Brian Reynolds Myers is contributing editor to the Atlantic and professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. In his new book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, he examines North Korean propaganda meant for both internal and external consumption and through it constructs the closed country’s view of itself, its relationship to other countries and the Kim dynasty that has controlled it for 60 years. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
It's easy for a Westerner to get the impression that everything a North Korean citizen might see or read or hear, every piece of culture they might encounter — paintings, stories, sitcoms — is, in some way, propaganda. How true is that notion?
I think it is true. Of course, the information cordon that used to isolate the country from the outside world has deteriorated steadily since the mid-1990s, when North Koreans began to leave the country to look for food. You have a lot of people who are smuggling into the country things like South Korean DVDs or Chinese TV sets — even cellphones, which can be used to call people outside the country. Average citizens now have some access to unorthodox sources of culture and information, but for the average North Korean on a daily basis, everything they encounter really is propaganda.
Is it all, in some sense, state-produced, or is it simply subject to the state's sensibilities and thus going to conform to them?
It is actually state-produced. You could contrast it, say, to South Korea under the military dictatorships, when you did have private people creating culture which was then subject to very strict censorship. In North Korea, on the other hand, everything is conceived by the party, so to speak commissioned by the party, and then it has to go through another rigorous censorship process anyway. By the time it gets into the hands of individual citizens, the regime has made very sure that there's nothing in there that contradicts the view it wants to spread.
One of the most fascinating angles you take in the book is to explore a somewhat unexplored facet of this, which is that the propaganda the North Korean state gives to its own people and the propaganda it designs for outside consumption are different, and substantially so. What is the core of that difference?
The main difference is that North Korea has always tried to convey the impression to the outside world that it is a kind of communist state which seeks integration into the world community, which is very fearful of its own security on the world stage, which wants nothing more than a peace treaty with the United States so that it can get back to its own business of improving the standard of living for its people.
Now, the impression given to the North Korean people themselves, the propaganda they get which most people in the outside world never really learn about, gives a very different impression: that North Korea is a country that will forever be hostile to the United States, which some day will wreak revenge on America — a country that is not afraid of any other country in the world. Rather, the rest of the world is terrified of North Korea. You can read books, for example, about North Korean diplomats barging in on U.N. officials, laying down the law, telling the U.N. what to do and so on. In other worlds, North Korea's depiction of itself is strikingly close to, say, the American right wing's depiction of North Korea as a rogue state.
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You mention the stories about North Korean officials that are read within the country. How much of the culture that a North Korean consumes actually revolves around those that govern them? A lot of stories are, of course, about Kim Jong Il, about Kim Il Sung. It's odd, in a way, for a Westerner to read that so many stories one might read are about figures in the state.
Right, because that is really the way ideology is taught in North Korea. North Korea's ideology is, as I say in the book, a very, very crude and simple race-based nationalism. The leader is praised for being the perfect embodiment of Koreanness, the perfect embodiment of ethnic virtues. So the leader does not have to teach very much himself. Instead, the people learn the official ideology by learning about the leader; in other words, by reading these fantasy biographies or by reading these completely fictional stories about things the leader might have done while traveling around the country. That is the way the regime gets the message across.
It's fascinating because, if I've read your book correctly, you say the North Korean people know a lot of these stories to be untrue — that's how they approach them, as fiction about, say, what Kim Il Sung did in his youth — but nevertheless, they treat it as, in a sense, true.
As I say in the book, you can perhaps compare this to non-biblical tales of Jesus. I grew up in a Christian family, and at Christmas time, or when you read children's books, you do find stories about Jesus which are not in the Bible. You know — or your parents know, as they're giving you these stories to read — that they're not grounded in the Bible, and therefore, in all likelihood, they are simply products of the imagination of a writer. But the important thing is that these stories be true to the essence of Jesus.
This is how the North Koreans approach those stories. When they read a story about Kim Jong Il having visited, I don't know, a fishery or a shoe factory, they know that they're not true, but they believe the essence of Kim Jong Il is properly reflected in the story.
To go back a little bit to a point you made about the race-based nationalism of North Korea, this is not something much talked about, I find, even in material about the ideology of North Korea. Why have so few before you focused on the specific racial element of North Korean ideology?
It's an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don't speak Korean and don't read Korean. They're not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster. So they, for decades, have had to depend on secondary sources of information, primarily in English. When they read North Korean materials, they have to read the so-called Juche Thought, because the regime has been careful to put this pseudo-ideology, this sham ideology, into English. So when foreigners want to read about North Korean ideology, they have to turn to these books on Juche thought, which really decoy them away from the true ideology.
Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like “Man is the master of all things.” This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking. While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.
It seems, in the book, you talk about it as designed to be un-figure-outable, to an extent, just kind of a vortex someone hopeful to understand North Korea in the West can fall into and fail to figure out?
That is exactly what the point is. The regime does not want to confuse its own people either, by having two ideologies on the intellectual marketplace, so to speak. It deliberately writes this Juche Thought in as unreadable, as repetitive and as dull as way as possible so that nobody actually bothers slogging through it. If you talk to your North Korean minders and guides and people like that when you go to North Korea, they know as little about Juche Thought as anybody else does.
Yet the outside world, even very respected Korea scholars like Bruce Cumings, have taken these Juche Thought claims at face value and simply concluded that Juche Thought is incomprehensible to a foreigner. In face, it's incomprehensible to the North Koreans too, but it serves its function very well. The main function of Juche is to enable the claim that Kim Il Sung is a great thinker, that he's just as great a thinker as Mao Tse Tung was. In that sense, it has been a success.
I was going to ask you about that line in the book about how, if you ask your minders in North Korea, they'll be confused and try to sort of hedge the issue. Do you speak from experience there? What do they say back to you?
The last time I was in North Korea was in 2008. I went to visit the city of Kaesong, which is near the DMZ. I got into a conversation with my minder — they're always very curious when a white man is able to speak Korean — and I started to talk to him about Juche Thought. At first he was very proud and very pleased that I had heard about Juche Thought, but as soon as he realized that I had actually read those texts and that I expected him to answer some questions about them, he said, “Isn't it time for you to get back on your bus?” He was very uncomfortable.
This is in stark contrast to what I experienced as a young man in East Germany, when I traveled from West Germany. If you talked to a member of the communist party there, he was able to give you a pretty good summary of Marxism/Leninism. He knew what he was talking about. The North Koreans are able to tell you the race-based nationalism also very well. It's this fake ideology which they don't understand either.
How accurate would it be for me to say that a lot of United States-based North Korea-watchers get confused by what they think of as the North Korean ideology not because it's too complicated for them to understand but because the real ideology is, in fact, so simple that they don't believe that it could be the real ideology?
Right. That really is what I see. When I talk to North Korea-watchers, they tend to find North Korean propaganda, the stuff that I've spent the past five years researching, actually too ridiculous, too immature, too puerile to take seriously. Instead, they believe that North Korea must be ruled by this incomprehensible Juche doctrine which we simply haven't figured out yet.
It's a shame, really, because if you look at the history of North Korea, how it has acted over the decades, it has not behaved at all like a Stalinist country. It has not behaved like any of our adversaries in the Cold War. It is quite obvious that it has been impelled in its actions by something very different from Marxism/Leninism, and actually, the North Korean regime has taken all the fun out of it for me, in a sense, because it has recently deleted the word “communism” from the constitution. The onus of proving that North Korea is a certain country is no longer on me; it's for those people who say this is a Marxist/Leninist country, a Stalinist country, to explain to the rest of us why they think so. The evidence is just not there.
Indeed, it doesn't seem like North Korea fits anywhere on the standard left-right political spectrum that, say, someone in the U.S. would think about. Is that the case?
If we have to posit it anywhere on the ideological spectrum, we have to say that it's more of a far-right country. This is a country with a race-based way of looking at the world. It does have a command economy, but the far-right national defense states of the 1930s and 1940s, namely imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, also had a command economy. It was perhaps not quite as extreme as the one you see in North Korea, but a command economy is by no means incompatible with a far-right state.
But we have to keep in mind that this left-right scale should really be envisioned more as a kind of circle. In other words, the further you get to the extreme left, the closer you get to the extreme right. I would see North Korea as being right there where the extreme right and the extreme left meet.
The fact of the military-first government, as they call it, would make people think as well of the far right. When you hear that “military,” that's kind of where your mind goes. You write in the book of this military-first government being an installation of specifically the Kim Jong Il era. Did it precede him at all, or was it literally the case that the military-first idea came after Kim Il Sung passed?
It did come after he passed, although I think it was conceived maybe a year or two before Kim Il Sung died. It was really a reaction to the economic crisis, and the North Korean regime must have see that crisis coming. It started as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, and by the early 1990s, when the Eastern bloc collapsed, China told North Korea that it would have to start paying hard currency for imports. At that time, the regime knew that it would have to disassociate the leader from economic matters. The logical way for them to do that in 1995 was to tell the people that the threat from the United States was now so big that their leader would not have time for economic matters anymore, that he would have to be a military-first leader and occupy himself completely with military issues.
The irony, of course, is that 1995 was actually the best time ever in relations between America and North Korea. The agreed framework had just been signed, and economic aid from the United States was actually coming into the country. It's really ironical, because on the one hand Kim Jong Il had to make the Americans believe that North Korea was ready to change, and at the same time Kim Jong Il was trying to whip up anti-Americanism on the home front. I can't stress often enough that this military-first policy was not a reaction to, say, George W. Bush's “axis of evil” reference, which I think was a very unfortunate reference myself, but it was by no means the things that pushed the North Koreans into this military-first policy.
This act that we've talked about, the North Korean state having to balance projecting one image to their own people and projecting another image to the outside world. What level of cognitive dissonance, for the North Korean public, are we currently at? How close is it getting to, say, an East German situation, where people would profess one belief but secretly believe whatever they wanted to about the rulers?
There's very little of that sort of cognitive dissonance in North Korea. The conflict that exists exists between the externally oriented propaganda and the domestic propaganda. The average North Korean citizen is not aware or particularly interested in what the regime says to the outside world, not least because the regime is using English or Spanish or foreign languages to convey that external-oriented propaganda. Inside North Korea, you have very little disagreement with the basic official line.
Even the North Koreans who escape from the country — and they are very small in number, those who choose to stay outside North Korea — still subscribe broadly to this racially-based way of looking at the world. They are still fans of Kim Il Sung, even if they think that Kim Jong Il is a bad man. It's extraordinary, really, that you don't have intellectual opposition to the regime in North Korea. We have very few refugees from North Korea who can be described as being political dissidents.
This surprising degree of actual support for the North Korean regime that you see on the part of the people — can we call it a function of how little outside information they get alone, or how well the propaganda functions internally? Is it that they can't get the outside stuff, or simply that the inside stuff is so powerful to them?
I would say the inside stuff is so powerful to them; that's really the reason. North Korea is a nationalist state, and nationalism is generally much more impervious to outside or conflicting sources of information than, say, Marxism/Leninism was. You only need to look at South Korea, really. South Korea is a completely open state where citizens can access news from around the world any time on the internet or through their media, and yet South Korea is the second most nationalist country in the world, North Korea being the first.
Nationalism, especially this kind of race-based nationalism which we see so little of in the rest of the world these days, is, psychologically speaking, an enormously appealing doctrine. It is just as well suited to good economic times as to bad ones, because when things go well you can say it's because your race is so great, and when things go badly you can blame them on foreigners. This worldview gives every North Korean citizen a role to play in this sacred racial mission of kicking the Yankees out of South Korea and reunifying the peninsula.
And I do suppose we should get a little clearer on the specific nature of the race-based nationalism: Koreans, in this view, are the “child race” who are so pure-blooded and so virtuous that they have to be protected from the evil world that surrounds them, specifically by the likes of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Does that about get it?
That is pretty much the ideology. As I say, it's something that a nine-year-old child in North Korea would have no difficulty understanding, so it's a shame that, after having fought a war with North Korea and losing 54,000 Americans in the process, having come very close to fighting another war in 1993 and 1994, our policymakers remain as ignorant of this very simple ideology as always.
Do the people of North Korea believe that the people of South Korea are essentially on an almost equal purity footing with them, and that they're just another branch of the child race but have unfortunately fallen victim to the Americans?
That's what they believe. Because the Korean people are racially, inherently good, it follows that the South Korean people are born just as good as the North Korean people are. But the North Korean propaganda apparatus makes a lot of the contaminating influence of the American presence in South Korea, the contaminating influence of American morals. The media in Pyongyang is also very critical of intermarriage between South Korean citizens and foreigners, especially between South Koreans and Americans. The North Koreans believe that South Koreans' racial purity is in danger.
One of the interesting things about the state media in North Korea's view of the South is that they do not conceal the wealth of South Korea, which is just staggeringly greater than that of the North. It's revealed without the population hemorrhaging to the South. How is that?
It's because they have a very good way of spinning that wealth. The North Korean government says that the South Koreans are wealthy because Kim Jong Il's military-first policy has kept the Americans from launching another devastating war on the peninsula. That's one way in which they spin it, and they of course claim that the South Korean masses, for all their wealth, are deeply ashamed of living in a Yankee colony and want nothing more than to live under Kim Jong Il.
I think that line has been quite successful so far, but since the election of an anti-Pyongyang conservative South Korean president in 2007, this propaganda line has come into some difficulties. If the average South Korean wants nothing more than to live under Kim Jong Il, why then did he elect the anti-Pyongyang presidential candidate? This is something that the North Korean regime has had enormous problems with in the past two or three years. I think the awareness is spreading in North Korea that the South Korean people are perfectly happy living in their own state. I think it's the North Korean regime's efforts to counter that awareness which are behind these military provocations that we've seen in the past year.
Is the greatest threat to the North Korean regime that exists not the U.S., not the outside world, but this fact the South does not, in fact, want to live under Kim Jong Il?
I believe so, yes, because North Korea has flouted the United States for decades now with impunity. You can go back to the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968, the Pamunjom axe murders in the mid-1970s, and North Korea has really crossed every line in the sand that American has drawn in regard to the nuclear program. I don't believe the North Koreans are particularly afraid of the United States, and their own propaganda does not reflect any fear of the United States.
Rather, what the North Koreans are worried about is this rival state next door. That's always been problem number one for North Korea: how do you justify your existence as a separate Korean state when the state next door is thriving economically? I really don't believe that the North Korean regime will ever feel completely secure until it has eliminated South Korea as a competitor.
And that does not seem particularly probable, does it?
It doesn't seem particularly probable, and I don't believe that the regime thinks that it can invade South Korea and get away with it. But I do believe that the regime wants to perhaps bully South Korea into some kind of power-sharing agreement. These are things that I think are conceivable. We know from North Korean refugees that they are building ever more tunnels to South Korea in order to make it easier to invade South Korea should the time come. I don't subscribe to the view that North Korea would never dream of invading South Korea. I think it's crazy enough to try it, and we need to be better prepared for that.
Part of the problem that I find with American policymakers is the belief that this is a Cold War kind of state, and we never had to worry about outright aggression during the late Cold War, and we don't have to worry about it here. I think a time may well come when North Korea really is so desperate, and has no other way in which to rally its people around it, that it will actually look for a military confrontation with South Korea.
The North Korean state, though, has to know that there's simply no chance of ultimate victory with a military maneuver like that?
I wouldn't be so sure. If you look at our own president Bush, we went into that Iraq war in 2003 firmly convinced that the Iraqi people would come out and welcome us with open arms. We believed this although we really had no evidence to speak of.
Now if you're Kim Jong Il sitting in Pyongyang, you have a lot of evidence that some South Korean people, or at least a significant part of the South Korean population, would welcome a North Korean invasion. There are routinely opinion polls in South Korea which say that more South Koreans regard America as the number one enemy than regard North Korea as the numer one enemy. In addition to that, you have the two southwestern Jeolla provinces where sympathy for North Korea is very strong. It even extends to sympathy for Kim Jong Il himself.
What worries me, really, is that there is enough evidence on paper, at least, to make the North Korean leader, who is of course surrounded by yes-men anyway, to think that he might be able to get away this, that the South Koreans might indeed lack the will to fight.
There's a line in the book that very much intrigued me, where you say that some South Koreans feel a twinge of guilt that the North is somewhat morally superior, or made the morally superior choice. How widespread is that actual feeling?
It's not as widespread anymore, I think. Ever since the conservative president Lee Myung Bak took power, that kind of sympathy for the North seems to be receding, because the news media have become much more critical under his rule than they were under the Sunshine Policy years from 1998 to 2007. But there is still a strong element of that.
South Koreans are also nationalists, and they have a sort of sneaking respect for this country to the north which has thumbed it nose at the rest of the world with impunity. My own South Korean students at the university where I teach, many of them are quite happy that North Korea is pursuing a nuclear program, because they believe that, should unification ever come, those nuclear weapons would then become the possession of the Republic of Korea and Seoul.
This is probably the biggest issue to ask about, but how widely is it believed that unification is on the way, in the South?
They don't believe that it's on the way, and they like it that way. The South Korean people really have no interest in reunifying the country. Young people I talk to say they want it to happen some time in the future, but when I ask them when, they'll say things like ten, 20, 30 years in the future, which is really the same as saying they don't want it at all, in my opinion.
I want to ask a bit about your own trips to North Korea. How many times have you been?
I've been there twice, both for very short visits. Unfortunately, it's very difficult for an American who has been publishing routinely and quite critically about North Korea to get a visa to the country. It's becoming easier now for Americans to get into the country through certain tours that are associated with the Arirang Mass Games that take place in Pyongyang. But my visits were to the Kŭmgangsan mountain resort and to the city of Kaesong, which is perhaps not as interesting to many foreigners as Pyongyang would be.
But I feel I know Pyongyang so well already from the propaganda materials I've been studying that it was interesting to see an average North Korean city. All of the regime's resources are basically focused on Pyongyang, so if you want to see how most North Koreans are living, you've got to get out of that city anyway and go to a city like Kaesong, which is really just crumbling. It looks like a South Korean city must have looked in the 1960s.
Kaesong — correct me if I'm wrong, but that region has a different set of economic policies that allow outside investment. Am I right about that?
There is what you call the Kaesong Industrial Zone, but that is a compound of South Korean factories which is located quite far outside the city of Kaesong itself. That Kaesong Industrial Zone is right smack on the DMZ; you go through the passport formalities and things like that, and then this Industrial Zone is pretty much right under your nose. To go into the city of Kaesong itself, you've got to take a bus for well over half an hour, 40 minutes.
The people who live in Kaesong itself are working in the same kinds of factories and collective enterprises as the people in the rest of the country, and as a result, of course, they are not earning a lot of money. You can see, as soon as you enter the city, that people there are much, much shorter than they are in South Korea. The average North Korean man is shorter than the average South Korean woman.
I do often hear, when people talk about having gone to North Korea, they will talk about having gone to Pyongyang and that it is something of a Potemkin village up there. The scenes you describe, these are completely behind the props. They actually let you see what is essentially really going on in the country, then?
They drive you in the bus — they try to keep the buses going as fast as possible, of course — and a guide gets onto the bus as soon as you cross the DMZ, and the guide never stops talking. He's constantly trying to distract you from what you're looking at outside the window. You are taken to certain sites in Kaesong which are hidden from the street by a wall, but if you walk up the wall and look over it, as I did, you can see people going about their business on their bicycles, very cold, and the guides will always come over and try to get you away from the wall.
It really is a conflict for the North Koreans because, on the one hand, they want money from tourists, and they realize that tourists don't just want to look at statues of Kim Il Sung. On the other hand, they really are embarrassed to led the outside world see just how bad the conditions are there.
That word you mention, “crumbling.” Whenever I've seen a picture of North Korea, and they're usually pictures of Pyongyang, the showcase city, even that appears to be crumbling or at least crumbly. It's sounds substantially more crumbly in a place like Kaesong.
We have to keep in mind that most of the buildings in cities like Pyongyang or around the country were build in the Soviet-subsidized heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. These buildings are in desperate need of repair. Many of them don't have water pressure enough to convey water up to the top floors, so if people want to take a bath or a shower they have to come down to the ground floor and get buckets of water. Many of the buildings — even in Pyongyang, as you say — lack windows and just have sheets of plastic over them.
The country really is in desperate need of money, and this is a problem for the government because it has recklessly, in my opinion, begun a propaganda campaign according to which the country will become strong and prosperous by the year 2012. That's just not realistic. The government is spending a lot of money on showcase projects, on putting new coats of paint on especially prominent buildings. But I think it's raising expectations in the minds of the people that they're not going to be able to fill. That's dangerous, because the regime is going to look for some kind of diversionary military spectacle with which to inspire the people with pride.
To go a little further with the Potemkin Village metaphor, it is often read here in rumors about North Korea that, say, the Pyongyang subway doesn't really work, that it's full of actors who pretend to be on their way somewhere when, in fact, the lines are not operational. Do we know that things like that are actually going on, or is that speculation?
That sounds to me a little bit farfetched. I don't think the regime really can afford to have thousands and thousands of people simply standing around as extras on the off chance that a foreigner might come by and want to see the subway in operation. I really don't believe that. Because so many resources are concentrated on Pyongyang, I do believe that they really are doing what they seem to be doing.
You were studying North Korea for quite some time before you visited, or did you visit and then begin studying it?
No, I had been studying North Korea on and off since the late 1980s, and I never actually got around to visiting the country until 2003. The interesting thing is that it doesn't really contradict what you've read about. There's nothing in that country that conflicts with the image of the country that you get from reading propaganda. If people want to understand the country better, they shouldn't be trying to find the “real” North Korea that is behind the propaganda. It's not as if there are two North Koreas there.
This is not like East Germany, where you had a first society of people paying lip service to Marxism/Leninism and then you would go to their homes and they would lock the doors and bring out their foreign books and their Beatles music and things like that. It isn't that kind of a society, really. There is a certain disagreement with the regime, but there is widespread consensus that the North Koreans really are the purest race in the world, and that the Americans really are inherently evil and so on.
How much useful information do you get as a scholar of North Korea by actually visiting the country, other to confirm that “this is the place I've read about”?
I would say very little, actually. This is one of the reasons why I'm not particularly intent on spending five or six thousand dollars every year to take a trip to Pyongyang to see the same sights that I've seen so often and to hear the same speeches that I've read about so often. The problem in North Korea is that it's virtually impossible to have unmonitored contact with North Korean citizens. That would be more interesting for me, to find out just to what extent they believe everything, what things they disagree with. But you're never going to get that kind of contact with North Korean citizens, because somebody is pretty much stuck on you all the time.
It must be much more useful to talk to refugees from that country.
The problem with the refugees is that most of them come from the northeastern corner of the country, which is the poorest part. So many of these refugees are from the least educated sector of that society, from the least propagandized sector of that society. These are people who are not really accurate sources of information about how the official culture functions.
You could compare it to, say, a situation if you imagine all the people who left the United States were from Montana who had lived maybe three or four years in Canada before you got to them. That's the situation we have with these refugees. They are North Koreans, true, but they're not representative of the North Korean population as a whole. They are from one part of the country, and they've lived too long in the outside world before you get a chance to talk to them.
I want to go back to this fact that what you see in North Korea is not in conflict with what the propaganda says. You write in the book that the North Korean state is actually quite careful to not contradict an average North Korean's experience of their country. That's fascinating to me, because does that mean they can acknowledge any sort of way in which life in North Korea is bad, but can go back to, “Well, America's evil, and we're pure”?
They can acknowledge a lot more than a Marxist/Leninist state could acknowledge. They can acknowledge that South Korean people have a much higher standard of living. On the other hand, there are things they really can't acknowledge precisely because of their racialism. They cannot, for example, acknowledge the prevalence of crime in North Korea, because that is incompatible with the image of the Korean people as being uniquely pure. If your read North Korean newspapers, there is no mention at all of any kind of crime in North Korea. There are no real villains in North Korean popular culture either, because how could you have a North Korean villain? The kind of conflict you have in North Korean narratives is between a perfect character and a character who has perhaps some minor character flaws.
There is a lot that they can't talk about, but as I say, nationalism really goes with the grain of human nature. We really want to believe that we are special and that the out group is bad. The people are kind of working with the regime. It's not as if this is a very hard sell. Those average North Korean citizens have no desire to find out they have been working their whole lives just to keep one family in Pyongyang happy. That's a truth, I think, that would devastate them, and they don't want to find that out.
I was reading a book — it was actually more of a nonfiction graphic novel — by a Canadian animator who worked in North Korea for a while on some animation projects. He was describing himself with his minder. It occurred to him that he was looking around the streets of Pyongyang and didn't see any disabled people. He turned to his minder and said, “You know, there's no one in a wheelchair or anything here, no one even on crutches, and on average, ten percent of the population will have some sort of physical disability.” The minder says, “Yeah, but every North Korean is born perfectly healthy.” Is that a branch of this line of thought?
Sure. You can see this in Nazi Germany as well. Whenever you have a state that professes belief in the purity of the race, you have a state that has a very hard time acknowledging the existence of people who are physically challenged or perhaps mentally handicapped. The North Koreans don't know even how to explain things like that. Traditionally, Koreans on the peninsula for hundreds of years have had special problems acknowledging birth defects and things like that. If you wanted to be a village elder in Confucian Korea, for example, you couldn't even have a scar on your body.
This is why the North Korean regime had such a hard time with Kim Il Sung's tumor. For most of his adult life, Kim Il Sung had quite a sizable tumor on the back of his neck, and the North Korean propaganda apparatus had to photograph him from one angle so that this tumor would never be known to the North Korean population. Right now, of course, Kim Jong Il is increasingly infirm. He's probably not walking very well. This is one reason why the people tend to see just still shots of him and not videos.
With the poverty among the North Korean people — I've never read much about the state of medicine in North Korea, but considering the poverty of the country, I can't imagine it's particularly effective — there must be a fairly high incidence of physical problems of various kinds. That doesn't contradict anything about how healthy they all are?
Oh yeah, it does obviously contradict it. One German aid worker I know worked in the medical field, and he said the conditions in the hospitals are just mind-boggling. They're using liquor bottles for IVs and stuff. Of course, we can assume that there is a high degree of children born with birth defects. We saw that in South Korea when South Korea was still a poor country. But those people are probably kept at home. Even if you go to South Korea, keep in mind, you're not going to see very many physically challenged people on the street, because the shame that they feel is such that those people are usually kept at home.
In your book you describe five years of research in the Unification Ministry's North Korean Information Center in Seoul. How extensive an archive is that to work with?
It is enormous. It doesn't go back as far as I wish it would. If I want materials from the late 1940s and early 1950s, I'm better off going to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. or going to the Library Congress. But they are very good with up-to-date materials, and newspapers get there from Pyongyang maybe one week or two weeks late. You can monitor North Korean propaganda in that way.
How many types of propaganda are available there? You talk about children's books, you talk about various types of media.
It's pretty much all there. You can sit down with headphones and you can watch North Korean TV dramas, you can watch North Korean news broadcasts. This is actually quite a new development, because for a long time it was completely illegal for a South Korean to access any kind of North Korean propaganda. For a few years, you needed government approval to be able access this. Now, the place is open to everybody. Any South Korean high school student, for example, can just walk in there and start watching a North Korean movie.
Now what we don't get, unfortunately, is the kind of propaganda that is disseminated at party meetings in North Korea. These materials have been smuggled out occasionally, but we still don't have regular access to them. This is frustrating for me, because I'm quite sure that the personality cult of Kim Jong Il's successor is being propagated in these party meetings.
You talk about how a South Korean high school student could go in there and look at North Korean films or what have you. How much did you see South Koreans making use of this resource?
Unfortunately, not very often. Whenever I got to the Resource Center, there's a lot of free seats, a lot of elderly people there looking at the materials, a lot of academics looking at them. I don't sense any great interest on the part of the South Korean public as a whole, which is not surprising, really. These materials are so thoroughly censored, so formulaic and conventionalized. There's no real conflict in North Korean narrative. To a young South Korean who's been raised on this very dynamic South Korean popular culture, the stuff is just deadly dull.
When you describe some of the plots of North Korean stories, of North Korean dramas, I imagine the experience, as you had, of sitting through them. You were working hard for the fee on this book, it sounds like.
It's dull reading. I have a background n Soviet studies, and I remember Soviet literature, which I thought was very dull at the time but which was really exciting in comparison to the North Korean stuff. I tried to vary it by accessing as many different sources of propaganda as possible: I would read women's magazines, children's magazines, children's books, encyclopedia, dictionaries. I would watch war movies and read women's novels. I just tried to vary it in that way, but always the same message is being conveyed.
With things like women's magazines and children's books — these are not what one would normally think of outside North Korea as a vehicle for propaganda. Are any of these things reasonably propaganda-free, or is there some strain of it in all of them?
Part of the problem now is that the North Korean government has to compete with these outside sources of information. They know that people would rather watch a South Korean DVD when they get home than a North Korean movie, so they're trying to make their own propaganda more accessible. They're toning down the overt propaganda in it.
You can find romances, for example, which are, I would say, 80 percent ideology free. You find silly romantic farces about people trying to find a mate and meeting the wrong person and so on. Some of this stuff is actually quite entertaining; I've shown it to my South Korean students and they laugh too. But always there's a propaganda message there at the end.
One of the interesting things you can find out from reading things like women's magazines — you can get, indirectly, some kind of information on how things are changing in the country. I read a women's magazine recently which warned housewives against what they called “the housewife disease,” and if you read the description of the housewife disease, it's quite obvious that they're talking about an STD. That article makes you realize that these diseases are spreading in North Korea, and this is something the regime is worried about. That in turn makes you realize that certain social changes are underway as well. These sources of information really are quite useful.
That is fascinating. They've bannered STDs as “housewives' disease”?
Right, they give the disease that name to make it sound more harmless, but when you look at the symptoms which are described in the article, it's very clear what kind of diseases they're referring to. And of course, we are seeing a rise in prostitution in North Korea. We are seeing a lot of women going back and forth across the border who are meeting, perhaps, Chinese men for liaisons. These diseases are obviously becoming a problem for a country which lacks penicillin and lacks the medicines needed to treat them.
You talk about how the lack of skills with the Korean language, reading and speaking, which are no problem for you but stop a lot of other North Korea-watchers from truly understanding the country. How hard is it beyond that to read between the lines in theis propaganda and get some genuine information like what you describe?
It's not hard to read between the lines with North Korea. If you read Soviet newspapers — and I remember doing that back in the eighties, back during the Cold War — you had to read between the lines, because a lot of information was written in a cryptic way: information about which functionaries were on the way up and which functionaries were on the way down, for example.
But North Korean propaganda really isn't like that. There aren't any hidden messages or coded messages in there, but occasionally you come across things like the articles about the diseases that I just mentioned, which give you an insight which perhaps the government in North Korea does not want you, as a foreigner, to have. They'd be perfectly happy if no foreigners ever read their internal propaganda materials, I think.
At the point when you began this research into North Korean propaganda, could anything have surprised you about North Korea, given the amount of time and energy you'd put into studying the country thus far? Did anything surprise you?
What surprised me was a novel I read once about a courtesan, basically a geisha-type woman in medieval Korea. I was surprised by that because it was a very, very raunchy story. It spoke explicitly about sex. There were jokes about male sexual organs and all that kind of thing. That really did surprise me, and I refused to believe for a while that this novel really could have been bought and read by any North Korean. I found out that I was wrong, that it really was quite a popular novel up there. People explained it to me by saying that it's okay to acknowledge sexual decadence if you attribute it to a time in the distant past.
So that surprised me, but generally speaking, I go back to the Resource Center in Seoul every few weeks to look at the materials there, and it's pretty much what I expected. The rise of kamikaze slogans, the rise of this sort of suicide campaign propaganda that I've seen in the past few years was surprising to me, because it is so obviously derivative of Japanese propaganda during the Pacific War: all this talk about how everybody has to be ready to sacrifice their life for the leader. That surprised me, the degree with which they were propagating that stuff.
And given the direction the country as a whole is going, that's quite chilling, to see that start becoming a theme.
It is chilling. I think that one of the reasons that Washington always puts North Korea on the back burner when the Middle East flares up is because Americans tend to think, “Well, the Communists had nuclear weapons for decades; they never actually used them. These people don't believe in an afterlife, so they're not going to want to commit suicide through a nuclear war.”
But if you look back at imperial Japan during the Pacific War, the Shinto religion does not have a very developed concept of an afterlife either, and yet thousands and thousands of people chose to commit suicide for the glory of the race. They did so so that fame and glory would go to the family members they left behind. We need to be aware that a similar dynamic could very well be at work in North Korea too. You don't need to believe in an afterlife to be ready to commit suicide.
Given that we've talked so much about North Korea and that we've also mentioned your study of the Soviet Union, I have to ask: how did your interests in what we might call closed societies like this develop?
They developed when I was a high school student in South Africa. I went to school in South Africa during the apartheid years, and every few days a teacher would come in and tell us more propaganda about apartheid. That was a time when the government was setting up these so-called “homelands” for black people which were supposed to be independent countries: places like the Transkei and Bophuthatswana. These homelands, basically glorified ghettoes for black people, were being presented as independent countries, and I was fascinated by the extent to which my classmates believed all this stuff and allowed themselves to be manipulated by what was very preposterous propaganda, in my view.
That's what really made me interested in this sort of thing, and that's what made me decide to study the Soviet Union as well. Unfortunately, I got my MA in Soviet Studies a few months before the Berlin Wall came down and rendered that degree completely useless. I had no choice but to start focusing on North Korea instead, which, at that time in the early 1990s, was just not a subject of much interest to people in the rest of the world.
Indeed, not just North Korea but the entirety of Korea at that time must have certainly been not a very popular subject for a Westerner to be studying — or am I wrong about that?
No, you're right. When I was taking Korean Studies in Germany at the university, we had maybe 300 or 400 students studying Japanese, maybe 600 studying Chinese, and we had five or six studying Korean. As a subject of interest, it still lags quite far behind Japan and China, but the peninsula is much more prominent on the world stage now than it was even ten years ago.
I do get feeling, though, that, especially in this last decade, the 2000s, interest in Korea, North and South has, if not exploded, then certainly grown to a surprising degree. Have you also seen that?
I've seen that. For North Korea, of course, it's these provocative actions the regime has been undertaking that have put it on the map, so to speak, and with South Korea it's the popularity of South Korean culture. Not just in southeast Asia but also in America too; I meet a lot of Americans now who have seen one or two Korean movies, and that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. The country really does seem to be getting more and more prominent.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.