The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Korean propaganda video ‘explains’ what life is really like in Western countries

Correction: As the Huffington Post points out, this video is real but the English overdub is fake, the work of a British travel writer named Alun Hill. The original North Korean propaganda video does indeed portray life in Western countries as bleak, impoverished and hopeless, but it's not specific to the U.S. Hill also exaggerates the video's claims, although he is broadly true to its underlying message. Talking to the Huffington Post, Hill confirmed the video is authentic. (Though I took his overdub too seriously, I did write in an earlier version: "There are a few clues suggesting the original video, if not necessarily the English dub, may be authentic.") I've modified this post to remove reference to Hull's fake version.

Just when you thought North Korean propaganda videos had hit their batty peak, they drop this one on us. "Capitalist Society Growing Darker" is a Korean-language video that purports to show what life is really like in the bleak, impoverished West, a land of homelessness, starvation and rampant gun violence.

Ironically, the video portrays Western life as somewhat like the darkest days of North Korea's 1990s famine. Homelessness is as a defining feature of the landscape. Wired's Spencer Ackerman pointed out in his post, since deleted, "As with much great trolling, North Korea is taking some of its great weaknesses — the grinding poverty, food shortages and official bellicosity — and projecting them onto its adversary." (He's still right.)

Some of the footage might be of the United States, but a lot of it clearly isn't. The pay phones don't look very American, and one screenshot I took shows a Dell post in what might be Spanish or Italian.

The dubbed version, copied below in case anyone is curious to see it, carries a watermark from Ifeng or Phoenix TV, which is based in Hong Kong and broadcasts in China.

The original, non-watermarked version, which is three minutes longer and includes a reference to the Sandy Hook shooting, was uploaded to a German YouTube account that features many videos from North Korean state media. The video is titled "The dark reality of capitalist societies."

The message is consistent with North Korean propaganda, which seeks to convince its citizens that they're not actually trapped in grinding poverty and hunger after all; they're living in the richest nation on Earth! That means deterring defectors and keeping people loyal by presenting the outside world – particularly South Korea and the United States – as even poorer and hungrier than North Korea.

This message has been getting tougher and tougher for North Korea to sell to its people. Since the famine, the country has tolerated greater black market trade across the Chinese border to provide sufficient food, which means that video CDs of foreign TV shows and movies also come across. North Korean security forces have been so worried about the potential impact of these video CDs, which clearly show South Koreans and Americans living in prosperity far beyond the North Korean norm, that possessing them is a serious crime. Blaine Harden, in his excellent book "Escape from Camp 14," reports that security officials sometimes shut down power to entire apartment blocks, then raid individual homes to see if they have any contraband video CDs trapped in their players.

Still, the propaganda is largely successful, although in part this likely has to do with selling the ideology first and the facts second. Otherwise rational and skeptical people might be more willing to believe outlandish propaganda if they already buy into the hyper-nationalist ideology behind it. The reporter Barbara Demick once met with a North Korean defector who had just crossed the border, who had risked everything to escape her country, but who still cried out in fear when meeting Demick. "Evil Americans are our enemies," she said.