North Korean State Propaganda – Interview with Jana Hajzlerova

September 30th, 2012
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From September 6 to 8, the Central European University of Budapest hosted the Korea Foundation-sponsored conference “Whither The Two Koreas”, where scholars and experts from European and Asian universities exchanged views on a number of Korea-related topics. NK News met with some of the panelists to gather insights on their research and their opinions on North Korea. The first interview in this series is with Jana Hajzlerova, chairperson of the Czech-Korean Society in Prague and external lecturer of Korean Studies at Charles University in Prague. Beside her research activities, Ms. Hajzlerova is currently translating B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race for the Czech market. She focuses her research on North Korean media and propaganda to illustrate how the North Korean leadership seeks to reinforce its legitimacy among its people.

NK News: Tell us more about your background and your actual involvement in Korean studies.

J.H: Having graduated from Korean Studies and Media Studies at the Charles University in Prague, I have been focusing on the production and exchange of meanings in both Koreas, which in South Korea would translate to topics such as popular culture for example and in the case of North Korea it´s mainly the regime´s propaganda. Korean Studies in the Czech Republic have a tradition of more than 50 years and considering the vivid diplomatic ties with North Korean during the communism era in the Czech Republic and the current, ever strengthening, presence of South Korean companies in the country, the department, from which around 20 students graduate every year, has a lot to offer in all the Korea-related matters.

NK News: You are currently translating BR Myer’s book, The Cleanest Race. What do you think of it and how did you get involved in its translation for the Czech market?

J.H: I got involved in the project through the Czech-Korean society; I am delighted to be a part of the process of introducing Myers’ book to the Czech market as I believe there is a serious lack of North Korea-focused literature which would educate journalists (so that they could replace their scandal-oriented, facts-lacking news with some decent coverage) and feed the enormous hunger for information from North Korea among the general public. The Cleanest Race, with its popular yet serious approach to the topic, will fill in this gap very well I think.

NK News: You have presented quite an interesting paper (at the CEU conference in Budapest) which focused on DPRK media analysis to reveal more about its narrative structure. Could you tell us why you opted for this topic, what are the methods and samples you have used and how do you plan to take it further?

J.H: Well, I have a background in media studies and I spent time studying abroad in Korea, so the combination of these two experiences enabled me to focus on this topic. I am not really interested in ‘surface analysis’ that keeps repeating how restricted the media scenario is in the DPRK and how its citizens are brainwashed and live in a world without freedom. I would rather focus on a deeper analysis of how the DPRK media talk and what do they say to both its Korean and English speaking audiences. I have chosen KCNA as it really is one of the main voices of the party: it constitutes a reliable sample to understand not only the content but the target audience of DPRK news.

See, there’s a lot of people who still maintain that the DPRK does not believe in any of the propaganda claims and that all of it is directed to foreign audiences while the citizens are simply forbidden from accessing all information. I believe, on the other hand, that the regime does make a considerable effort to keep its people ‘motivated’, by feeding them  a balanced menu of ‘retouched’ facts and opinions.

I have looked at the thematic agenda of KCNA broadcasts, which I have found really interesting and not really comparable to any classification you would find in foreign media. There is no real ‘domestic or foreign news’ as we would interpret in the West, but rather information is divided into categories (i.e: regime cult, acts made by one of the Kims, conflicts, etc). In particular, the category of ‘conflict’, occupied almost 52% of the current news, and by ‘conflict’ I mean every report related to ongoing wars or military actions that occur either between North Korea rest of the world, or between U.S. and other countries. What I have found really interesting about this is that KCNA dedicates  a huge amount of time to reporting on third countries in order to side with one of the parties involved (that is, against the U.S. or Japan, 99% of the times). They do this to generate indirect criticism (of enemies) or indirect praising (of allies) as a way of reinforcing their worldview. It also speak volumes about the capacity of the leadership to keep an eye on what goes on outside of the country and it definitely defies the stereotype of the “most isolated country on Earth”, which still lingers so strongly.

NK News: So, basically, the DPRK leadership seems to make quite an effort in maintaining legitimacy and building regime support among its people through carefully presenting selected facts in a certain manner. Do you think this finding can be used to support Myers’ theory of a North Korean regime that constantly keeps its people under an ‘imminent military threat’, and by doing so motivates them to accept restrictions, deprivations and so on to support whatever action the leadership takes?

J.H: I think so. See, in the time frame I examined there were a lot of news stories related to war, especially in the Middle East (as there really is no ongoing war that would include either South or North Korea or the U.S. at the moment), and even though most of them were outdated, they were nonetheless reported (with Pyongyang siding of course with those countries invaded or attacked by the U.S.). It seems the message is: “we’re not alone in this, the U.S. attacks just about every country it wants to, and so we have to resist”. So I would definitely agree with Myers on this.

About the legitimacy, I think that referring to other countries helps the regime a lot in trying to legitimize its worldview. This reinforces my idea that KCNA, in its Korean version, must be targeted at North Koreans – even though most of them do not have Internet access yet.  Perhaps they can access it through the DPRK Intranet. The fact is that most western experts or observes think that KCNA, just because it has an English version of its website, is solely aimed at foreign readers, but that can’t be all. Really, why would they want to tell foreigners (Westerners) that this or that little ‘unimportant’ country (in their view of the Western worldview) has a study group on Juche or supports Kim Il Sung’s precepts on agriculture and so forth?

NK News: The fact is that the rest of the world knows already that Kim Il Sung was definitely not the genius DPRK propagandists have so long tried to portray, so why would they waste time and resources to try and make foreign audiences change their minds?

J.H: Indeed. And what is even more important is that they absolutely know that we know this. So it really would make no sense for them. Why would they be targeting these unbelievable (for anyone who knows the world) news at western people? They’re really not that stupid.

NK News: The strange thing though is that North Korean media (not just KCNA) have in almost all cases an English or a Japanese version of their pages. So it is clear that at least some of what we perceive as ‘silly, unbelievable content’ must be targeted at non-Koreans. Why do you think this happens? Also, what are the major differences between the Korean and English editions of KCNA?

J.H: I must admit this has been puzzling to me since I started researching this topic. There are obvious differences between the Korean and the English version in format (length, titling etc.) as well as in the content (sources cited, structure of storytelling, different details stressed etc.) which leads us to the assumption that the regime has a different target audience in mind when publishing these. Sometimes I even come to think that the English version is purposely silly and unbelievable to distract the outside world from real domestic issues and as Myers would put it, for most observers is too ridiculous to properly analyze it. Still, it may be a good way how tell the world: “Yes, we do have our own media, yes there are things happening and yes, we still hate the U.S., don´t worry”, so to speak.

NK News: Back to the original question: you have chosen a limited sample for this first analysis.

J.H: Yes, I have worked with one continuous week of KCNA news so far, so, quite a small, yet significant one. I know I would have to repeat this analysis on a larger scale, including crucial periods like September 11 or June or July when the Korean media decisively put more emphasis or this or that aspect, depending on political agenda and the anniversary that takes place in that period. There really are a lot of options, I could try to extend weekly samples and spread them throughout the years (maybe the last 3 or 5) or analyze a recurring event (e.g. Kim Il Sung’s birthday or the Korean war anniversary) in the last 5 years. It may turn out that the categories I proposed for this first research will not be as valid in the end, but i will have to see about that.

NK News: And you have used in this instance, the structural analysis of Vladimir Propp, to define characters and functions of DPRK media stories…

J.H: Exactly, I am trying to deconstruct the actors and their functions in the text, uncovering the layers: who is acting, what is going on against whom, under what circumstances and so forth.

NK News: In Propp’s analysis there are 30-plus categories (functions) and at least 8 actors: the hero, the villain, the messenger, and such. Who do you think is the main ‘bad guy’ in DPRK news?

J.H: Well, I did not draw any conclusions on this yet, but if I were to guess, I would say President Lee Myung Bak, just by the way he has been demonized, represented as evil and funny (well, laughable or clownish, really more than just funny). At the same time he has been depicted as the most shameful character, in an almost non-stop media campaign, since his election in 2007. There really is no other personality that received so much negative attention in DPRK news recently. I think it is quite interesting.

NK News: Are there any positive or neutral characters?

J.H: Well, I think it’s a bit early to draw conclusions, but what I find really interesting is that South Korean people (not the government) are always portrayed as innocent, almost as victims, in North Korean news. They’re always removed, separated from their government, so, while Lee Myung Bak is always a traitor, out of more then 200 articles I have analyzed, North Korean news always tell how unfortunate it is for South Korean citizens to live under him. For example, during the protests in Jeju Island or when the U.S. beef protests broke out, KCNA has always emphasized the case of South Korean citizens being enraged at Lee Myung Bak, who is basically a traitor, or maybe ‘the traitor’, of Korean people.

NK News: This is in a way mirrored in what a good part of western media try to tell about north Korean people: we always perceive them (as they’re portrayed as such) as victims of a brutal regime, upon which they have no influence whatsoever.

J.H: True. the whole conflict, the question of inter-Korean relations, is very personalized. Sometimes I really feel that it is a conflict for conflicts sake really. A conflict that keeps all the involved parties awake, yet not busy.

NK News: Who writes for the KCNA and is it profitable (compared to other government jobs)?

J.H: Oh, I wish I knew the answer here. I personally don´t know anybody who writes for KCNA. If I knew, I would probably give anything to interview that person, to find out about the editorial guidelines and policies that are followed in KCNA. Some sources claim that there are two thousands employees working for KCNA. Once can guess that it is definitely one of the jobs that is looked upon a lot as belonging to those that “help the Leader take care of the country”. I also believe working for KCNA requires a strict screening, similar to other governmental posts.

NK News: Since you’re from the Czech Republic, I’d like to ask you whether you know anything about the little ‘community’ of North Korean citizens who used to work in a factory near Prague? Also, what (or how) were the relationships between The DPRK and your country in the years of communism?

J.H: Czechoslovakia (former Czech Republic and Slovak Republic) had vivid diplomatic ties with DPRK until 1989 as most of the USSR countries back then. Apart from this, however, Czechoslovakia was a member of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission and was intensively involved in many parts of social life in DPRK (e.g. sending hospital staff to DPRK). It should not surprise you then, that the diplomatic ties haven’t really frozen since the 1989 revolution either. Currently, for instance, Czech students are sent to Kim Il-Sung´s University summer language program every year and currently (September/October 2012) the director of our Korean Studies department is visiting the university in Pyongyang to arrange further future cooperation programs. All this based on a bilateral governmental agreement between our two countries. No wonder the South Korean embassy in Prague is trying to actively enhance South Korean influence in the Czech Republic. They have a strong competitor here.

As for North Koreans living in the Czech Republic, there is naturally not much information on this matter available. We know for sure that there are students from North Korea coming for exchange programs based on agreements between particular universities (Interestingly enough, by the way, if you wish to get your foreign diploma acknowledged at a Czech university, you can do so easily if you have one from North Korea as thanks to old communist education laws North Korea is still on the list of “acknowledged” countries, unlike the USA for example, from where it will take months to get anything acknowledged in the Czech Republic). Then of course there’s the embassy, with most of the staff speaking fluent Czech (North Korean Czech – so called Bohemian – studies have always been very strong) and an ambassador who regularly gives public lectures (interestingly, under the umbrella of Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs). What deserves our attention, though, is a group of Czechs supporting North Korea who made themselves a civic organization called ‘Baektusan’ which fuels the pro-North Korean attitude widely found among the Czech communist party members.

NK News: To wrap up, what do you think is the future of North Korea, and do you think you will continue focusing on it?

J.H: I believe North Korea will remain a highly interesting topic for all Korean Studies scholars and I personally think that any kind of serious research done about it is valid. I don’t belong to those Pyongyang observers who claim that there must be a rapid change any time soon as the current situation is unsustainable (I actually think it is very sustainable for the current leadership – and considering the various crisis our today’s world is going through these days, one may even describe it as very stable), but I am convinced that when the time of any chance comes (and it may be a rather subtle process itself), it will come in really handy to have any sort of experience or connection to North Korean environment, perhaps by having participated at Kim Il-Sung´s summer university camp, or simply being from the country where most of the Pyongyang tram cars come from!

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About the Author

Gianluca Spezza

Gianluca is the research director of NK News. He focuses his research on North Korean society, the role of education in the DPRK, gender issues in North Korea and North Korean ideology. He holds a Master in Humanities from the University of Torino (Italy) and a M.Soc.Sc. in Asian Studies from the University of Turku, Finland. He worked in East Asia (including South Korea) as an education consultant for five years. Mail: [email protected] Follow: @KazakhPilot

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