Kim Jong Un Versus The Loudspeaker

The recent Korean crisis ended because Pyongyang is terrified of Seoul’s propaganda broadcasts.


Luckily for Pyongyang, all now seems quiet on its southern front. Following the Aug. 25 announcement of an agreement — after 43-hours of negotiations between North and South Korea — this week’s mini-crisis on the Korean peninsula appears to have de-escalated. Seoul promised to stop broadcasting propaganda along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two sides of the peninsula, in exchange for Pyongyang revoking its “semi-war” status. The deal marginally reduces the likelihood of a major North Korean weapons demonstration around the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Oct. 10, of which Pyongyang has been hinting.

The biggest takeaway from this crisis, however, is the vulnerability of the regime, under the 32- or 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, to attacks on its legitimacy. The fiery rhetoric, belligerence, and unpredictability of Kim, who took power after the death of his father in Dec. 2011, belies an apparent hypersensitivity to criticism about his qualifications to run the country. North Korea wanted only one thing — to stop the loudspeaker broadcasts criticizing the regime. And it was willing to give something it has not given since 1976 — a (near) apology.

The key to defusing the crisis was Pyongyang’s acknowledgment of the Aug. 4 landmine blast in the DMZ, which blew off the legs of two patrolling South Korean soldiers. While Pyongyang’s statement was technically neither an apology nor an acceptance of responsibility (“regret” over mine explosion “in the south side’s area of the DMZ”), it was nonetheless highly unusual: the North has not offered similar statements over past actions, including the March 2010 sinking of the warship the Cheonan, which killed 46 South Korean soldiers, or the Nov. 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four South Koreans.

So why did the crisis end so quickly? Contrary to popular opinion, Seoul’s desire to stem the downturn in the country’s stock exchange, and other untoward effects of North Korean saber-rattling on capital outflows, did not stop the crisis. Nor did the U.S. decision to temporarily halt military exercises with South Korea. Indeed, it’s striking that North Korea’s took a deal without having its demand met for a cessation of the hated U.S.-South Korean exercises.

The broadcasts are the key reason that Pyongyang made a deal. Before the crisis abated, the North issued an unusual ultimatum directly to South Korean national security advisor Kim Kwan-jin, threatening to attack not in response to U.S.-ROK military exercises, but if the speakers were not silenced. Propaganda broadcasting had been a staple of the two Koreas’ psychological warfare during the Cold War. But the new broadcasts, which Seoul restarted after an 11-year hiatus in response to the landmine blasts against its soldiers, were different from the knee-jerk anti-North Korean government propaganda of the Cold War. The recent broadcasts featured young females, who identified themselves as defectors, criticizing the Kim regime for its poor governance, human rights abuses, and isolation.

A recent broadcast segment featured a well-known North Korean journalist-turned-defector, Ju Seong-ha, who mocked photos of the rotund Kim’s getting off planes like an exalted state guest. Sweet voices carrying powerful messages from eleven locations along the DMZ penetrated the minds of young, undernourished and overworked North Korean soldiers. With better technology than the Cold War days, these broadcasts went deeper than before, blasting messages — and sometimes K-Pop — more than a dozen miles into the country. This certainly rattled Pyongyang.

The normal North Korea playbook would have been to ratchet up tensions, play tough, have Kim visit military field units, draw missile strike lines to U.S. cities and milk the crisis for as long as it can to get something — food, energy, a seat at the negotiating table with the United States. But this time, the sole issue was to stop the broadcasting.

This is not the first time North Korea has demonstrated such sensitivities. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s Feb. 2014 recommendation to refer North Korea’s leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity freaked out North Korea, forcing them to do things they don’t normally do. The regime sent its foreign minister Ri Su Yong to Russia for the first time in four years, and dispatched seasoned diplomat Kang Sok Ju to a tour of European capitals to lobby against the resolution. And finally, there was Pyongyang’s apoplectic late 2014 rage in response to the movie The Interview which ridiculed the leadership, and led to the North’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

These responses reflect weakness, not strength. The regime has proven hypersensitive to questions about Kim’s legitimacy, suggesting difficulties in the leadership transition. Four years into his rule, Kim has purged and executed around 70 of his top lieutenants, including his influential uncle Jang Song Thaek, and his defense minister Hyon Yong Chol — reportedly for sleeping during military events. And these are Kim’s people — not those of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il.

The regime is tightening political control at a time, moreover, when North Korean society is slowly but surely changing. Markets have been embedded in society for over two decades. Defector testimonies indicate that people gain more of their livelihood from the markets than from government handouts, which means greater separation from the state. A nascent but new civil society is growing around markets, and nearly 3 million cellphones. A hot item in North Korea today is the $50 Notel portable media player — which can play thumb drives with smuggled news about the outside world, movies, and South Korean soap operas.

True to North Korean’s penchant for flip flopping and reneging, the chief North Korean negotiator to the Panmunjom Aug. 25 agreement went on Korean Central Television a day after, boasting that the South has learned a “serious lesson” from the recent crisis to abstain from provoking the North. Defusing the crisis is no doubt a good thing. But the real lesson is that the North Korean concession may mask a deeper vulnerability — and potentially larger crisis — down the road.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Victor D. Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia (Princeton, 2016).

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