Building the perfect leader: North Korean propaganda’s secret sauce
Recent rumors about North Korean textbooks exhorting a young Kim Jong Un’s prowess as a driver and sailor have sparked a renewed cycle of blogs and articles musing on just how weird North Korea is. Why is their propaganda so odd, we ask. Do they believe it all?
When it comes to lionized feats of the leaders, there are two kinds of tales that we hear, as non-Koreans. The first are the “real’ legends, i.e. those actually propagated by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). These are usually quite incredible, but not unbelievable. So, for example, we’re told that the dynasty’s founder, Kim Il Sung, wrote patriotic slogans in beautiful calligraphy at age three and founded a proto-political party at age 13. Kim Jong Il was born on the sacred slopes of Mt Baekdu and as a middle school student repaired trucks while also organizing ideological study sessions. These kinds of stories are primarily meant for the domestic audience to convince them of the merits of their uniquely qualified leaders. Education on Kim Jong Un’s exploits will certainly be growing.
The second kind of myth exists almost exclusively in international media and often consist of truly unbelievable tales. The best example is, of course, the “Kim Jong Il got 18 holes-in-one the first time he golfed” story. This appears to have been generated during an in-country conversation with a visiting journalist, according to friends of mine present. It has since become canon. You can read varying versions of it, always attributing it to “North Korean media” or “North Korean propaganda,” but invariably linking to some other Western media, if there is a citation at all. Kim Jong Il scoring a perfect 300 the first time he bowled is another such tale.
North Koreans have never, ever heard of these stories, unless they’ve been told them by a foreigner. They exist purely in a fantasy version of North Korea we too often indulge in. We let this version take hold for several reasons.
First, the bar is exceptionally low for journalism on North Korea. It is a difficult place to cover, no doubt, but to all too many journalists this seems to mean a free pass. There is no punishment for getting it wrong. With Kim Jong Il’s golf story, for example, everyone just knows the tale; there is no need to find out if it is actually true.
Second, South Korean journalism on North Korea is problematic — we should remember the two countries are locked in a 70-year propaganda war. South Korean journalistic culture allows for stories to be built around a single anonymous source, so without attribution or cross checking, this leaves reporters open to a higher degree of manipulation or to exaggeration. Meanwhile, many Western news outlets are quite happy to quote South Korean articles as authoritative.
Finally, it is undeniably a strange culture to most of us, with information controls that are unparalleled in the 21st century that make it hard to get reliable information. They also have customs and rhetoric that are often extreme or do not conform to our standards. Kids in the DPRK do sing songs for “their father Kim Jong Un,” for example. Koreans still engage in self-criticism sessions, a ritual long gone elsewhere. State media did refer to U.S. President Barack Obama in racist terms last year.
This strangeness drives a seemingly insatiable demand for news on the place, as editors well know. North Korea drives clicks in this contemporary media environment. As audiences, we drive weak journalism onward: we love to read about the place because we just can’t believe what they’re saying or doing.
But do North Koreans believe it? As for the Kim Jong Un stories – it is hard to know whether they are even true or not. In trying to find out, one can follow Huffington Post quoting UPI quoting South Korean TV quoting a textbook that nobody has as evidence. It seems unlikely that North Korean textbooks really are claiming Kim could drive at age three, as this is pretty much physically impossible. But beating an adult in a sailing race when 9-years old? Sure, why not?
More broadly, there are over 24 million people in the DPRK. There are trusting people, cynical people, simple people and smart people. In what way they interact with the information environment they face very much depends on who they are as individuals. Generally, however, it is fair to say most people accept the stories of their leaders’ heroics as truth. But we should remember that the stories they hear are usually not as weird as the ones we hear.