About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Learning from Josef Stalin, North Korean founding leader Kim Il Sung knew early on that it was essential for Pyongyang to take complete control of the emerging post-war North Korea information environment.
Radios and TV were built or adapted to only receive official state-run stations, and it wasn’t long before print publications were leading forces behind an emerging Kim Il Sung idolization campaign.And at the same time the possession of foreign, especially Korean, newspapers and magazines would become a serious crime.
Arguably these policies have served the Kim family well, minimizing domestic criticism while making political opposition unthinkable. Of course, the systems built would also make it extremely efficient to communicate key messages and policies to the entire population.
But as new media technologies have emerged over the past decade or so – simultaneous to increasing numbers of defectors leaving North Korea – the effectiveness of the Pyongyang propaganda is increasingly coming into question. A combination of foreign DVDs, USB drives and defector-run radio stations are all slowly chipping away at the propaganda that Pyongyang monopolized for so long.
Given recent changes we asked eleven defectors to share their opinions on just how effective North Korean propaganda still is. Their responses, it seems, suggests that for the Pyongyang propagandists things are going from bad to worse.
In North Korea right now, there are many places to get outside news–especially from people who have left for South Korea, the U.S., or Europe. A lot of people also get outside news through South Korean airborne propaganda (such as balloon drops) and by radio.
However, it is only the middle class or the elite that hears these things.
The common people have little or no way to hear news from the outside; they do not have electricity or time, as they live hand-to-mouth, day-by-day.
Even if they do hear about the outside world, they do not have the opportunity to discuss it and debate about what is wrong with North Korean society today.
I’d therefore say that about 50% of North Koreans do not believe the government’s propaganda. In addition, many people have experiences going over to China.
“This gave me the impression that the outside world watches color TV, while here in North Korea, we watch black-and-white”
After seeing the advanced Chinese society and the food, clothes, and living conditions there, they compare these things with North Korea and often talk about them with their neighbors when they return home.
When I was young, I saw people who went to Russia and other countries to work as laborers coming back with appliances, like color TVs or sewing machines. This gave me the impression that the outside world watches color TV, while here in North Korea, we watch black-and-white.
I also saw the kind of food people ate in China, and envied them.
Nowadays, many people in North Korea know about life outside and aspire to the lifestyle. However, they think these are empty dreams that can disappear in a flash, and that’s why the people of North Korea still do not change.
However, following the great famine /Arduous March, there have been many changes in North Korean society. People began to show less support for the government, and trust it less. Nevertheless, the government failed to reflect or consider such changes. Instead, it has kept calling for unconditional loyalty towards by saying such things as, “It is government policy,” and, “It is the general’s demand,” while still failing to provide food.
“Nowadays, people believe less than 20% of what is being televised or broadcast”
Nowadays, people believe less than 20% of what is being televised or broadcast. People are not reading newspapers like they once were, and many use them to roll cigarettes. On the TV news, many things are set up or modified. Thus, people do not trust what they see. For instance, when they report that Kim Jong Il paid a visit to a military base, they only show the healthiest and most well-built soldiers. They stock up veggies and rice for TV, then after filming, they take them with them. They put pigs from nearby farms on display, and return them when they’re done. People who witness these things talk about what they’ve seen with others, and that’s how word gets out. So. there are few people believe what they see on TV.
After the Arduous March, people have begun to realize that the government was no longer able to provide for them, let alone rescue them from the terrible chain of events. So, there is a growing number of people who think TV news is not always true, and they have begun to realize that it is all propaganda.
Defectors have also played a huge role.
Beginning at the end of the 1990’s, people started to defect–especially from the Hamkyung provinces. Those defectors have been informing their remaining families about the outside world, and people became suspicious and doubtful of North Korean media.
“Defectors have also played a huge role”
To be more specific, those who live near the Chinese border and in large cities do not trust North Korean TV or radio at all. H
However, those who live in smaller regions still tend to accept and trust it.
In North Korea, people’s awareness varies from region to region. It’s a fact that people living close to the border with China have far less trust in the North Korean government than those in the interior of the country. And it is said that some people don’t even trust statements by the State Political Security Department, the Ministry of Security, and the military. However, still the North Korean people can’t fundamentally understand what goes on in liberal democratic countries, such as people being critical or making judgements in the press.
In North Korea, it’s just the same thing every day, repeating the same content, and boring propaganda slogans in songs that people are increasingly sick of hearing. And often it males no sense: Although the Rodong Sinmun often makes public media references to human rights abuses or things like protests in South Korea, there is never any mention about what human rights actually mean at all, as well as whether it’s ok to even raise your voice in opposition to the government like in South Korea.
“When the North Korean people become more conscious – when they are able to ask questions by themselves – I think it will be important to help them out”
Following increased exposure to the outside world and increasing numbers of people with foreign connections–smugglers, traders, and people with family in South Korea–the faster trust in the North Korean government will fall.
When the North Korean people become more conscious – when they are able to ask questions by themselves – I think it will be important to help them out. It will be necessary to have foreign news and resources that can help people compare information with. I think the environment must be prepared to a certain extent in this regard. Even if it’s only a little, people listening to both North Korea news and foreign news will be able to talk with one another about it – and this will help ideas develop.
Things are different these days, but in the past, there was no way for us to know anything beyond what the North Korean government showed us. This was true not only for propaganda or broadcast news, but also for education. What surprised me most when I entered the free world was an educational system that fostered freedom of thought and creativity.
In the North, there was no way to learn about anything beyond what the government taught us. Trying to learn beyond what is taught was prohibited. Because of North Korea’s brainwashing policies, we were not able to see beyond the false propaganda that was shown to us and did not have the freedom to imagine beyond it.
These days, though, there are many waves of change within North Korea. Interestingly, because of the economic difficulties, the regime’s grip on the people has been loosened and capitalist culture has infiltrated North Korea through trade with China. Therefore, the cultures of advanced countries like China and Korea became prevalent in North Korea, making it difficult for the government’s propaganda to continue being effective.
In North Korea, I once received a very small radio as a gift. Though small, it was what made me desire, and dream of, freedom. The South Korean news and music I would hear every night was everything that I could imagine about the world. That was when I realized that what we learned and heard in North Korea was not really true. This made me angry and suspicious about my environment, and the reality in North Korea.
“In North Korea, I once received a very small radio as a gift. Though small, it was what made me desire, and dream of, freedom”
Today, North Korea is in the middle of this kind of change. Rumors swirl about people bring publicly executed just for watching South Korean dramas or music videos. This is just one instance of how wary the government is about the introduction of outside information and culture. The vigilance toward the changes in society and people’s perceptions of the regime is a sign that the regime’s iron fist is beginning to crumble.
Even amidst intense oppression, this wave is only becoming stronger.
Among the younger generations in North Korea, almost everyone knows about South Korea’s dramas and music, and those who don’t are considered out of touch. The liberalization of North Korea is really picking up, rendering propaganda ineffective.
Although propaganda can still be effective in the countryside and remote rural areas, it no longer works in large cities.
The government is very cognizant of this, which is why they ruthlessly oppress defectors and the families they leave behind. The unprecedented punishments against the defectors, as well as the forced deportations of their families out of major cities are attempts to choke off the flow of outside information. They are setting up barbed wire fences in border areas so as to prevent escapes and to seal off the introduction of South Korean dramas and music.
“Although propaganda can still be effective in the countryside and remote rural areas, it no longer works in large cities”
NGOs are floating propaganda leaflets to the North from the South Korean side of the DMZ. The North Korean government gets really irritated every time this happens, because they know very well how threatening to their power these campaigns are.
In the worst case scenario, people have been caught by the security forces talking during drinking sessions about the leaflets they have seen, and were publicly executed.
In the end, the regime’s propaganda can no longer play its supposed role. It is only the increased oppression that barely manages to sustain the country.
The reason 60% believe or are not sure about the North’s propaganda is simple: TV is their sole source of information. With only one source, they have no other option but to accept what the central government tells them to believe. Of course, it is normal human behavior for people to start asking questions about things they are not certain about.
40% of non-believers exist because they simply know the truth. The government never speaks about mistakes they made; North Korea’s TV station always talks about a good harvest every year, the country’s miraculous economic growth. But, if all these things are true, why are the lives of the North Korean people so miserable?
“No matter what kind of new technology the government says they have invented to improve the lives of the people, the majority of North Koreans already know that it will not affect their lives at all”
Life for many in North Korea never gets better unless they decide to make engage in market activities and try and make profit for themselves. No matter what kind of new technology the government says they have invented to improve the lives of the people, the majority of North Koreans already know that it will not affect their lives at all.
It is a pity that every aspect of life in North Korea is controlled by Kim Jong Un’s guidance. I think the 20% of North Koreans that believe in Kim Jong Un blame the bad things that happen on corrupt senior leaders like Jang Song Thaek, while believing that Kim Jong Un is trying to do his very best for the country.
But for the past 68 years, this promise has not been kept.
The economic situation today is incomparably worse than in the 1960s and 70s.
“Although North Koreans are isolated from the outside world, news from the outside enters North Korea through people that have escaped”
Although North Koreans are isolated from the outside world, news from the outside enters North Korea through people that have escaped. So, it is hard for North Koreans to believe the government propaganda.
Of course, information from the outside causes people to not believe the government as much as they used to.
Personally, I believe the effectiveness of North Korean propaganda has decreased by 5% every year.
I don’t think people living in Pyongyang believe even 30% of the propaganda they see, as they are more exposed to the outside world.
“I believe the effectiveness of North Korean propaganda has decreased by 5% every year”
However, the rural population still probably believes about 70% of it.
I think people without any influence from the outside generally accept political propaganda without question.
People over 30 who are highly educated and rich do not believe North Korean propaganda at all. However, they believe it should continue because they think they’ll lose their wealth and power when Kim Jong Un’s regime collapses.
Those who are starved and affected by abject poverty do not believe the Party’s propaganda about how their lives, and the economy, will be better the following year.
“[The rich] believe [propaganda] should continue because they think they’ll lose their wealth and power when Kim Jong Un’s regime collapses”
Those who are inflexible and prim still believe much of the propaganda they see. Whether they believe it or not, there’s nothing they can do about it, as they are subject to strict surveillance every day.
Students and adolescents believe almost everything they’re told.
Ordinary North Koreans know that North Korean news only televises what is in the government’s interest; things that are necessary for the regime to retain its power.
It is especially easy for those at the top of the social hierarchy to discern truth from false, exaggerated reports. They see things happen around them, then see how they get reported on TV.
“It is especially easy for those at the top of the social hierarchy to discern truth from false, exaggerated reports”
But North Koreans are very nationalistic. Therefore, they accept the propaganda without questioning it, even though they know it is not always true. But they don’t believe it.
They only watch or read official materials because they don’t have any other choice.
They only watch programs which are relatively interesting and entertaining, and do not usually watch news or music shows.
“People don’t trust propaganda, TV or newspapers”
They pay more attention to conversations and gossip in the markets and neighborhoods than they do to TV or newspapers.
They think editorials in North Korean newspapers are false and fraudulent.
NK News would like to thank Seung-hee Nah, Eunkyoung Kwon, Elizabeth Jae, JH Ahn, Ye Seul Byeon and Catherine Salkeld for their assistance in producing this series.