SEOUL — North Korea has kept this region on edge in recent weeks primarily by using its weapon of choice in times of warmongering: the state-run news agency.
The massive wire service, known as the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), serves as the primary mouthpiece for the North’s authoritarian government, lauding upticks in factory production, documenting the arrival of floral baskets for the ruling Kims and occasionally warning about possible nuclear strikes on neighbors.
But the agency also serves a broader purpose, setting the mood for a nation — and changing that mood at the direction of the nation’s leaders.
Analysts and several defectors who have worked in the North Korean media say any message published by the agency is part of an elaborately coordinated effort that requires much the same work as a screenplay. Although the North is popularly portrayed as a loose cannon operated at the whims of young leader Kim Jong Un, those familiar with the North’s media say the messages come from a slow-grinding process involving dozens of meetings and thousands of people — strategists, storytellers, ideological advisers and journalists.
The KCNA is just one of a handful of North Korean news outlets, including radio stations and a Workers’ Party newspaper, but it is the most influential among them, providing much of the content seen elsewhere. Its messages are geared toward foreigners and the North’s 24 million people. During the famine of the mid-1990s, when much of the country’s economic activity ground to a halt, the KCNA was one of the few agencies that didn’t miss a beat.
The news agency acts as the nation’s public relations and multimedia firm, with news indistinguishable from propaganda. South Korea’s Defense Ministry maintains a team of readers who try to interpret the significance of the news agency’s output, according to an official with the ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details about intelligence-gathering.
“They don’t hesitate to drop so-called verbal bombshells,” the official said. “But a lot of it is exaggeration for the sake of their own pride.”
Much of the KCNA’s content is mundane, but its employees — numbering more than 2,000, according to estimates — are not free to churn out content as they please. The North’s media rank among the most restricted in the world and are under the absolute control of the ruling elite, the group Reporters Without Borders said in its most recent press freedom report.
But analysts and defectors paint a more complex picture. Few, if any, of those who work in the media are following direct orders from Kim, the North’s supreme leader. Rather, they are trying to anticipate the sort of content that he would like and that would benefit him.
In times of rising tensions, the KCNA leads the way, delivering key statements for foreign consumption. Two decades ago, a previous high point for strained relations on the Korean Peninsula, reporters and editors at the news agency received a memo from the Propaganda and Agitation Department, the high-level body that guides and censors the North’s news, said Chang Hae-song, a defector who worked at the KCNA from 1976 to 1996.
The memo called on KCNA reporters to increase their criticism of the United States and told broadcasters to raise their voices. It also suggested that the state television station, in its intermittent musical interludes, use selections that would help create a “warlike atmosphere.”
“After those instructions came out, we’d brainstorm about ways” to raise the tensions, Chang said. “Our ideas would go back to the propaganda department for approval.” In addition, he said, reports faced six levels of editing and censorship before publication. Every Thursday, Chang said, a bundle of prepared reports would be sent to then-leader Kim Jong Il.
“But for some cases of emergency reporting, we could write it and the story would be published more quickly,” though it would still go through several layers of scrutiny, he said.
Thus North Korea’s media tend to respond slowly to outside events. After tightened sanctions were imposed on the North by the U.N. Security Council this year, its government waited more than a day to publish its retaliatory announcement — a threat of more nuclear tests and missile launches. When South Korea last week set a 26-hour window in which the North could accept an offer for dialogue, the North responded — with a rejection — hours after the deadline.
“We have to keep in mind that North Korea’s propaganda apparatus responds much more slowly to current events than our own media do,” Brian Myers, a specialist in North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, said in an e-mail. “This is not just due to logistical and technological problems but also due to the rigorous censorship process that everything has to go through. . . . Even the most innocuous events tend to be reported only days later.”
For years, those who generated North Korea’s propaganda had a relatively easy job because they never had to contend with “other visions of reality,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar at Seoul’s Kookmin University, wrote in his 2007 book, “North of the DMZ.” But that is slowly changing as more foreign media push illegally into the North. Cross-border traders smuggle in DVDs and foreign radios from China, which North Koreans watch or listen to at the risk of being punished. A 2012 study of defectors commissioned by the U.S. State Department found that one-fourth of North Koreans have accessed foreign radio and that nearly half have watched foreign DVDs. Among the main motivations are curiosity and boredom.
From the North’s media comes “the same pattern and content almost every day,” said Kim Cheol-hoon, a defector who worked as a regional radio broadcaster from 1974 to 1994. “It was almost boring, to be honest.”
Analysts say the KCNA and other state-run media outlets have recently moved toward hewing more closely to facts — albeit selectively. Just over a decade ago, newspapers in Pyongyang told tales of South Korea’s decrepit economy. Although they no longer do, they emphasize that defectors tend to lead difficult lives in the South.
As one of those defectors, Kim spends her nights working for a Seoul-based radio station whose programs can be heard in the North. The program runs from midnight to 2 a.m. — hours when North Koreans have the best chance of listening to foreign content without being caught. Kim tries to be straightforward, covering subjects from the weather to China’s military budget. But sometimes she sneaks in information designed to make them think. She talks about the corruption of the ruling family and the fall of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East.
“They don’t know what is happening in their own country,” Kim said, “because the news they get isn’t valuable.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.