third, can they distinguish between the two in a place like North Korea where the personality cult is so critical?

In “The Cleanest Race,” you argued that North Korea’s propaganda was effective. I see plenty of evidence that it works on a significant number of South Koreans. Although the sentiments of North Koreans are harder to measure, I agree that nationalism and xenophobia probably still play well with South and North Koreans — even better than they play in most other places. The tribal instinct predates humanity itself, after all.

I doubt, however, that most North Koreans hold Kim Jong-Un in high regard. I see no evidence that they do and plenty of evidence that they don’t. He hasn’t cultivated the same monastic, martial, self-sacrificing persona that Kim Il-Sung could and that even Kim Jong-Il tried to. Just look at him. Look at his appearances with a laughingstock like Dennis Rodman — who is, in KCNA’s racist vernacular, a monkey with impure blood.

I think the true sentiments of North Koreans are probably complex. I suspect they probably believe in some elements of the system and not others. I suspect they are proud of their weapons programs and also see them as a waste of resources. Most of them can tell that the system is not providing for them, and I suspect that their views of Kim Jong-Un vary from apathy to antipathy, and are far less favorable than their views of Kim Il-Sung or even Kim Jong-Il.

Myers: I tend to agree with you in regard to Kim Jong Un himself. When I was there in 2011 even my minders could not work up much enthusiasm about him. No state can keep its people at the same pitch of fervency forever, especially not after losing the monopoly on providing culture and information to the masses. Kim Jong Un has made many blunders on the propaganda front. The Dennis Rodman stuff was indeed a fiasco. Kim Il Sung met African leaders in public, but like all foreigners they showed the proper deference. Rodman slouched next to Kim Jong Un in dark shades and a baseball cap. I knew then that Chang Song-thaek wasn’t pulling the strings, because if he had been, that would never have happened. 

But Kim has obviously been getting better advice lately. He is speaking much better too. He rushes his speeches a bit, but he has a good, rich voice, the voice of a more mature man. I’m sure the nuclear and ballistic triumphs he’s racking up at the moment are helping his “poll numbers”. By the regime’s military-first standards of performance he is doing better even than Kim Jong Il.  

In any case, his relative lack of popularity is not as important as the lack of popularity of a president in South Korea, where there is no bedrock state support to keep people patriotic even when they dislike a leader. 

But we Americans are more like the North Koreans in that regard. Does our patriotism rise and fall depending on who is in the White House? If we don’t like a president, do we start finding America’s enemies more likeable? No. We should therefore not assume that Kim Jong Un’s relative lack of stature means that support for the state is weakening.

And if we’re going to jeer at North Korea for being a de facto monarchy, we must also acknowledge the main advantage of such a system: no divisive squabbling over who has the right to rule. On my book tour for “The Cleanest Race” I used the example of my British mother: a firm supporter of the monarchy with different estimations of the various royals. She doesn’t like the idea of Charles becoming king, but accepts that it will and must happen. 

I’ve also often spoken of a defector (an artist) who told me how, when crossing the Tumen River into China, he was seized with a horrible guilt at betraying the nara, the country. This although his hatred of Kim Jong Il had been a big factor in inducing him to leave. For most North Koreans the state equals the race, equals the country. This is where the North has been so much more successful than what I call the “Unloved Republic” of South Korea. There, as in Weimar Germany, the state is seen as having betrayed the race. When Moon Jae-in looks back on the history of the ROK he holds up only the anti-state riots and protests as high points.  

It’s time we all acknowledged the genius of the North’s propaganda apparatus, however much distaste we feel about it. It works with the grain of human nature. Kim Il Sung’s first speech in Pyongyang in October 1945 went down terribly, because he lacked the natural charisma to make plausible the biographical legend the Soviets had chosen for him. But the propaganda apparatus quickly made clear that by swallowing his legend, the whole nation could regard its own colonial past in a nobler light. In celebrating the leader as the embodiment of ethnic virtues, 25 million people celebrate themselves. Which is not to say the cult hasn’t cooled a lot. 

Western observers focus more on the regime’s economic failures than the North Koreans themselves do. Remember that it was only in recent modern times that Western societies began expecting the state to secure constant economic growth and rising prosperity. Well into the 20th century people expected little more from the state than that it protect them from foreign powers, and expand the influence or territory of the nation. Prussia was remarkably like North Korea in many ways, yet we remember it as a very successful state. If we judge North Korea by its own standards — instead of by the communist standards we hope its people judge it by — we must admit it has performed very well. 

The whole point of the military-first policy was not so much to whip up support for the military as to de-ideologize the economic sector, to make it possible to dismantle the command economy without dismantling the authority of the whole system. 

This is why (as I never tire of repeating) North Koreans can frequent black markets and still consider themselves good citizens, as was impossible in the communist East Bloc. So the situation now is more like Japan or Germany in 1944, say, than like East Germany in the 1980s. Widespread government corruption? Check. An entire population of economic criminals? Check. Constant griping about the state, the party, even some joking about the leader? Check. (Even good Nazis had their Hitler jokes.) A general readiness to fight for the state? Well, there’s certainly more readiness in the North than in the South. 

It all comes down to what neither the softliners nor the hardliners want to acknowledge: this is a successful right-wing state, not a failed communist one.

Stanton: Your sentence about patriotism not changing with one’s view of the leader is insightful, although I wonder how well the comparison holds up in a place like North Korea where propaganda ties the state so closely to the leader himself. Our own propaganda, such as it is, is one of loyalty to principle and nation, but discourages loyalty to parties and personalities. We preserve a duality in which one can be patriotic to the system even if one loathes the president. That duality doesn’t exist in North Korea.

Myers: I see what you mean. If Kim Jong Un is Chosun, as the slogan goes, then his decline in popularity must be the state’s too? But it doesn’t work that way. We all need to give our lives a sense of significance, of a meaning that lives on after our deaths. The North Koreans get that from their nationalism, which is one with their patriotism. If they lose that, what do they have? 

Don’t get me wrong, we can always hope for an uprising. But it is more likely to be sparked inadvertently, as it were, by traders protesting against their provincial or municipal government’s highhandedness and corruption, in the naive hope that the state will step in on their side.

Whether such an uprising becomes a revolution is another matter. Remember what Hannah Arendt said: Revolutions are usually a matter of people picking up the power of a state in disintegration, a government that has lost the will to enforce its laws. Of the two states on the peninsula, I see the South as closer to fitting that bill. There were recent reports of demonstrators around the THAAD site stopping and checking police cars.

Stanton: I agree that the two Koreas seem to be in a sprint to the bottom. I also think we underestimate the amount of anarchy in North Korea’s eastern and northeastern provinces because (1) reporters seldom see those parts of North Korea, and (2) instead, they are led through a circuit of soda-straw views of elite, regimented Pyongyang. It’s lazy journalism that justifies the propagation of a distorted image of North Korea with the argument that some news is better than no news at all. I don’t agree that an unrepresentative sample informs us about how most North Koreans live.

I agree that North Korea’s greatest political vulnerabilities are matters of retail economics and market policies. A propaganda campaign that linked songbun (class), corruption, and the state’s economic policies to the economic grievances of the people might resonate among North Korea’s poor and merchant class. Isn’t it always the case that revolutions are sparked by economic grievances that polarize around political grievances and class envy? Wasn’t that fundamentally true of 1989 and the Arab Spring?

So far, our broadcasts to North Korea have been bland, straight-news programs that have been afraid to take a more subversive approach that reports on local corruption and protests, for fear of upsetting China & South Korea. I believe that, a more subversive tone in our broadcasting might be a way to pressure Beijing,  Seoul, and Pyongyang. Pyongyang has shown a surprising amount of concern about even those silly loudspeakers along the DMZ.

My point is that regardless of North Korea’s nationalism, the regime is still vulnerable to class-warfare propaganda. This is not to say that we could not also harness Korean nationalism — particularly if the message did more to highlight China’s ambitions to divide, dominate, and exploit Korea.

Myers: The Arab Spring was at its heart an Islamist uprising whipped up by a Muslim clergy for which in North Korea there is no equivalent. The only non-secular force of note is shamanism, which merely encourages the family-centricity that keeps people from joining forces against the state. As for 1989, the USSR made no secret of loosening its grip over its sphere of influence. Gorbachev dropped Honecker in spectacularly obvious fashion. From that point on, the East Germans knew the regime was going down. And in Romania, there was a multi-ethnic dynamic you don’t have in North Korea either, the few ethnic Chinese hwagyo being focused on cross-border trade, and very happy with the status quo.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record: this is a far-right, militarist state. Such states tend to experience uprisings only when they have failed by militarist or nationalist standards, as the Argentinian junta did in 1982.

Such states are not the sort of smoothly functioning machines that Orwell describes in 1984. They are much more ramshackle things, with plenty of loopholes and little freedoms that a communist state would try harder to eliminate. John Everard, the former British ambassador to North Korea — who believes that North Korea is closer to Nazi Germany than to the USSR — has recorded his surprise at the freedom of movement, the freedom to shape their own leisure time, which average citizens enjoy even in Pyongyang.

You use the word anarchy; I think that’s going too far. Again, let’s recall Japan in the war. There too people were bribing or making deals with owners of the stalled factories in which they were “frozen,” so they could go off and catch fish for someone else. 

It was a kind of lawlessness to which a blind eye was turned, but I wouldn’t call it anarchy. It covers only areas that are ideologically uncharged. In any part of North Korea, someone who publicly insults the leader is going to be punished as immediately and brutally as such a person would have been 50 years ago.

I agree generally with you about what our propaganda approach should be. I have been saying for at least 10 years now that the balloon leaflets are too amateurish. I am not happy with the extent to which their composition is left to defectors, who are overwhelmingly from the least propagandized, most rural part of the country. For decades the basic message has been, “Dump the leadership, because it lives high on the hog while you toil and starve.” That’s the sort of sloganeering that might help undermine a communist state. 

It won’t work in a far-right, ultra-nationalist state. The pomp that surrounds Kim Jong Un is the whole nation’s pomp, as it were. I have urged American officials who ask me about propaganda to encourage a nationalist approach to it, stressing the North’s disgraceful dependence on China, contrasting the North with an internationally respected South that has really put Korea on the map.

I’m not sure this will be enough though. The crucial issue, from a nationalist North Korean’s perspective, is likely to be: Which of the two states is more intent on righting the wrongs foreigners have done to us? Which state wants to unify the peninsula, the nation? And the South all too obviously allows the North to play the heroic role of the sole unifying force. Park Geun-hye made efforts to rectify that neglect but it was too little, too late. And now a very different president is in power.

8 Comments

  1. “The Arab Spring was at its heart an Islamist uprising whipped up by a Muslim clergy for which in North Korea there is no equivalent.”

    I think this is incorrect in its interpretation of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring at its heart was a liberal movement, and the Islamists were initially unsure how to react. Eventually, however, Islamists moved in and took control.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  2. My two favorite North Korea watchers together at last! Reading this conversation was like watching a movie staring Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. Thanks for posting.




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  3. Myers’ comment that, “When Moon Jae-in looks back on the history of the ROK he holds up only the anti-state riots and protests as high points,” is relevant for the U.S. as well. As a liberal I’m frustrated that the Left will only praise this country because it’s “diverse.”




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  4. The Arab spring was definitively religious in nature even if economic factors were important.

    There are almost no liberal progressives at all in the entire MENA. Even in the most “moderate” countries gays have no rights, women are 3rd class citizens and there is no freedom of expression or religion.




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  5. Sean, interesting observation. It’s the same in Europe too. The left can find only faults with the West, even if almost all human advances originate there.

    Will be interesting to see if attitudes in South Korea change when the threat from the north becomes more real.




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  6. I have the good fortune of working with North Korean refugees and recently I had the great pleasure of conversing with a refugee from the educated class in Pyongyang. This person made very interesting points as one might expect, and said that people in North Korea know the government is bad but don’t have the grasp on why, how, or what they can do about it.

    This person also said that people from the outer regions and people from Pyongyang have more in common than I expected because people in Pyongyang know they can be banished to those provinces in an instant.

    Overall, the spread of information is most important-but so many hurdles need to be cleared.

    Also, I enjoy your website.




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  7. The world is becoming smaller – it is just a matter of time before limited and abused mass in North Korea figures out that their problem is their leadership, not them.

    As South Korea continues to advance, North appears to be stuck in the 70’s. As South prepares for it’s second Olympics, North had to cancel a rinky-dinky beer fest… No wonder Kim Jong un rejected Moon’s invitation to field a unified team for PyongChang, By accepting the “invitation”, Kim would have only highlighted the great gap between the two countries.

    ” Overall, the spread of information is most important-but so many hurdles need to be cleared.” – I agree but I say keep it simple – Send/drop thousands of restaurant reviews of Seoul from TripAdvisor website to Pyongyang and outer regions.




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