Sunday, June 27, 2010

DPRK Propaganda




Kim Jong-il in his role as comforting parent of the entire Korean people mourning the loss of Kim Il-sung
(more pictures here)

B. R Myers, whose book The Cleanest Race sits unread on my bookshelf, believes that the key to understanding North Korea is in its propaganda and that while it is sometimes almost impossible not to laugh at its po-faced naiivete, the themes that emerge are genuinely believed in. He also thinks that some of the assumptions made about North Korea are shown to be incorrect when the propaganda is carefully studied. In particular Myers points out that Communism, or even the official Juche philosophy, is only given lip-service by the Kim regime and that the real driving ideology is an extreme nationalism that has elements of racial superiority. According to him the DPRK sees Koreans as a unique race that can only be protected from a hostile outside world by the Kim family, whereas the decadent lackeys of Western imperialism in the south are allowing this unique blood to be sullied by outsiders. In an FP article in which he sketches out his theory he writes:

"Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance," a North Korean general told his South Korean counterpart during a 2006 meeting to discuss realignment of the maritime border between the two states. "Since ancient times our lands have been one of abundant natural beauty," he said. "Not even one drop of ink must be allowed."

Kim Canute

The belief in a specifically Korean natural beauty that must be defended against a hostile outside world is sometimes depicted as in the pitcure above of Kim Jong-il on a wave-swept beach staring defiantly at the storm. Myers sharply observes in his book that Kim Jong-il took advantage of such imagery when Bill Clinton went to the DPRK to negotiate the release of the reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling as the group photograph of Kim sitting (again with a somewhat defiant or stroke-addled expression) in front of more paintings of waves behind them shows.



This propaganda can only work, however, if foreigners - particularly the Americans and the Japanese (from whom Myers says a lot of North Korean propaganda slogans were adopted) along with support from their south Korean lackeys  are depicted as incorrigibly dangerous and anti-Korean. Along the streets billboards showing the Yankee soldiers succumbing to massive Korean fists are common while children are given any and every opportunity to learn about their hated enemy.

Here's a picture I took of a children's game at the funfair in Pyongyang. I think it may be called, "Kill the Yankee Imperialist Aggressors", although Myers gives some rather more alarming examples of indocrination in his article.


Even the English-language propaganda isn't shy about using racial epithets that are completely unacceptable in the West these days. So, for example, the programme I bought for a revolutionary opera called Sea of Blood has a couple of eyecatching captions:





Myers sees something distinctly ominous about this racially-driven propaganda in the likely impossibility of an agreement being reached on the Korean peninsula.

What is especially significant and perhaps unique about North Korean nationalism is its emphasis on the vulnerability of the race. Whereas World War II-era Japan's racialized worldview equated virtue with strength, the North Koreans are taught that their virtue has rendered them as vulnerable as children in an evil world -- unless they are protected by a great leader who keeps a watchful eye on military readiness.

Unfortunately for the United States, there is no place in this for any improvement in relations between the two countries. Were Kim Jong Il to abandon his ideology of paranoid, race-based nationalism and normalize relations with Washington, his personality cult would lose all justification, while his impoverished country would lose all reason to exist as a separate Korean state.

16 comments:

angrysoba said...

Kim Canute


It's possible that "Kim Cnut" is a better spelling!

FGFM said...

Glorious.

angrysoba said...

Glorious.

Speaking of Cnuts!

L said...

Myers' thesis is an interesting one, and it is certainly true that there is a lot to be learned from studying their propaganda, but I haven't read his book either so I am not sure how strongly he makes his case.

But I do something have a problem with extrapolating the minds of the North Korean population, they're collective cultural orientation, from the propaganda. It is well known that Soviet propaganda was never really intended to convince the population. Indeed, it's very discordance with reality was part of its power, its tyrannical grip: if they could get you to acquiesce to blatant lies, myths, and fabrications, then they are half-way to your complete acquiescence in everything. The bludgeoning dullness of it gives it so much power. There was always much (and extremely dangerous) cynicism and irony and ridicule of Soviet propaganda within the USSR, laughter in the dark and all that, and I find it hard to believe that the more humane sensibilites can be quite washed away in a population by such propaganda.

So, I am quite willing to accept that there is a very particular narrative proposed in the propoganda, and that this narrative appears to be one of unhappy racial supremacy, or vulnerability, rather, I am less inclined to accept that this reveals anything about the North Korean mind rather than those who Lord it over them.

But, yes, the Dear Leader has really worked himself into an awful pickle with all this.

FGFM said...

But I do something have a problem with extrapolating the minds of the North Korean population, they're [sic] collective cultural orientation, from the propaganda. It is well known that Soviet propaganda was never really intended to convince the population. Indeed, it's [sic] very discordance with reality was part of its power, its tyrannical grip: if they could get you to acquiesce to blatant lies, myths, and fabrications, then they are half-way to your complete acquiescence in everything.

Well done.

L said...

Another witless and contentless contribution from the Inspector Clouseau (though maliciously so) of Internet message-boards.

Well done.

FGFM said...

Another witless and contentless contribution from the Inspector Clouseau (though maliciously so) of Internet message-boards.

Indeed.

L said...

I see your fellow HitchWatcher is defending her right as a white lady to call black people "niggers" at HitchWatch.

Stay classy, FGFM. Condell would be proud of you.

FGFM said...

I see your fellow HitchWatcher is defending her right as a white lady to call black people "niggers" at HitchWatch.

Indeed.

Stay classy, FGFM. Condell would be proud of you.

He should be. After all, he was a lumberjack and I went to uni!

Anonymous said...

---

For both Huxley and Orwell, one man symbolized resistance to the dehumanizing disconnection of man from his past: Shakespeare. In both writers, he stands for the highest pinnacle of human self-understanding, without which human life loses its depth and its possibility of transcendence. In Brave New World, possessing an old volume of Shakespeare that has mysteriously survived protects a man from the enfeebling effects of a purely hedonistic life. A few lines are sufficient to make him realize the superficiality of the Brave New World:

Is there no pity sitting in the clouds,
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
O, sweet my mother, cast me not away!

And when Winston Smith wakes in 1984 from a dream about a time before the Revolution, when people were still human, a single word rises to his lips, for reasons that he does not understand: Shakespeare.

This scene takes me back to Pyongyang. I was in the enormous and almost deserted square in front of the Great People's Study House—all open spaces in Pyongyang remain deserted unless filled with parades of hundreds of thousands of human automata—when a young Korean slid surreptitiously up to me and asked, "Do you speak English?"

An electric moment: for in North Korea, unsupervised contact between a Korean and a foreigner is utterly unthinkable, as unthinkable as shouting, "Down with Big Brother!"

"Yes," I replied.

"I am a student at the Foreign Languages Institute. Reading Dickens and Shakespeare is the greatest, the only pleasure of my life."

It was the most searing communication I have ever received in my life. We parted immediately afterward and of course will never meet again. For him, Dickens and Shakespeare (which the regime permitted him to read with quite other ends in view) guaranteed the possibility not just of freedom but of truly human life itself.

Orwell and Huxley had the imagination to understand why—unlike me, who had to go to Pyongyang to find out.

---

angrysoba said...

It is well known that Soviet propaganda was never really intended to convince the population. Indeed, it's very discordance with reality was part of its power, its tyrannical grip: if they could get you to acquiesce to blatant lies, myths, and fabrications, then they are half-way to your complete acquiescence in everything. The bludgeoning dullness of it gives it so much power. There was always much (and extremely dangerous) cynicism and irony and ridicule of Soviet propaganda within the USSR, laughter in the dark and all that, and I find it hard to believe that the more humane sensibilites can be quite washed away in a population by such propaganda.


It's difficult to know for sure. Some people who have been to the Eastern bloc countries and the Soviet Union tell me that my descriptions of North Korea are very similar to those countries. But many people who have been to both Soviet Russia and North Korea have said that there existed in Russia and the Eatern European countries a large pool of dissident literature and political jokes or grafitti aimed at the regime. In contrast North Korea seems to be bereft even of that and it is hard to see where there are any outlets at all for "subversive talk".

Maybe the best we can do to get an idea of what happens in North Korea is from defector testimony (many people though, particularly on the far left, believe that defector testimony is highly suspect as the more lurid their tales the bigger their meal ticket in South Korea). For the most part these defectors tend to be very reluctant to criticize the regime and make as many possible excuses for it when explaining why they left the country. Indeed, many of them leave North Korea to forage for food in China before returning back over the border instead of permanently defecting.

Bradley K. Martin in his book compiles a lot of defector testimony but there is also a new book out getting very good reviews by the writer Barbara Demick called Nothing to Envy. It focuses on a few defectors from one town in the northeast of the country apparently with the intention of giving as nuanced a description as possible.

angrysoba said...

This scene takes me back to Pyongyang. I was in the enormous and almost deserted square in front of the Great People's Study House—all open spaces in Pyongyang remain deserted unless filled with parades of hundreds of thousands of human automata—when a young Korean slid surreptitiously up to me and asked, "Do you speak English?"

An electric moment: for in North Korea, unsupervised contact between a Korean and a foreigner is utterly unthinkable, as unthinkable as shouting, "Down with Big Brother!"


Wow! I didn't know that Dalrymple had also been to North Korea.

I also went to the Great People's Study House where we were taken around by our guide who showed us the state of the art library system. I can't remember exactly how it worked but I think she put the name of a book in a small cart on a conveyor belt, "Kim Il-sung's Great Metallurgical Innovations For the Advancement of the Juche Society with Chollima Speed" or some such and then sent it on its way. The cart came back through a hatch with the book sitting in it within a few seconds. Some people on the tour group actually looked amazed by that.

Our guide told us that Kim Il-sung had deemed everyone should do eight hours work, eight hours study and have eight hours rest and that this was some kind of gold standard in distributing a persons day. I did get to ask her "Isn't it a bit tiring after eight hours work to come here and study for eight hours more?" She looked at me as if I'd just broken wind in the presence of the Great Leader himself and snapped, "What's wrong with studying? I like studying! I like reading English literature."

"What's your favourite novel?" I asked her. Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo.

Later on we went upstairs to see what I suppose were language labs where people studied using headphones and tape recorders. Another very jovial (if not slightly crazy) guide had been following us and while our main guide was explaining what everyone was doing he suddenly pulled out the headphone jack from the nearest stereo which then blared out - no joke! - Mick Hucknall's Simply Red.

L said...

Not to denigrate North Korean culture, but it is true that pre-revolution Russia (and during and after, in truth) had a literary tradition with few rivals in the world (a Pushkin in every home, and so on) so the resulting samizdat could perhaps be particular to that tradition.

There is a certain impenetrability to the North Korean mind but I am still loathe to believe that the propaganda reveals anything more than the downward pressure under which it has to exist, rather than being more or less commensurate with their true beliefs.

Dalrymple has written about it occasionally, but always in the context of something else (totalitarian architecture, Orwell etc.). His travel book "The Wilder Shores of Marx" is very much trying to get your hands on - it's out of print, but copies do pop up every now and then on Amazon and whatnot.

That Simply Red anecdote is quite hilarious. Dumas, Hucknall, and Clinton. What ever must they make of the West?

L said...

Here's a snippet from the book about the DPRK that might interest you:

http://blog.skepticaldoctor.com/2010/01/15/classic-dalrymple-the-wilder-shores-of-marx-excerpt-1991.aspx

angrysoba said...

You said,

There is a certain impenetrability to the North Korean mind but I am still loathe to believe that the propaganda reveals anything more than the downward pressure under which it has to exist, rather than being more or less commensurate with their true beliefs.

Yes, I agree to some extent. The difficulty is to know what the "true beliefs" of the North Korean people are given that they have been forged in an environment of almost complete isolation from the outside world. If you are saying, however, that there is a natural desire in all people to want choice, to be curious about the outside world and to not want to be slaves then, as with Dalrymple, then yes, I think you're right (and hope you are right as I too am loathe to believe that the stultefying existence the Kim regime has imposed on North Koreans is, for them, the best of all possible worlds). The idea that all people want a certain basic level of freedom denied by North Korea's government is the basis for a manifesto written by One Free Korea's blogger, called, subversively enough - A Capitalist Manifesto.

I think he does quite persuasively make the point that the regime deliberately ensures that "its people" (as Hitchens might put it) don't have the time or energy to think about anything but where their next meal is coming from and are kept busy for purely cynical reasons. This is something that has been broadly accepted by a number of historians that revolutionary change occurs not when people have nothing to lose but their chains but when their lives are somewhat better than subsistence level and they don't want to return to abject poverty again. The almost unprecedented minor uprising that happened following the currency reform is evidence in favour of that.

angrysoba said...

Thanks also for the Dalrymple piece. I had written a reponse to that but I accidentally deleted the whole thing.

Anyway, I think the piece is excellent and really sums up the fact that the North Koreans can't help but tacitly accept that certain basic freedoms of choice and material gain are fundamentally desirable. It also underscores the callous Doublethink of the DPRK's apologists:

I also followed a few people around at random, as discreetly as I could. Some were occupied in ceaselessly going up and down the escalators; others wandered from counter to counter, spending a few minutes at each before moving on. They did not inspect the merchandise; they moved as listlessly as illiterates might, condemned to spend the day among the shelves of a library. I did not know whether to laugh or explode with anger or weep. But I knew I was seeing one of the most extraordinary sights of the twentieth century...


...At just before four o'clock, on two occasions, I witnessed the payment of the shoppers. An enormous queue formed at the cosmetics and toiletries counter and there everyone, man and woman, received the same little palette of rouge, despite the great variety of goods on display. Many of them walked away somewhat bemused, examining the rouge uncomprehendingly. At another counter I saw a similar queue receiving a pair of socks, all brown like the plastic bowls. The socks, however, were for keeps. After payment, a new shift of Potemkin shoppers arrived.

The Department Store Number 1 was so extraordinary that I had to talk to someone about it. But the young communist from Glasgow to whom I described it simply exclaimed: 'So what! Plenty of people go to Harrods without buying anything, just to look.' Nevertheless, I returned twice to Department Store Number 1 because, in my opinion, it had as many layers of meaning as a great novel, and every time one visited it one realised - as on re-reading Dickens or Tolstoy - that one had missed something from the time before.


There's something almost cargo cult-esque about these shrines to prosperity and consumerism that are, as Dalrymple rightly points out, tacit admissions to the desirability of the vices of the West.

There are about four or five billboards up around Pyongyang advertising the local car - called a Cuckoo - but given the fact that almost all the very few cars seen on the roads are those of embassy staff or NGOs and given the fact that almost no one could afford these cars anyway, it isn't clear for whose benefit these billboards are. Perhaps it is part of the whole simulacrum of an ordinary modern city that Department Store Number One was also a part of.

I didn't go to that store when I was there. We were taken to a shop that was called a department store but it was quite different in that not only were there no escalators, there were no customers! Or windows, in fact. The shop was a kind of large garage in which there were a bunch of TVs lined up against one wall with a number of other randomly assorted goods on the other (local booze, local fags (one brand was called Red Flag), some snacks that had been imported from Japan which had lost their crispiness and had passed their expiry date, and some ginseng medicine for cold and impotence.