Good life vs. hard times: How North Korea covers international news

Author : Carnegie Think tank

Source : Carnegie Moscow Center

North Korean official press has changed its rhetoric due to DPRK leadership to prepare for a long international siege
19:40, 24 July 2020


In the past six months, Nodong Sinmun has decisively abandoned the principles of selecting and presenting news, followed by several generations of propaganda journalists who worked there. The impetus for the change of priorities was the decision of the DPRK leadership to prepare for a long international siege, for life in conditions of external pressure and isolation

If you open the main North Korean newspaper Nodong Sinmun in the international news section, you will see a lot of curious things. First and foremost, what kind of world news is considered worthy of being included in this section in modern North Korea.

The changes that will be discussed began relatively recently. A year ago, Nodong Sinmun's international department did not differ much in its content from what it had been for decades. But over the past few months, the way it is reported outside the world has changed markedly, reflecting new trends in North Korean foreign policy.

World per page

A typical issue of a major North Korean newspaper has six pages, or, as the newspapermen put it, stripes. For decades, every issue of Nodong Sinmun had one or sometimes half a page devoted to news from South Korea. In addition, another page was devoted to international news.

The South Korean news section disappeared from Nodong Sinmun around 2010. By that time, the North Korean leadership decided that it was not worth telling the population that South Korea was living in dire poverty, and in general it was better to draw as little attention as possible to the provocatively successful southern neighbor. Considering that by about 2000 a large part of the North Korean population began to realize that South Korea was not in poverty at all, this new approach was fully justified politically.

As a result, the South Korean issue in the past 10-15 years has not completely disappeared from the pages of Nodong Sinmun but has been relegated to the background. Instead of an entire South Korean section in half a page, or even a whole page, Nodong Sinmun began to publish from time to time articles and notes on South Korean topics, and the volume of these materials has decreased several times over the past twenty years.

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However, until recently, the international department continued to operate in accordance with the established order. On the whole, it resembled the international department of the Pravda newspaper, from which it was copied in the 1940s. A significant part of the messages that appeared there were stories about the sufferings of the working people in the capitalist countries, about the struggle of the progressive forces against imperialism and its lackeys.

The content of the section's materials was not limited to the repetition of slogans - for example, extensive review and analytical articles appeared there regularly, where a good analysis of the trends of the modern world was given. True, only those trends and problems were subject to serious analysis that did not directly relate to North Korean interests and for which, because of this, there were no direct official guidelines. From time to time, travel sketches about the life of friendly countries appeared there, too, in quite interesting places.

However, the international department has changed in recent months. Firstly, it has become noticeably smaller - since 2018, in most issues of the newspaper, this section occupies not a whole, but from half to two-thirds of the last page. Secondly, the average size of materials has halved - almost all messages from abroad are now short notes. But even more, serious changes have taken place in editorial policy.

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Virus, floods, and devotion

In its current version, the international section Nodong Sinmun is devoted, by and large, to only two topics. First, natural disasters and, less often, man-made disasters in the most diverse, even very remote countries of the world. Moreover, natural disasters are often directly linked to the problem of global warming, about which Nodong Sinmun writes a lot (Greta would be happy).

Secondly, Nodong Sinmun writes a lot about the coronavirus pandemic - about half of the entire modest volume of the international section is devoted to this topic.

The topics of disasters, accidents, and pandemics, taken together, occupy about 70-80% of the volume that the editorial board considers necessary to devote to information from abroad.

In addition, almost every issue of the newspaper has one or more photographs, which in recent weeks have been devoted to a single topic - natural disasters abroad. For example, on July 16, illustrations showed houses destroyed by floods in Japan, on July 15 - flooded streets of Chinese cities, on July 13 and 14 - Japanese bridges and roads destroyed by floods. The list goes on and on.


However, in the spring, the obligatory topic of these photos was the coronavirus pandemic - in those months, the pages of the newspaper included not only buses overturned into the river by a stormy stream and demolished bridges, but also a stern-looking personality in biological protection suits.

The set of topics that are allowed to write in the remaining 20-30% of the volume of the section is also not too extensive. Every few days Nodong Sinmun reports that the government of one of the more or less friendly countries condemned the US policy. But there is no direct criticism of America there now - Pyongyang is still hoping to come to an agreement with Trump.

There are also short reports about rampant crime, and in the case of the United States and Japan, it is simply about rampant crime as such, and in the case of other countries, about a desperate police fight against criminals.

Finally, from time to time, there are notes of love and respect that the progressive forces of the world have for Kim Jong-un and his predecessors, especially ethnic Koreans from different countries.

However, all these topics are relegated to the second and even the third plan by the main (from the point of view of the editors of the edition and their curators) topics of international life – pandemic, natural disasters, and man-made disasters.

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Accidents in Zambia and the laughter of the Chinese

For example, here is a fragment of the international section of Nodong Sinmun from July 10 to 16, 2020: the coronavirus epidemic - 21 notes (33.9%); natural disasters - 16 notes (25.8%); crime and the fight against it - 8 notes (12.9%); speeches in support of North Korea - 6 notes (9.7%); traffic accidents and man-made disasters - 4 notes (6.5%); criticism of US policy - 4 notes (6.5%); successes of China and other friendly countries - 3 notes (4.8%). In the rooms from 10 to 16 July, there was not a single note at all that did not fall into one of these categories.

And here is a more detailed analysis of international news in the July 15 issue. There have been three reports of the coronavirus epidemic and seven others from abroad. All messages are short, when translated into Russian, there are several hundred characters:

  • Xi Jinping personally devotes great attention to dealing with the consequences of the catastrophic floods in China;
  • Indonesian intelligence services are conducting counter-terrorism operations;
  • earthquakes occurred in China, Nicaragua and Papua New Guinea;
  • in Nigeria, a bus and a truck collided, killing 10 people. The same note states that 18 people died in car accidents in Zambia between 4 and 7 July (why in Zambia is difficult to understand);
  • a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry ridiculed the "baseless dreams" of the US, which hopes to destroy the unity of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people;
  • catastrophic floods in China are spreading to new areas. Half a million people were evacuated, dozens died, the material damage was enormous (photos are attached);
  • Nigerian police continue to fight Islamic terrorists in Sokoto state. They were forced to use aircraft to stop chaos and terror.
  • As for the three reports of the coronavirus epidemic, one of them is devoted to the catastrophic situation in the United States, the other contains a summary of the world as a whole, the third is about WHO's measures to combat the virus.

Isolation again

The picture of the world that appears after reading these messages is obvious: everywhere there is a complete disaster, almost an apocalypse. In Zambia, dozens of people are dying on the roads, a flood has begun in China, and earthquakes threaten Papua New Guinea. Police are fighting terrorists in the jungle of Nigeria as well as in the jungle of Indonesia. And everywhere, absolutely everywhere, the coronavirus is raging.

What caused such a turn in the editorial policy of Nodong Sinmun? It is clear that the decision was not made at an editorial meeting. We are talking about a major restructuring of the way they work with the news.

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In fact, over the past six months, Nodong Sinmun's editors have decisively abandoned the principles of selecting and presenting news that were adhered to by several generations of propaganda journalists who worked there. We are talking not so much about the “voice of the party” but rather about the “voice of power,” so such decisions are inevitably made at the highest level.

Most likely, the description of the outside world in such an apocalyptic form reflects the desire of the DPRK leadership to again isolate itself within the framework of its country. Young and full of romantic memories of his youth in Switzerland, at the beginning of his reign, Kim Jong-un tried to attract foreign investment and even let some controlled elements of foreign culture into the country. But this attempt failed, and now they return to the old line.

Now they want to give the reading public the impression that the entire external world lives in hell. This view is also useful to justify your own problems. How, for example, can you complain about food problems when the world is in ecological chaos caused by global warming?

Also, overseas disasters and unrest should set off the order and predictability of North Korean life - after all, in North Korea, police don't chase bandits on airplanes like they do in the Nigerian state of Sokoto.

This raises the question, why did the turn to the new policy of selection of news happens so quickly and why it happened right now? The tendency to represent their country as an island of light in an ocean of darkness was typical for North Korea in the old days, but since the beginning of the year, it has become simply caricatured.

It seems most likely that the impetus for the change in priorities was the decision of the DPRK leadership to prepare for a prolonged sitting in an international siege, for life in conditions of external pressure and isolation. Kim Jong-un spoke directly and honestly about these prospects - quite real ones - at the plenum of the Central Committee in December last year. If we are talking about a long siege, then the besieged should better not think about what is happening outside the city walls.

Andrey Lankov

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