Does North Korea have American video games, after all?


North Korean students work in a computer lab. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

In a post yesterday on the odd propensity of North Korean propaganda videos to borrow images and music from popular American computer games -- which presumably would be not just inaccessible in North Korea, but also unplayable, given the dearth of advanced personal computers there -- I repeated and elaborated on a theory that the propaganda videos were probably made in conjunction with sympathetic South Koreans. Pro-Pyongang volunteers, who have a long history on the fringes of South Korea's nationalist movement, would hypothetically be familiar enough with American video games, which are extremely popular in the South, to think to include them.

But Jang Jin-sung, a former North Korean government propagandist who defected in 2004, believes that the videos were probably made entirely within North Korea. He explains his theory in an unpublished article for New Focus International, which has generously shared it with me. Excerpts from his article are reproduced below.

If Jang is correct – and, having worked within the machine he is describing, he is certainly a greater authority than I am – his theory would have interesting implications for our understanding of life under the North's regime. It would mean that at least a small minority of North Korean government officials not only have access to American computer games but play them frequently enough that they would know which "cut scenes" and theme songs are most appropriate to splice into their anti-American propaganda.

That wouldn't be revolutionary, but it would be a revealing new data point on the nature of life for North Korea's propagandists, who are privileged, but not exactly in the innermost circle of the regime. It would be one thing for Kim Jong Eun to have a fancy computer, but if they are common even among propagandists then that would suggest the regime has pretty decent access to high-tech consumer electronics.

To give you a sense of how significant it would be for mid-level North Korean officials to be sitting around playing American computer games, private computer ownership is largely illegal in the country. Some people are allowed to possess them, but they are typically slow, not connected to the outside world and must be registered with police as if they were hunting rifles. As for the games themselves, North Korean authorities consider any outside culture a threat. It is even illegal to possess video CDs of South Korean soap operas.

Here is some of Jang's article, which explains that North Korean propagandists work very deliberately to give the impression that their material was made by South Koreans. They do this, he says, in part by smuggling in cultural "materials" from Japan that would be familiar to South Koreans – perhaps including U.S.-made video games.

Two anti-American video clips, which appear to praise North Korea’s militaristic ideology, were uploaded in the period leading up to, and following, North Korea’s third nuclear test. Not only do the two clips have in common an awkward production quality, both employ content that has been stolen from US video games. Despite what this latter point may suggest, it is almost certain that the clips were produced by Office 101, Section 3 of the United Front Department in the DPRK, which is responsible for psychological warfare.

Office 101 is so-called because it was ratified on October 1st, 1970 by Kim Il Sung, and is situated in Block 1 of Ryeonhwa in the Central District of Pyongyang. Towards the end of the 60s, when the North Korean economy was superior to that of South Korea, Kim Il Sung had hopes for the divided Korean peninsula to be joined according to a strategy of federal unification. In this context, Office 101 was charged with conducting psychological warfare operations against South Korean citizens. This included the creation and dissipation of pro-North Korean works among South Koreans, ostensibly written under the names of South Korean intellectuals.

In case these works might be suspected for having been created by North Korean officials, materials and equipment were imported from Japan in order to emulate South Korean typefaces and fonts. Office 813 is a publisher that specializes in printing books intended for a South Korean readership, and shares grounds with Office 101. Until the 80s, a sizeable number of books that voiced dissent towards the South Korean dictatorship, and read by South Koreans, were created and published on these grounds. ...

In order to emphasize the international character of North Korea’s dominance, they draw on foreign soundtracks and scenes; in terms of presentation, the works attempt to stress a foreign provenance; the works strive to bear the authorship of Koreans living abroad or of South Koreans.

If Jang is right that North Korea wants to fool outsiders into believing that their propaganda is actually made by sympathetic South Koreans, then I have to admit to falling for it just a little bit. I, like everyone else I've seen write on this, have assumed that the propaganda was chiefly produced, designed and distributed by North Koreans – but I did start from the premise of participation by South Koreans.

To be clear, Jang's theory is only that, like my earlier post arguing that the videos may have been made by sympathetic South Koreans. The gulf between those two interpretations should be a reminder, if nothing else, of how little we really understand about how North Korea works.

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Max Fisher · February 21, 2013