‘An intolerable mockery’: the wild-eyed worldview of North Korean propaganda

December 13, 2013

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

The scribes at North Korea's official state news agency have long elevated hyperbole into an art form, but even by their high standards, this week's pronouncement was something special.

Here's a typical sentence from the Korean Central News Agency's 1,000-word release announcing the execution of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un: "Despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him." The report denounced Jang's alleged crimes large and very small, from "counter-revolutionary factional acts" to "half-heartedly clapping."

The phrase "thrice-cursed acts of treachery" turns out to be a common one in official North Korean releases, suggesting the propagandists are driven more by routine procedure and less by passion than we might think.

North Korean state propaganda is well-known for its permanent pose of righteous outrage, its odd proclivity for piling on metaphors and colloquialisms, and for language so wordy and over-the-top it verges on self-parody. But there is a certain internal logic to North Korea's official declarations, a worldview that makes sense from within the country even if it can seem absurd from outside.

"For all the hyperbole in which it is couched, and the histrionics with which it is proclaimed, North Korean propaganda is not nearly as outlandish as the uninitiated think," the scholar B.R. Myers wrote in his groundbreaking 2010 study of the North's propaganda, "The Cleanest Race." Beneath the flowery language, Myers argued, is a state ideology so simple it can be summarized in a single sentence: "The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader."

That ideology helps explain the sense of victimhood and grievance that seems to drive so much of the outrage voiced by the KCNA. Consider this line from a release condemning Western sanctions that blocked North Korea from importing Swiss ski lifts:

This is an intolerable mockery of the social system and the people of the DPRK and a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.

In the state media's view, the North Korean state and people are the ultimate embodiment of good in the world, constantly besieged by forces of evil from within and without. It's a high-stakes drama meant to enlist every citizen, unifying them against their many common enemies and imbuing their lives with a sense of great purpose that just happens to demand absolute loyalty. Defector accounts suggest it is widely taken in earnest.

One of the more confusing habits of North Korean state media, though, may be the profusion of mixed metaphors and colloquialisms in their native-produced English-language editions. See, for example, this line from Pyongyang's "declaration of war," issued in March against the United States:

The important decision made by [Kim Jong Un] is the declaration of a do-or-die battle to provide an epochal occasion for putting an end to the history of the long-standing showdown with the U.S. and opening a new era. It is also a last warning of justice served to the U.S., south Korean group and other anti-reunification hostile forces. The decision reflects the strong will of the army and people of the DPRK to annihilate the enemies.

Native English speakers are, naturally, extremely rare in North Korea. But propagandists often borrow from American media -- repurposing images and music from U.S.-made video games, for example -- suggesting a wide audience for such things in state media offices. Perhaps Pyongyang's non-native speakers feel that colloquialisms lend color and authority their rhetoric -- so they use as many as they can.

But where North Korean media most excel may be the realm of threat and insult. The country's military is far too weak to survive an actual war, but Pyongyang needs to instill a sense of conflict, both to affirm the official ideology of constant threat and to promote a much-desired rally-around-the-flag effect. And no one wages verbal war like KCNA.

"Let Us Cut Off Windpipes of the Lee Myung Bak-led Swarm of Rats," declared one of many headlines threatening South Korea's president from 2008 to earlier this year. Pledging to cut windpipes is something of a North Korean specialty. So is threatening to turn various locales into "seas of fire." This is from just last month, on the anniversary of North Korea's apparently random shelling of a small South Korean community on the island of Yeonpyeong:

If the South recklessly provokes us again, the sea of fire at Yeonpyeong will turn into a sea of fire at the Blue House. ... [President] Park Geun-Hye and her clique must find a painful lesson in the shameful defeat inflicted upon the South.

Even we in the Western media have not gone untouched. In March, a lengthy KCNA release repeatedly condemned the "despicable reptile media" for, in its word, "jabbering."

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Max Fisher | December 13, 2013