Why North Korean propaganda videos steal from American video games

February 20, 2013

South Korean police arrest a member of a pro-North Korea student group protesting near a U.S. military office in Seoul. (CHOI JAE-KU/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest bizarre and openly threatening propaganda video from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, just like the last one, has some elements that might be familiar to teenage or 20-something Americans: video games. That simple, amusing fact actually says a great deal about the complex interplay of ideas, ideology and propaganda on the Korean peninsula.

Two of North Korea's recent propaganda videos both borrow major elements from popular American computers games. A video released two weeks ago, showing a North Korean dreaming happily about the destruction of New York City, included clips from the 2007 game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which was released by the California-based Activision. A video released today, which includes President Obama covered in shoddy CGI flames, uses the theme song from Elder Scrolls 4, a 2006 fantasy role-playing game produced by Maryland's Bethesda Studios.

We can't know for sure exactly why the people behind these videos made certain "creative" choices. But expert analysis of North Korean propaganda offers some pretty good hints.

It turns out that North Korea has a long history of using propaganda to target right-wing nationalists in South Korea, where a small fringe minority is more receptive than you might think. Christopher Green, an experienced North Korea observer, wrote this in the comments section of NK News's post on the latest video:

The piece, which was likely made by South Korean sympathizers in conjunction with their Northern pals, is designed to encourage pro-North groups in the South and stoke the flames of anti-U.S. sentiment in broader South Korean society. As such, it is in line with North Korea’s long-cherished aim of getting the U.S. to withdraw from South Korea (I freely admit it is not a tremendously effective step in that direction, but that is by the by) as part of the move toward unification under North Korean rule. Remember that Rodong Sinmun article saying that North Korea was headed all the way to the South Sea under the wise rule of the supreme commander? Same thing, different day.

You read that correctly: the video was probably made in cooperation between North Korean propagandists and unpaid South Korean sympathizers. And it was meant to target other South Koreans.

That should both help to explain the video games clips and tell you something about those South Korean sympathizers. Per capita sales numbers show that South Koreans are some of the most vociferous video game consumers in the world, so it's not surprising that they might reach for hit computer games to put together these videos. North Koreans, on the other hand, almost certainly do not have access to these games, nor even to computers sophisticated enough to play them.

Still, it's interesting that the South Korean sympathizers would be young enough to use video games in building pro-Pyongyang propaganda. Though South Korea's pro-Pyongyang movement has weakened significantly over the years, it's still there, on the fringes of nationalist movements. The "why" is a little more complicated.

A decade ago, Seoul's "sunshine policy" of detente with North Korea coincided with rising hostility toward the U.S. troop presence. This is about the time when Psy, the Korean music star known for Gangnam Style, performed a couple of violently anti-American concerts. This doesn't mean that Psy, who was 25 at the time, supported Kim Jong Il; far from it. But his concerts are a reminder that nationalism and anti-Americanism do exist in South Korea, including among young people. The most extreme incarnation of that ideology could lead some young South Koreans, even those who play American-made video games, to enlist themselves in North Korea's propaganda effort.

It might seem unthinkable today that South Koreans, who are largely prosperous and free, could look longingly to the North, where fellow Koreans are subjected to horrific human rights abuses, deep poverty and occasional famines so severe that they are usually followed by stories of cannibalism. But, for a period of founding leader Kim Il Sung's reign from 1948 to 1994, the North was actually richer than the South, and the two governments were both military dictatorships.

Back then, the North could at least claim to be free of American military occupation, something it still points out in propaganda that portrays the U.S. military bases as imperial occupation. A fascinating New Focus International article by a now-defected North Korean explains how Pyongyang's propaganda department cultivated South Korean nationalists, unhappy with the U.S. military presence, in promoting the North.

North Korea's goal in targeting South Korean nationalists with anti-U.S. propaganda, then and now, is to foment nationalism and anti-Americanism in the South. This, in the North's thinking, would lead South Koreans to install an extremist government that would expel the U.S. troops and willfully reunify with the North, effectively placing their entire country under Pyongyang's rule.

North Korea thinks it's playing the long game here. It's extremely unlikely to succeed, but that effort – supported by a shrinking though apparently still-going contingent of pro-Pyongyang nationalists in the South – might explain what otherwise appears to be irrational, even crazy propaganda. And it might also explain how American video games make it into violently anti-American videos.

Update: A friend with extensive experience on North Korean issues writes to point out that the video gamers who helped to put these videos together might not necessarily be South Korean. There is, the friend points out, a large Korean population in Japan among whom, for complicated reasons, sympathy for Pyongyang can sometimes run a little deeper.

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