While Americans may see Russian propaganda and the dangers posed by North Korean missiles as two different foreign policy threats, they have more in common than we think. Propaganda matters deeply for North Korea, too. It always has — and for reasons that President Trump, with his bellicose tweets about nuclear buttons, clearly doesn’t comprehend.
Situated next to advertisements for sofas and heart-shaped picture frames in the Feb. 10, 1981, issue of The Washington Post, a portrait of a man in a Mao suit stands out.
Above the Mao-suited man, the text reads, “Kim Il Sung: The Ten Point Policy of the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.” The man was North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, and the oddly placed ad was North Korean propaganda proposing a unified federation of the two Koreas.
They failed to change western minds about North Korea. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t successful. Like the missile tests today, these ads were primarily directed at intimidating their southern neighbor and glorifying North Korean leadership at home.
In an attempt to gain diplomatic recognition as the legitimate Korean government in international forums during the late 1960s and 1970s, North Korea began a public diplomacy campaign that portrayed Kim as a world leader. The North Korean ads primarily came from Kim’s speeches, interviews or fluff biographies.
A May 2, 1975, ad in the New York Times copied part of his speech at North Korea’s National Congress on Agriculture, entitled, “All Efforts to Attain the Goal of 8 Million Tons of Grain.” An Oct. 8, 1976, ad in The Washington Post featured excerpts from a speech on Korean reunification. Most of the ads praised the brilliance of Kim’s policies and the accomplishments of his family’s regime.
American readers quickly saw through the outlandish North Korean public relations stunt. A 1969 reader of the Boston Globe called Kim a “megalomaniac” as “he has spent approximately $50,000 of his country’s hard-earned foreign currency taking advertisements in some of the world’s leading newspapers. The objective: to blow his own kazoo.” In a 1972 letter to the editor in the Guardian, a reader wrote, “Kim Il Sung’s personality cult makes Joe Stalin look like Howard Hughes.”
The ads, however, struck a nerve with Kim’s South Korean adversary. The furious South Koreans protested to both American publications and the U.S. government. Dong-jo Kim, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States from 1967 to 1973, sent a letter to New York Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger in which he called a 1969 ad “both fabrication and gross distortion of facts about the North Korean aggressor.”
The U.S. media understood that the North Korean ads were ridiculous propaganda, but published them because of its commitment to a free press. The South Koreans, however, saw the ads as part of an information war with the North Korean government. The South Korean press labeled the decision to publish the ads a “disgraceful, infantile and shameful” mistake, and alluded to “the lonely souls of American and British youths who shed their blood and died on our soil in defense of freedom and peace,” in explaining its anger.
The South Korean government shared this outrage. According to a Nov. 28, 1969, telegram from the U.S. embassy in Seoul, a very disturbed South Korean President Park Chung Hee threatened to fire several ministers over the appearance of an ad promoting Kim’s biography in the New York Times. The authoritarian South Korean government urged the United States to “take all possible measures” to prevent future publication of North Korea propaganda in U.S. newspapers.
Despite assurances from the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, William J. Porter, that such North Korean propaganda was “so ineptly worded that it was absurd,” the increasingly authoritarian South Korean government quickly responded by launching its own propaganda. In the Feb. 28, 1971, edition of The Washington Post, for example, a full-page ad promoted South Korea’s “economic miracle” and Park’s hope for a unified Korea.
As South Korea underwent democratization during the mid-1980s, the government stopped publishing propagandistic ads in the Western press. North Korea, however, continued, celebrating the hereditary succession of Kim Jong Il as the next “great hero of Korea” in the Oct. 8, 1985, edition of the New York Times, as such advertisements provided internal support for the regime in Pyongyang.
North Korea’s state-run media claimed its ads were authentic editorials written by supportive foreigners. The goal was to build support for Kim Il Sung and burnish his reputation at home. One article claimed “the progressive people and public circles of the United States are anxiously desirous to get [Kim Il Sung’s] biography as early as possible and learn from his great revolutionary ideas, sagacity of his leadership and his lofty virtues.” North Korea’s International Friendship Exhibition, a museum devoted to gifts given to the Kim family from admiring foreigners, showcased the ads as evidence that even people in Western imperialist countries adored their “Great Leader.”
The curious case of the inter-Korean conflict spilling out into the ad sections of Western newspapers, however, reveals how historically tied international actions in Pyongyang are with domestic considerations.
We see it again today — North Korea’s recent missile tests are as much about boosting Kim Jong Un’s domestic legitimacy as it is about showcasing the nuclear capability of North Korea to the outside world. Despite being a dictatorship, the Kim family regime must generate a certain degree of domestic support to maintain its tight grip on power.
Viewing the missile tests solely as a show of strength and aggression can lead the United States to faulty conclusions and could contribute to an unnecessary and destructive war. Rather than being purely provocative or bellicose, Kim Jong Un’s objectives may well be more closely tied to maintaining power at home.