Even prior to North Korea’s recent rocket launch and nuclear test, the European media generally and the German media particularly have been publishing an ever-increasing amount of articles about North Korea. In general, this should of course be supported because it raises awareness. However, some of the information provided is at best misleading and at worst plainly wrong. I don’t know if the German media is particularly uninformed or if this can be said about most Western news outlets. This article therefore aims at pointing out two major misconceptions that I have noticed over the last months and which have been repeated quite often.
1) North Korea claims a higher standard of living than South Korea
Just recently, an article in “The Economist” claimed that smuggled memory sticks could “confront North Koreans with the potentially revolutionary fact that their brethren in the South live in comfort and plenty”1.
This fact is not is true and certainly not revolutionary. While North Korea has historically claimed higher living standards, this is no longer the case. Pyongyang has long admitted higher living standards in South Korea, in fact since the 1990s2, but is “blaming” this fact on international sanctions, particularly the ones imposed by the United States.
2) Juche (Self-reliance Policy) vs Sŏn’gun (Military First Policy) and Kim Jong-il vs Kim Il-sung
Juche has been introduced by Kim Il-sung and not Kim Jong-il. It was put in place as a response to growing Soviet influence and in trying to “stimulate their [Korean’s] national pride and rouse the broad masses to revolutionary struggle”3. This policy has obviously not been abandoned by Kim Jong-il, but he incrementally replaced it with his own Military First policy.
Especially the misconception about North and South Korean living standards has been repeated over and over again, each time not being true. The same can be said about the confusion that sometimes arises when European newspapers try to distinguish which Kim is responsible for which policy. As such, I hope that this article can help to clarify some basics facts. Lastly, it should be said that when preparing for unification and raising awareness, news coverage is vital. However, it is equally important to not take all the information for granted and keep basic facts in mind.
2: Myers, B. R. (2011). “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters”. New York: Melville House Publishing.
3: Cumings, B. (2005). Korea’s Place in the Sun: a Modern History. New York: W.W. Norton