Thursday, March 03, 2005

Media in DPRK

As our Air Koryo flight stabilised in the air a couple of minutes after its wobbly departure from Beijing, those of us on board were offered some reading material, to give us a taste of what was to come. As is my habit when travelling, I did my best to get hold of a local newspaper, which in this case was North Korea's English language newspaper - The Pyongyang Times. The front page story on this issue (No 7 (2,312), Saturday February 12, Juche 94 (2005)) read:

Greatest glory to Kim Jong Il
The Korean people will mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il on February 16 at a time when they are effecting a fresh surge to grandly celebrate the 60th anniversaries of the Workers' Party of Korea and the country's liberation (note the exceptionally good use of the apostrophe, which would make most native English speakers proud -AS).

His birth was a historic event in carrying forward the cause of the Korean revolution started on Mt Peaktu, the sacred mountain of the revolution and opening up a bright future for Korea.

Greeting the February holiday, the Korean people deeply reflect on how the lifeline of the Korean revolution has been defended and how a new era of national properity has been ushered in in the storms of history. And at the same time, they render their highest honour and heartist congratulations to the leader.

President Kim Il Sung said:
"For his leadership ability and character and for his loyalty, devotion and achievements, Comrade Kim Jong Il has earned the people's respect and love as well as high prestige as their leader." (Note that the bold is direct from TPT.)


All the news that's fat to print.


The rest of the article continued with similarly sychophantic, and probably largely unread, praise for the wonders of the Dear Leader. In the midst of the page is a picture of K2 looking sufficiently reverential in his pose. Despite his death 11 years ago, it is curious that KIS is still quoted in the article - in bold, no less - as if his words were uttered just yesterday. Such a deception is no coincidence. It's also noticable that TPT fails to mention the age that KJI is turning - 63 - a rather odd omission given the significance of the story. Is KJI a bit sensitive about his age, perhaps?

For the sake of the curious, other headlines in this particular edition of The Pyongyang Times included:

"Songung propels building of a thriving nation"
"Single-minded unity, DPRK's dynamic"
"Kim Jong Il congratulates pacesettings in Songum era"
"World leaders lavish high praise and respect on great man"

What ever happened to those old Soviet planes once the Cold War ended?


Despite it being a reasonably professional looking 8 page publication, our flight on Air Koryo was the only time we would receive a copy of this English language weekly. It is questionable just why the regime bothers publishing it, given that the handful of expats are about as likely to be seduced by its message as I am of becoming Miss North Korea 2005, and the local population are serviced by Korean language media. Even as a tool for communicating the regime's message to the outisde world it is a failure, given that the rest of the world turns to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) for such a service.

PRINT MEDIA

For locals, the only game in town when it comes to printed news is the Rodong Sinmun. Though there were few copies of this Korean-language propaganda rag in the hands of ordinary people, there were copies mounted on display boards in various prominent places. During a visit to the Pyongyang Metro, there were several people taking an interest in the newspaper on display in the station. It is hard to judge the fine detail of the Rodong Sinmun given that I don't read a word of Korean, but from the design it seemed to resemble the Chinese propaganda newspapers on the streets of Beijing - lots of smiling happy faces, bold headlines and plenty of text.

Electronic media is also very tightly resticted.

RADIO

Possession of a radio in DPRK is severely limited, and before departing for Pyongyang I was advised not to bring one with me, since it faced confiscation. Much to my horror and chagrin, I had neglected to follow this instruction, and before long found myself with a radio in my hotel room. Absent-mindedly, I put the earphones in the appropriate orifice, and flicked on the switch. As I scanned the dial, there was a strange feeling of deja vu. Station after station on the FM band were broadcasting the same, shrill female voice reading what sounded like a fairy-tale or historical story. Alas, there is only one radio station in Pyongyang, and it broadcasts on multiple frequencies up and down the dial. The AM band is sadly barren.

A propaganda poster on the streets of Pyongyang.


TELEVISION

Television in DPRK is surprisingly interesting, if you take the right frame of mind in to your viewing experience. There is one channel - Juche TV, complete with the flaming Juche Tower watermark in the top left hand corner - and it broadcasts through a large chunk of the day. At eight o'clock each evening, it features a news bulletin covering the events of the day. At the start of the bulletin there is a short announcement from a middle aged lady, dressed in traditional Korean garb, and standing in front of a plain bluescreen. Rousing herself into a considerable state of excitement, the name Kim Jong Il is regularly mentioned as she reaches a crescendo. After her announcement, her place would be taken by a soberly dressed 40-something man - the Dan Rather/Jeremy Paxman/Jim Waley of Pyongyang.

During my week in Pyongyang, the news bulletins mostly featured various activities related to the birthday of the Dear Leader. Story after story featured healthy-looking NKers engaging in healthy-looking activity, and they would occassionally be pulled aside by the reporter for a quick interview, usually conducted with many smilies and the vigourous passing of the microphone from interviewer to interviewee. At the end of each news bulletin, there would be a simple weather report, which featured a dozen cities and their high and low for the following day, along with a charming little illustration of just what 'hot' or 'cold' or 'nuclear thunderstorm' would look like.

Lucky for those of us in the tour group, we got a chance to experience Juche TV news first hand. Whilst browsing at the Kimjongilia Flower Festival, our group was approached by a camera crew and journalist, who were excited at the prospect of a group of foreigners at this very Korean celebration (given that 2-3 stories were filed each day of this week from the flower festival, the journalist's excitement is somewhat understandable). With Mr Ri, our guide, acting as a translator, we were given the instructions to smell the flowers whilst we were being filmed. Mustering all the enthusiasm we could, the four of us grossly overacted as we sniffed the flowers with all the might and vigour of a group who might have just discovered NK's secret cocaine stash. After much insincere admiration for the flowers before us, we were given a further instruction: talk. What do you want us to say, came our inevitable response. Just talk, it doesn't really matter what you say. With the wonders of redubbing and Korean subtitles, it was largely irrelevant what we had to say - by the time it hit the evening news bulletin, it would no doubt be overwhelmingly positive.

Hi Mum!


Later in the evening there are NK soap operas and films which are broadcast. With surprisingly sophisticated techniques, the rough NK equivalent of Days of Our Lives are beamed out to an appreciative audience. One night, whilst watching TV with some local ladies working in the hotel, it was clear that they were captivated by the on-screen action. Though some of the films and shows appeared to be quite dated, they nonetheless followed the western conventions of TV drama.

(It's worth noting that in the Yangakdo Hotel, we had access to a variety of Japenese, Chinese and Hong Kong stations, as well as BBC World, although given it's location this is exclusively the preserve of foreigners. There'll be more on this soon when I write a piece about the hotel.)

INTERNET

Internet access in DPRK is almost non-existant. Miss Pak, our cluey young guide explained that she had never used the internet, nor had any ordinary NKers. Possession of a modem is illegal in NK, you see. There is a basic NK intranet that exists, and whilst in the Great People's Study Hall, we saw a room full of young NKers using an online chat service. Alas, they are restricted to talking only to fellow North Koreans, and given the scarcity of computers in the country, that most likely meant that the other people they were chatting to were in the same room at the same time. Post-modernists would have a field day with that idea.

With no access at all to outside media, it is little wonder that so many North Korean people are enraptured with the current regime. There is a constant diet of positive stories, smiling happy people, unashamed spin and Orwellian silliness. For generations, people have grown up with the constant message that life is good, and they have internalised it. Given that critical opinion is completely absent from the news media, the notion seems to be incomprehensible to North Korean people. Complete control of the media is a large part of the Kims' strategy to retain a perpetual grip on power. And it works.

3 comments:

Mike said...

Well done. Keep the details of the trip flowing since we yanks can't get there ourselves.

Jeremy said...

Did you actually make the evening news?

Anonymous said...

That's hilarious... although a Women's Weekly is just as entralling, with about as much variety... :oD