A screenshot of the website of the Korean Central News Agency. Image via http://www.kcna.kp.
Picture yourself on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where the food of summer is blue crab. When you eat crabs, someone dumps a couple dozen of the bright red spidery crustaceans coated in Old Bay seasoning in the middle of a table clothed in heavy brown paper, and you go to work with hammer and sharp knife to extract the meat. You have to work for your food, but that’s why people like it.
But you never see people eating crabs alone. It’s just too much work for too little reward. If you’ve got a group of friends, you sit around drinking beer and eating crabs, and the time you spend laboring over tiny pieces of meat is worth it because you’ve got company. But if you’re on your own, you probably just order a crab cake sandwich, skip the hard work, and enjoy the fruits of the labors of others.
Learning about Korean affairs can be kind of like eating crabs. No one wants to read professional journals of political affairs to find out what’s going on in North Korea, unless they are making a party out of it with a bunch of friends. Maybe they should—the content is often fresh, well researched, and carefully thought out, everything that conventional media coverage is not. But the sweet delicious meat of scholarly papers is usually wrapped in a hard, spiky, forbidding shell of field-specific jargon and seasoned with a convoluted grammar that burns worse than Old Bay seasoning. It takes too much time and effort to crack that shell, and few people are willing to go it alone. So most people read the news, which is easily digestible, even though most news doesn’t have that much meat to it.
So let’s spend some time together eating crabs. We will be dinner companions, you and I.
Our first crab is named Jana Hajzlerova. She is a professor in the Czech republic, and in a recent interview with NK News she describes interesting conclusions from her research on thematic agenda and narrative structure in the KCNA news.
Essentially, she’s researching the stories that North Korea is telling its citizens and the world, and trying to figure out why are they telling them. The small stream of stories coming out of North Korea is dominated by the KCNA, which is the leadership’s central news desk. Since it’s the party’s main voice, it’s worth analyzing.
She argues that this voice is not, as is commonly believed, speaking mostly to foreign audiences. Instead, the stories are directed mostly at North Koreans themselves.
First, more than half of the current news was taken up with reporting on world conflicts, most of which had no direct connection to North Korea. Beyond showing that the reporters are less information-isolated than we often imagine, this is also puzzling. Why spend the news reporting on a conflict in the distant Middle East? Such reporting usually involves North Korea taking sides against the U.S.; Hajzlerova says it is effectively telling North Korean citizens, “we’re not alone in this, the U.S. attacks just about every country it wants to, and so we have to resist.” This gives legitimacy to the North Korean government’s military-first policies.
Second, KCNA news is usually somewhat dated by modern standards. One North Korean has said (in the wonderful “Ask a North Korean” feature on NKNews.org) that she was surprised to find out that the South Korean news reports on events in real time. Dated news is only helpful for people with no other alternative—so that means it must be targeted at North Korean audiences.
Third, the KCNA was consistently and aggressively negative about the former South Korean president Lee Myung Bak—(making reference to him rather than the current President Park Geun Hye since she has only started her term very recently). This isn’t surprising, but what perhaps is surprising is that in their stories, the South Korean people are victims under Lee Myung Bak’s evil reign. This could be aimed at South Koreans, but most likely it is intended to further North Korea’s claim of legitimate rule over the entire peninsula. If Lee Myung Bak is ruling unfairly and illegitimately, it just makes sense that North Korea would be justified in deposing him, to save the poor South Korean citizens. This image legitimizes the North Korean government’s would-be role as savior and liberator of the Korean people.
Hajzlerova’s perceptive interviewer points out that this exactly mirrors how Western media portray North Korea: the people are mostly victims living under an evil villain’s tyrannical rule.
Perhaps we should consider our own media’s narratives more carefully. We know the KCNA is wrong that South Koreans want North Korea to sweep in and free them from their democratic society led by their evil president; perhaps it is presumptuous of us to imagine that all North Koreans are praying for deliverance from the evil rule of Kim Jong Un, and especially presumptuous to imagine that we, not the North Korea people, are the right ones to deliver them from that evil.