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Dear Tweeter

Why North Korea isn't fooling anyone with its new social media propaganda.


In 2009 a North Korean propaganda video appeared on YouTube. In it, a college student in Pyongyang contrasted her own comfortable life with the miserable lot of the poor and homeless in Seoul. The video soon went viral in South Korea. This had more to do with the girl’s natural good looks than her message, which was generally chuckled over. Still, the video’s popularity seems to have encouraged Kim Jong Il to make more use of new media in his effort to influence South Korean public opinion. Last summer, the website Uriminzokkiri, already an outlet for Pyongyang’s South-oriented propaganda, announced that the regime was launching a YouTube channel and a Twitter account as well.

Many observers assumed that these sites would carry content created exclusively for South Korean consumption. In fact, the YouTube channel has so far devoted itself primarily to video taken directly from North Korea’s domestic television broadcasts. The emphasis is on martial music: In a typical video, soldiers goose-step across Pyongyang’s main square and charge through billowing smoke while an army choir belts out the song "We Will Fight to the Death to Protect the Head of the Revolution." There’s also "Song to Comrade Kim Jong Il," a clip that is shown every two or three days on the Pyongyang evening news: footage of fertile rice paddies and frenziedly waving crowds over to a song about the man who "lights the road to autonomy." On the lighter end of the propaganda spectrum is the video for the song "They Call Me the Swift Horse Maiden," in which a young textile worker receives a congratulatory wreath for over-fulfilling her work quota.

This material seems outlandish to the young, hip South Koreans for whose benefit it has presumably been posted online. The martial rhythms sound vaguely Russian, the female voices almost Chinese in their high pitch; the lyrics abound in words that are either hopelessly old-fashioned (like "maiden" or ch‘eonyeo) or repellently militaristic (like the constant talk of fighting to the death). As for constant praise of Kim Jong Il, the average South Korean cannot listen to it for more than a few seconds without bursting out laughing. The North Korean regime’s tweets, most of which are merely headlines or sentences taken from party newspapers, are no better at subverting their intended audience. "Comrade Kim Jong Il, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, visited Unit 2670 of the Korean People’s Army." (Dec. 17) Another example: "The root of the Military-First Policy is Juche [Self-reliance] Thought"  (Jan. 5), referencing the country’s official national ideology.

Why don’t Kim Jong Il’s propaganda officials do more to tailor propaganda to South Korean sensibilities? The reason is that they are too caught up in the nationalist personality cult to put themselves in an outsider’s shoes. The notion of persuading South Koreans of Kim Jong Il’s greatness, instead of simply praising it, is to them unthinkable; his greatness should be readily apparent to everyone on the Korean peninsula. Nor can the propaganda apparatus understand that kamikaze-rhetoric and footage of goose-stepping soldiers are more likely to bolster South Koreans’ support for their democratic system than to undermine it. This should be borne in mind by the many American observers who assume the North Korean elite is not taking the official ideology to heart.  

One may well wonder, then, why the South Korean government not only tries to block the North’s sites (with middling success), but even prosecutes citizens for distributing material found on them. The reason is that the North’s invective propaganda, i.e. the kind devoted to vilifying the "puppet regime" in Seoul, works somewhat better on its intended audience than the outpourings of the Kim Jong Il cult. Anti-conservative and anti-American sentiment is particularly widespread in the economically disadvantaged southwest of South Korea, but it is also common in the left-wing teachers’ union, which shapes opinion among the young in Seoul and other cities. Soon after the North torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel in March, Kim Myong Chol, an ethnic Korean in Japan who functions as an unofficial spokesman for Pyongyang, began writing articles in the international press in which the sinking was blamed on American friendly fire. Many of his arguments were quickly taken up by the South Korean left. Some of Pyongyang’s cartoons lampooning President Lee’s role in the torpedo investigation were also copied from and pasted onto South Korean bulletin boards with no mention of their provenance. The popular notion that the North had been the victim of a Lee administration frame-up contributed in no small part to the defeat of the ruling party in regional elections last June.

North Korea’s attack on a South Korean island on Nov. 23 might have been an effort to replicate this unlikely success; Kim Jong Il may have hoped that South Koreans would again take his propaganda line at face value and blame Lee for having provoked the artillery barrage. This time the man in the street wasn’t buying it, but his anger at the North has receded somewhat. Many South Koreans now fret that Lee is gratuitously maintaining tension on the peninsula with his hard-line stance towards Pyongyang. The role played by North Korean propaganda in this gradual shift of opinion should not be underestimated, but it’s not because of the propaganda on YouTube or The regime in Pyongyang does better with South Koreans when it calls — as it has done over the past few weeks — for another round of peace talks. Such overtures are usually taken at face value by the left-wing press in the South, which reproaches the conservative administration for not taking them more seriously.

North Korea has also had great success inviting American academics and journalists to Pyongyang for meetings in which it avers its desire for peace and its opposition to the maritime border drawn by the United Nations between the two Koreas. These visitors have returned to the United States to pen astonishingly naive op-ed pieces, such as the one in the New York Times on Dec. 12 in which Selig Harrison asked Barack Obama’s administration to redraw the maritime boundary to Pyongyang’s liking. ("South Korea," he wrote, "should not be given a veto over the redrawing.") Such articles are then triumphantly invoked by the South Korean left as evidence that even American "experts" concede Pyongyang’s case.

What is the point of all this propaganda? What does Kim Jong Il want to have happen in the rival state? Although his party has spent decades calling on South Korean students and workers to topple their "puppet government," Kim Jong Il is too clever to expect such a scenario. He can, however, realistically hope that the pro-Pyongyang left will return to power in Seoul in 2012, when South Koreans elect their next president. There is thus a danger that the North will engage in further of acts of aggression in the meantime, the better to heighten public weariness of the tension for which the pro-American Lee administration is still widely blamed. A factor in Kim Jong Il’s favor is the historical tendency of South Koreans to mistrust all North Korea scares that occur near or during an election campaign. Many people here still believe that the North’s bombing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987 was in fact a government fabrication aimed at securing a right-wing presidency in Seoul in 1988. The credence given to the conspiracy theory of the Cheonan sinking in March 2010 also derived in large part from the fact that regional elections were so close at hand.

In short, the North’s now routine cycle of alternating aggressive acts and peace overtures is the only kind of propaganda that the government in Seoul seriously needs to worry about. The best way to resist it is by galvanizing South Koreans’ support for their democratic republic. Unfortunately, the Lee administration’s heavy-handed efforts to block "seditious" websites and tweets merely play into the far-left’s allegation that he is a dictator in disguise. As paradoxical as it may sound, President Lee can best strengthen his state against North Korea’s verbal propaganda by letting citizens read every dreary last line of it. 

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