Propaganda masters: The truth, as North Korea tells it
Late last month, North Korea's envoy to the United Nations did something exceedingly unusual: He held a press conference. Ambassador Sin Son-Ho even broke from the standard script to stress his country's interest in a new round of peace talks with “high-level” American and South Korean security officials.
Most analysts, unsurprisingly, framed the news as just another silly stunt from an illogical regime desperately grasping for international relevance. But that perception fails to account for the fact that the ruling Kim family has defied international predictions of its imminent demise for more than two decades.
The regime continues to prove it's astoundingly resilient. A major reason for its survival? Masterful use of political ideology.
North Korean propaganda is generally seen as bizarre, irrelevant fluff. Earlier this year, for example, a video purportedly released on state TV showing impoverished Americans “eating snow” to survive made the rounds online. That video turned out to be a hoax. But it was gobbled down and passed around uncritically because it fit the prevailing narrative of North Korea as crazy and crumbling.
The truth is that there's a clear, conscious design underlying the stories told to the Korean people. Yes, the worldview shaped by those stories is simplistic but it seems to provide serious spiritual nutrients and a strong sense of purpose for many — if not most — of the subjects of the Hermit Kingdom.
At the center of North Korea's national ideology is the concept of “juche,” which roughly translates to “self-reliance.” Juche was born when Kim Il-Sung took over the country in 1948. The peninsula had just suffered several decades of brutal Japanese colonial rule and his people were primed for a message of renewed autonomy.
Acute distrust of foreign influences had long been an essential element of Korean culture. So at the outset, a central aim of juche was the maintenance of racial purity. The ideology's racialism is especially vivid in North Korea's standard depiction of the great Yankee menace — male American soldiers attacking Korean women.
The Il-Sung regime welded race-based nationalism onto a Confucian social order. Korea's chief religious tradition puts the patriarch at the center of the family and the family as the key unit of communal organization. The Kim male heirs are presented as caring parents shielding the people from the world's evils.
Indeed, during the serious military tensions earlier this year, the national propaganda apparatus framed the state's nuclear weapons program as a necessary deterrent against American aggression. It's a “legitimate exercise of the right to self-defense,” as one agitprop organ put it.
When I visited North Korea last summer, I was struck by how often propaganda depicts Kim Il-Sung surrounded by children. And he always had a loving smile on his face.
Propaganda certainly is not the only source of the state's power. But the continued survival of the Kim regime serves as strong evidence that the cocktail is working. It gets North Koreans to frame their suffering as part of a grand national project to combat the Yankee menace and reunite the Korean nation.
B.R. Myers articulates this point best in his book, “The Cleanest Race”: “Paranoid nationalism may well be intellectually void, (but) it has proven itself capable of uniting citizens of all classes, and inspiring them through bad times as well as good.”
North Korea's particular brand of paranoid nationalism doesn't just draw on unique aspects of the country's political culture; it also aligns with the cognitive processes humans come preprogrammed with for organizing the world. As evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in my film about the country's propaganda, our species' “long history of war has shaped our genes,” and a national story that taps into this nature is “one of the tools leaders use to bind people together.”
Effective propaganda aligns with our hard-wiring. And if North Korea's truly is working, you'd expect to find some shared concepts embedded in ideological rhetoric here at home.
And we do.
The struggle against an all-encompassing evil. The promise of a single sacred leader to guide us to paradise. Warnings against polluting outsiders.
These aren't exactly foreign concepts in American politics — or religion, for that matter.
Obviously, there's a world of difference between state-enforced ideological uniformity and some noxious lines at an Iowa campaign stop. The point is that the Korean people are, well, people. And they're just as susceptible as we all are to well-crafted stories told by those looking to gain — or keep — power.
Rob Montz is a fellow at the Moving Picture Institute and director of “Juche Strong,” a documentary on North Korean propaganda. Find more at: JucheStrong.com.