Those who tuned into the news over the weekend looking for an update on Olympic medal tallies were treated instead to an ugly display of fawning over the propaganda efforts of Kim Yo Jong, a member of the North Korean Politburo and sister of Kim Jong Un. David French collected the worst instances over at National Review, suggesting that the media’s distaste for Vice President Pence, combined with ignorant writers and the need for click-friendly headlines, led to a perfect storm of idiocy.
I don’t feel the need to linger on the disgracefulness of Western analysts normalizing a slave state’s propaganda efforts. Instead, I’d like to suggest a few alternatives for those of you interested in reading about North Korea.
There are memoirs, of course, though not a huge number; most people are unable to publish their tales of woe from behind the the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates Korea’s two halves. “Escape from Camp 14,” by Blaine Harden, relates Shin Dong-hyuk’s harrowing tale of escape from the notorious North Korean prison where he was born. As Andrew Salmon noted in his 2012 review of Harden’s book for The Post, “In Camp 14, children are punished for the political sins of their fathers. Hunger is so omnipotent that every prisoner behaves like ‘a panicked animal’ at mealtimes. Teachers at the camp school beat students to death for minor infractions. Medieval torture devices are employed in dungeon-like underground cells. And human relationships are so degraded that prisoners inform on family members.”
Shin was one such informer; his mother and brother were executed after he denounced them to camp authorities for planning an escape. And while Shin later admitted to altering some of the details of his story, the basic truth of the brutality he conveys remains true. As Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told The Post after Shin’s admission, “Camp 14, Camp 18, Auschwitz, Dachau, Birkenau — what difference does it make? … He is a political prison camp survivor, period.”
“The Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol Hwan takes readers into the gulag system currently presided over by Kim Yo Jong’s brother. Following the Korean War, Kang’s family were branded enemies of the state thanks to his grandfather’s supposed crimes against Kim Il Sung. They were sent to the gulag as punishment. Eventually Kang was released, but not before being witness to torture, starvation, executions — you know, standard North Korean gulag stuff.
Kang met with President George W. Bush in 2005, several years after the publication of his book. In an interview with the New York Times, Kang said Bush was “more interested in the pains North Koreans are going through, more so than I had previously thought. … He kept on repeating how deeply sorry he was about the situation.” After their meeting, the Bush administration began insisting that human rights considerations play a part in any deal about the North Korean nuclear program.
As horrifying as the memoirs are, it may be more useful to read about how North Korean propaganda is used within the Hermit Kingdom. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Orphan Master’s Son” offers a fictional window into a world that seems irrational and unrealistic even when we’re fully submerged in it. Among the most interesting parts of the book — which focuses on an orphan boy’s life within the prison nation and highlights how identity is malleable when the only truth is what the state claims — are the fictionalized North Korean propaganda broadcasts.
Consider the following, which takes the common satellite image of North Korea at night, pitch black as if electricity had yet to be perfected, and uses it for propagandistic purposes:
Nighty-night, Pyongyang. You earned it. No nation sleeps as North Korea sleeps. After lights-out, there is a collective exhale as heads hit pillows across a million households. When the tireless generators wind down for the night and their red-hot turbines begin to cool, no lights glare on alone, no refrigerator buzzes dully through the dark. There’s just eye-closing satisfaction and then deep, powerful dreams of work quotas fulfilled and the embrace of reunification. The American citizen, however, is wide awake. You should see a satellite photo of that confused nation at night— it’s one grand swath of light, glaring with the sum of their idle, indolent evenings. Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites.
The impurity of non-Korean peoples is a running theme in the Kim dynasty’s efforts to maintain control. In “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves—and Why It Matters,” B.R. Myers provides readers with a straightforward history of North Korea and an analysis of how the state’s artistic efforts shape internal narratives. He boils the propaganda system down thusly: “Far from complex, 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” [italics in the original].
North Korean propaganda is fundamentally racialist, harping on the greatness of the Korean people and the ugliness and weakness of outsiders. In the early years of the Kim regime, Myers writes, “an East German diplomat reported home that all successes were ‘portrayed as accomplishments of the Korean workers “without foreign” assistance.’ He also noted that the party’s educational activities were ‘not oriented toward studying the works of Marxism-Leninism.’ Instead the purity of the Korean bloodline was stressed. Women who married Eastern European aid workers were accused of ‘betraying the race.'”
So when you see teams of cheerleaders manically waving cutout heads of Kim Il Sung while encouraging their countrymen, or Kim Yo Jong delivering a sneering look at our democratically elected vice president, stop and consider for a moment that these are vestiges of virulently racist propaganda campaigns designed to inculcate the notion of North Korean superiority and the unquestioned leadership of the Kim dynasty. Or think of the gulags that the Kims have established and used to dehumanize men, women and children for decades.
Whatever you do, don’t mindlessly parrot the idea that this campaign has been an amazing North Korean propaganda victory. Because then, and only then, will Kim’s campaign truly be victorious.