The Art of Propaganda

I have a confession to make: I love North Korean propaganda. And there are times when I think such propaganda reaches artistic levels.

I have been an amateur North Korea watcher since the late 1980s, when, as opinion page editor of the San Francisco State University newspaper, The Golden Gater, I found stuffed into my box every week a copy of The People’s Korea (the site used to be better, and this links carries much of what appears in TPK), an English-language newspaper that repeats, in translation, a lot of what appears in the official North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun. No one else, not even the communists in the SF State journalism department, were interested in the North Korean newspaper. So, I took them home and read them.

About this time, I’d frequently be able to tune into Radio Pyongyang’s English-language broadcast on the shortwave, every afternoon at either 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. Again, it wasn’t informative content-wise, but it was fun to listen to the structure and language of the broadcast. (Official North Korean music is terrible.) Again, the point wasn’t information so much as paying attention to style. In the words used and images constructed, something approaching real meaning could maybe be found.

(Once, when I was in Panama in 1986, I found an Albanian state shortwave broadcast in English, and actually heard the phrase “running dogs” used to describe America’s NATO allies. Oh, how I miss the Cold War sometimes!)

It’s a reach, I know. But this is the kind of stuff I like doing for fun. For a while, my friend Vince and I would watch the evening news from Seoul in Korean and then various Korean and Japanese programs (the Japanese ones subtitled in Korean) on the international channel in Los Angeles. Without language, we’d make a game of trying to figure out what exactly was going on. “Here, a guy in a tie meets with several other guys in ties,” kind of thing. But it meant that we paid attention to something other than the content of the newscast, and instead saw things other than the obvious or intended content.

Because meetings of “guys in ties” as an important news item happens everywhere.

Anyway, this is a long-winded introduction to a love of North Korean propaganda. Some of which I’ve evaluated here before. I realize what kind of state The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is — I’m under no illusions. But that state will produce articles and video whether or not people are imprisoned and shot and targeted with mortar rounds. So, why not learn a little something? And yes, even be entertained.

So, from the “It Sucks to be the King’s Uncle” Department comes the quick arrest and shooting of Jang Song Taek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (know here affectionately as “The Adorable Little Despot”) and brother-in-law to late North Korean Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. This is one of those interesting bits of information that causes much speculation, certainly in people better educated than I. But rather than deal with the western reports, I think it imperative to go straight to the Korean Central News Agency copy and read it in its entirety. Because it’s rare to read this kind of thing in our world, feeling as it does like a relic of the 1940s or 1950s, something George Orwell would have had fun condemning (along with bureaucratic nonsense emanating from Washington and Brussels).

Pyongyang, December 13 (KCNA) — Upon hearing the report on the enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the service personnel and people throughout the country broke into angry shouts that a stern judgment of the revolution should be meted out to the anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional elements. Against the backdrop of these shouts rocking the country, a special military tribunal of the DPRK Ministry of State Security was held on December 12 against traitor for all ages Jang Song Thaek.  

The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.  

The tribunal examined Jang’s crimes.  

All the crimes committed by the accused were proved in the course of hearing and were admitted by him.  

A decision of the special military tribunal of the Ministry of State Security of the DPRK was read out at the trial.  

Every sentence of the decision served as sledge-hammer blow brought down by our angry service personnel and people on the head of Jang, an anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional element and despicable political careerist and trickster.
The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system.  

Jang was appointed to responsible posts of the party and state thanks to the deep political trust of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il and received benevolence from them more than any others from long ago.  

He held higher posts than before and received deeper trust from supreme leader Kim Jong Un, in particular.  

The political trust and benevolence shown by the peerlessly great men of Mt. Paektu were something he hardly deserved.  

It is an elementary obligation of a human being to repay trust with sense of obligation and benevolence with loyalty.  

However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.  

From long ago, Jang had a dirty political ambition. He dared not raise his head when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were alive. But, reading their faces, Jang had an axe to grind and involved himself in double-dealing. He began revealing his true colors in the period of historic turn when the generation of the revolution was replaced, thinking that it was just the time for him to realize his wild ambition. 

Jang committed such an unpardonable thrice-cursed treason as overtly and covertly standing in the way of settling the issue of succession to the leadership with an axe to grind when a very important issue was under discussion to hold respected Kim Jong Un in high esteem as the only successor to Kim Jong Il in reflection of the unanimous desire and will of the entire party and army and all people. 

When his cunning move proved futile and the decision that Kim Jong Un was elected vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea in reflection of the unanimous will of all party members, service personnel and people was proclaimed at the historic Third Conference of the WPK, making all participants break into enthusiastic cheers that shook the conference hall, he behaved so arrogantly and insolently as unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping, touching off towering resentment of our service personnel and people.  

Jang confessed that he behaved so at that time as a knee-jerk reaction as he thought that if Kim Jong Un’s base and system for leading the army were consolidated, this would lay a stumbling block in his way of grabbing the power of the party and state.  

When Kim Jong Il passed away so suddenly and untimely to our sorrow, Jang began working in real earnest to realize his long-cherished greed for power.  

Abusing the honor of often accompanying Kim Jong Un during his field guidance, Jang tried hard to create illusion about him by projecting himself internally and externally as a special being on a par with the headquarters of the revolution.  

In a bid to rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state, he let the undesirable and alien elements including those who had been dismissed and relieved of their posts after being severely punished for disobeying the instructions of Kim Jong Il and kowtowing to Jang work in a department of the Central Committee of the WPK and organs under it in a crafty manner.  

Jang did serious harm to the youth movement in our country, being part of the group of renegades and betrayers in the field of youth work bribed by enemies. Even after they were disclosed and purged by the resolute measure of the party, he patronized those cat’s paws and let them hold important posts of the party and state.  

He let Ri Ryong Ha, flatterer, work with him since the 1980s whenever he was transferred to other posts and systematically promoted Ri up to the post of first vice department director of the Party Central Committee though he had been purged for his factional act of denying the unitary leadership of the party. Jang thus made Ri his trusted stooge.  

Jang let his confidants and flatterers who had been fired for causing an important case of denying the unitary leadership of the party work in his department and organs under it in a crafty manner in a few years. He systematically rallied ex-convicts, those problematic in their past careers and discontented elements around him and ruled over them as sacred and inviolable being.  

He worked hard to put all affairs of the country under his control, massively increasing the staff of his department and organs under it, and stretch his tentacles to ministries and national institutions. He converted his department into a “little kingdom” which no one dares touch.  

He was so impudent as to prevent the Taedonggang Tile Factory from erecting a mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and a monument to field guidance given by them. Moreover, Jang turned down the unanimous request of the service personnel of a unit of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces to have the autograph letter sent by Kim Jong Un to the unit carved on a natural granite and erected with good care in front of the building of its command. He was so reckless as to instruct the unit to erect it in a shaded corner.  

He committed such anti-party acts as systematically denying the party’s line and policies, its organizational will, in the past period. These acts were a revelation of deliberate and sinister attempt to create extreme illusion and idolization of him by making him appear as a special being who can overrule either issues decided by the party or its line.  

He went so rude as to take in the middle even those things associated with intense loyalty and sincerity of our army and people towards the party and the leader and distribute them among his confidants in an effort to take credit to himself for doing so. This behavior was to create illusion about him.  

Due to his persistent moves to create illusion and idolization of him his flatterers and followers in his department and organs under it praised him as “comrade No. 1.” They went the lengths of denying even the party’s instructions to please him at any cost.
Jang established such a heterogeneous work system in his department and the relevant organs as considering what he said as more important than the party’s policies. 

Consequently, his trusted henchmen and followers made no scruple of perpetrating such counter-revolutionary act as disobeying the order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army.  

The revolutionary army will never pardon all those who disobey the order of the Supreme Commander and there will be no place for them to be buried even after their death.  

Dreaming a fantastic dream to become premier at an initial stage to grab the supreme power of the party and state, Jang made his department put major economic fields of the country under its control in a bid to disable the Cabinet. In this way he schemed to drive the economy of the country and people’s living into an uncontrollable catastrophe.  

He put inspection and supervision organs belonging to the Cabinet under his control in defiance of the new state machinery established by Kim Jong Il at the First Session of the Tenth Supreme People’s Assembly. Jang put all issues related to all structural works handled by the Cabinet under his control and had the final say on them, making it impossible for the Cabinet to properly perform its function and role as the economic command. They included the issues of setting up and disorganizing committees, ministries and national institutions and provincial, city and county-level organs, organizing units for foreign trade and for earning foreign money and structures overseas and fixing living allowances.  

When he attempted to make a false report to the party without having agreement with the Cabinet and the relevant ministry on the issue related to the state construction supervision organization, officials concerned expressed just opinion that his behavior was contrary to the construction law worked out by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Hearing this, he made the reckless remark that “the rewriting of the construction law would solve the problem.” 

Abusing his authority, he undermined the work system related to the construction of the capital city established by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, reducing the construction and building-materials bases to such bad shape little short of debris in a few years. He weakened the ranks of technicians and skilled workers at the units for the construction of the capital city in a crafty manner and transferred major construction units to his confidants so that they might make money. In this way he deliberately disturbed the construction in Pyongyang.  

He instructed his confidants to sell coal and other precious underground resources at random. Consequently, they were saddled with huge debts, deceived by brokers. Jang made no scruple of committing such act of treachery in May last as selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying those debts.  

It was none other than Jang who wirepulled behind scene Pak Nam Gi, traitor for all ages, to recklessly issue hundreds of billions of won in 2009, sparking off serious economic chaos and disturbing the people’s mind-set.  

Jang encouraged money-making under various pretexts to secure funds necessary for gratifying his political greed and was engrossed in irregularities and corruption. He thus took the lead in spreading indolent, careless and undisciplined virus in our society.  

After collecting precious metals since the construction of Kwangbok Street in the 1980s, he set up a secret organ under his control and took a fabulous amount of funds from a bank and purchased precious metals in disregard of the state law. He thus committed such anti-state criminal acts as creating a great confusion in financial management system of the state.  

He let the decadent capitalist lifestyle find its way to our society by distributing all sorts of pornographic pictures among his confidants since 2009. He led a dissolute and depraved life, squandering money wherever he went.  

He took at least 4.6 million Euro from his secret coffers and squandered it in 2009 alone and enjoyed himself in casino in a foreign country. These facts alone clearly show how corrupt and degenerate he was.  

Jang was so reckless with his greed for power that he persistently worked to stretch his tentacles even to the People’s Army with a foolish calculation that he would succeed in staging a coup if he mobilized the army.  

He fully revealed his despicable true colors as a traitor for all ages in the course of questioning by uttering as follows: “I attempted to trigger off discontent among service personnel and people that the present regime does not take any measure despite the fact that the economy of the country and people’s living are driven into catastrophe. Comrade supreme leader is the target of the coup.”  

As regards the means and methods for staging the coup, Jang said: “I was going to stage the coup by using high-ranking army officers who had close ties with me or by mobilizing armed forces under the control of my confidants. I don’t know well about recently appointed high-ranking army officers but have some acquaintances with those appointed in the past period. I thought the army might join in the coup if the living of the people and service personnel further deteriorate in the future. And I calculated that my confidants in my department including Ri Ryong Ha and Jang Su Gil would surely follow me and had a plan to use the one in charge of the people’s security organ as my confidant. It was my calculation that I might use several others beside them.”  

Asked about the timing of the coup and his plan to do after staging the coup, Jang answered: “I didn’t fix the definite time for the coup. But it was my intention to concentrate my department and all economic organs on the Cabinet and become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse in a certain period. I thought that if I solve the problem of people’s living to a certain measure by spending an enormous amount of funds I have accumulated under various names after becoming premier, the people and service personnel will shout “hurrah” for me and I will succeed in the coup in a smooth way.”  

Jang dreamed such a foolish dream that once he seizes power by a base method, his despicable true colors as “reformist” known to the outside world would help his “new government” get “recognized” by foreign countries in a short span of time.  

All facts go to clearly prove that Jang is a thrice-cursed traitor without an equal in the world as he had desperately worked for years to destabilize and bring down the DPRK and grab the supreme power of the party and state by employing all the most cunning and sinister means and methods, pursuant to the “strategic patience” policy and “waiting strategy” of the U.S. and the south Korean puppet group of traitors.  

The hateful and despicable nature of the anti-party, anti-state and unpopular crimes committed by Jang was fully disclosed in the course of the trial conducted at the special military tribunal of the DPRK Ministry of State Security.  

The era and history will eternally record and never forget the shuddering crimes committed by Jang Song Thaek, the enemy of the party, revolution and people and heinous traitor to the nation.  

No matter how much water flows under the bridge and no matter how frequently a generation is replaced by new one, the lineage of Paektu will remain unchanged and irreplaceable. Our party, state, army and people do not know anyone except Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Our service personnel and people will never pardon all those who dare disobey the unitary leadership of Kim Jong Un, challenge his absolute authority and oppose the lineage of Mt. Paektu to an individual but bring them to the stern court of history without fail and mercilessly punish them on behalf of the party and revolution, the country and its people, no matter where they are in hiding.  

The special military tribunal of the Ministry of State Security of the DPRK confirmed that the state subversion attempted by the accused Jang with an aim to overthrow the people’s power of the DPRK by ideologically aligning himself with enemies is a crime punishable by Article 60 of the DPRK Criminal Code, vehemently condemned him as a wicked political careerist, trickster and traitor for all ages in the name of the revolution and the people and ruled that he would be sentenced to death according to it.  

The decision was immediately executed.

Now, let me state: I don’t speak or read Korean, so I have no idea how much of the tone, the intent, and the facts of the English version adhere to the original. Regardless of that, the English says things the DPRK either wants the world to know or doesn’t care if the world knows.

Once you get past the purple prose — and honestly, this is actually really well written for KCNA copy — there’s actually a lot of specifics here. I suspect Jang really did organize an attempt to topple Kim Jong Un. How far he actually got is anyone’s guess. Far enough to fall so completely, but not far enough to make revealing the actual plot a threat to the state. The DPRK leadership is confident enough in their security that they are willing to say publicly that Jang Song Taek organized within the party and the army to topple to regime. That’s a big deal.

It’s also clear Jang is being assigned the blame for whatever construction problems are plaguing developments in the capital, Pyongyang. I can see someone as connected as Jang was rather cavalierly saying that any problems with his complying with the law could simply be dealt with by rewriting the law. (It does sound like something a corrupt politician or boss would say.) As for his degenerate lifestyle, that’s just a hazard of being a member of an elite in a society like North Korea’s. Everyone with the power and wealth is allowed to live that way. Until they aren’t, at which point the lifestyle clearly is held against them.

What is intriguing are the questions brought up in this. Why didn’t anyone — especially Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, from whom all political legitimacy flow — see Jang for what he was prior to this? It may be he was able to hide his ambition until “the generation of the revolution was replaced,” but this piece is written in such a way as to cast aspersions on the entire Kim clan for its failure to figure out who Jang really was. Yes, most likely, Jang wanted to be king, and organized toward that end after Kim Jong Il died. But that’s not all the report says. It calls him a bad man, from the beginning. And someone reading between the lines might wonder why no one figured it out earlier.

And what good is on-the-spot guidance from the Leader if he can’t find traitors in his own midst?

The piece speaks in the language of “us” and “we,” of a whole people, a whole party, a whole army, rising up in outrage. But in quoting Jang, the piece states he hoped to persuade high-ranking officers to his side. Why, if the country, people, party, and army are so united, would Jang have thought he might have a chance convincing high-ranking officers to his side? It names of a couple of allies, like Ri Ryong Ha, who had been a senior party figure. What has become of them? This might also cause some doubt for thoughtful readers.

We also do not know how we know this. How did the state find out about Jang’s treachery? That’s left unsaid. And it is probably the most interesting part of the story.

You’ll note that Jang’s relationship to Kim Jong Un is not stated. This is not unusual for North Korean news. Kim Jong Il’s relationship to Kim Il Sung was rarely ever stated, if ever. And Kim Jong Un’s relationship to Kim  Jong Il is also never stated. I suspect North Koreans know they live under a hereditary leadership. But the organs of the state almost never note that. I’m not sure why. It has nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism, a phrase which was dropped by the Worker’s Party of Korea several decades ago. It might have something to do with Juche, or North Korean society, but really, I have no idea why.

Can You Feel the Love Tonight?

So, how does a 27-year-old man show that he is the father of a nation  — and the figurative father — of 24 million people?

Simple: you show him caring for those people in a very fatherly way.

This is Kim Jong Un from a Korean
Central News Agency photo describing his visit to Korean People’s Army Air Force Unit 354. The news article that goes with this photo is the usual stuff you’d read from the KCNA about a visit of the Great Leader (any North Korean Great Leader) to any outpost of the state in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He observes with great interest, he takes part in a very personal way in how the soldiers live and train, he exhorts their commanders to take good care of the soldiers who in turn tell of their love for their leader and their country (pilots singing songs while they fly over Pyongyang), and finally he shows he cares for the soldiers themselves by (in this instance) making sure they have enough water in their bathhouse and that it is the right temperature (checking it “personally”).

This is typical of all of the stories I’ve ever seen and Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Now, I will not pretend I’ve made anything resembling an exhaustive study of North Korean propaganda. It’s a hobby for me, and I’m an amateur. But what I never saw Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il photographed doing was what Kim Jong Un is doing in this photo — hugging two air force officers.

No, he’s not just hugging them. He’s holding them. He’s comforting them. My guess is the two men are weeping, expressing their gratitude. (Whether it is real or faked is a question for another time.) The KCNA story does not explain the photo, and does not caption it (at least it does not do so in English; it may do that in Korean). There is a tenderness communicated by the photo. Even Kim Jong Un knew (or was well-coached) on how to look for this photo. He’s not quite the Virgin Mary with an all-knowing, all-caring and all-forgiving smile. But he is not bewildered either. He looks like a man who is comforting small children, and is slowly growing comfortable with that role.

This is, I think, an interesting way to construct an image of fatherly care for a young man who otherwise has no accomplishments of his own. Kim Il Sung could at least claim to have made the revolution and defeated the Americans in 1953. Kim Jong Il could at least claim to be Kim Il Sung’s son, and co-ruler during the last decade of the elder Kim’s life, who made North Korea a nuclear power and sent rockets into space. Both men could at least claim they were strong protectors. Kim Jong Un can claim … well, not very much.

Except that he cares for his people.