Most people outside North Korea who’ve tried to read the Rodong Sinmun have probably had the same thought: This is so boring.
Pages and pages are devoted to the veneration of the leader and documenting his activities, followed by criticism of his rivals in South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, along with praise the leader/party/North Korean people have received from a foreign delegation, with some of the scientific achievements of the North thrown in. Not exactly scintillating stuff.
But how do North Koreans feel about the Rodong Sinmun? Do they really read it? If so, how do they feel?
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Actually, among defectors and experts, the common answer is that not all of them even get to. It is basically the official organ of the Workers’ Party of Korea, unlike public newspapers in other countries. Therefore, members of the party – or more specifically, party members of a certain rank – are allowed to subscribe the paper.
“There is a criteria established by the nation, about subscribers to the paper. Among party members, a limited number of people called ‘cell secretaries’ can officially subscribe it,” Joo Seong-ha, a defector-turned-journalist for the Dong-a Ilbo told NK News.
A defector, who left North Korea in 2011 via Mount Paektu, echoed this, saying cell secretaries are the leaders of units consisting of approximately 10 people.
“Each workplace has a cell organization. The paper is delivered only to the cell secretaries’ house,” she told NK News. Also, professors who lecture on ideology in universities can get the paper, said Fyodor Tertitskiy, a Ph.D candidate at Seoul National University.
‘When I was in Pyongyang, I saw the Rodong Sinmun newsstand at every subway and train station’
However, this doesn’t mean that ordinary North Koreans cannot read the Rodong Sinmun.
“In Pyongyang station, every platform has a newsstand. I saw the same thing in Wonsan station,” a defector who used to live in Pyongyang and who defected in 2012 told NK News. He said there were four sectors at the newsstand in Pyongyang station.
“Four types of newspapers were hung there: the Pyongyang Sinmun, Rodong Sinmun, Cheongnyeon (Youth) Sinmun and Minju (Democratic) Choson.”
Tertitskiy confirmed this, saying: “When I was in Pyongyang, I saw the Rodong Sinmun newsstand at every subway and train station.”
Also, North Koreans sometimes are forced to read this paper.
“When there is an important issue, all the workers at the factory used to read it together, for 30 minutes in the morning,” a defector who left North Korea’s Ryanggang province in 2012 told NK News.
The defector who left in 2011 said the paper officially should be read on a daily basis, but people don’t.
“It is read about once in a week. Cell secretaries read it first and deliver the stories to the people, but sometimes a worker responsible for propaganda does it instead,” she said.
Joo said there is a practice called dokbo, reading important articles, which is also conducted at school every morning.
“After the Arduous March, this has become normal. People just do it when they are forced to do it.”
Most people said “it is not free, but very cheap,” while some people said it is free. However, nobody remembered the exact cost.
“The newspaper price is included in a ‘fee’ with lots of other expenses. That’s why people cannot remember it,” the defector from Pyongyang said.
Many people said it would be easier to read Rodong Sinmun in Pyongyang, as all of the papers are printed in Pyongyang and delivered to other regions via a “train.” This indicates that Pyongyang and some large cities, well-connected by train, are much more reachable for the paper.
“Considering the poor quality of railroads in North Korea, trains are frequently delayed. If the train arrives late that day, people in rural areas would read the paper in the afternoon,” Joo told NK News. Then, it seems deliverers distribute the paper to the workplaces or factories.
One source who visits North Korea often described seeing the papers delivered.
“In all the times I have been to North Korea, I have seen this delivered just twice, both times by a lady with a bag of them dropping them off at a workplace (once a bookshop, once a regular shop). This is how I am informed they are distributed, but two examples is not a confirmation, of course,” he said.
There are some people who practically memorize the paper
Many people said the paper is actually popular, and some North Koreans try to get it by giving bribes, while other people said it is used as toilet paper.
“There are some people who practically memorize the paper,” said the defector who left North Korea through Mount Paektu.
Joo said North Koreans read the newspaper eagerly, because it is the only route to grasp outside news, and it is difficult to watch TV due to the lack of the electricity.
“Page 1, 2 and 3, reporting about Kim Jong Il’s activities, are not interesting, however, page 4 about domestic news, page 5 about South Korean news, and page 6 about international news cover different news daily,” he wrote on a blog posting in 2011.
Regarding whether they believe in the information from the Rodong Sinmun, people indicated mixed opinions.
Joo said North Koreans can understand the hidden facts behind the text.
“Even though the paper is propagating the negative aspects of South Korean society and capitalism, I could feel the ‘joy of living’ when reading the paper,” he said on the blog posting, adding that North Koreans often analyze the articles in reverse.
“For example, the Rodong reports that the ‘South Korean puppet government sentenced (someone) to one year in jail for admiring our general on the Internet.’ Then, North Koreans think, ‘We would be executed by firing squad if we admired the South Korean president. What a good society!'”
The defector from Pyongyang, who is relatively young, said people didn’t enjoy reading the paper.
“In South Korea, we can compare the Hankyoreh and Chosun Ilbo, which is so interesting. However, in North Korea reading the newspaper was not entertaining at all. The paper was full of praising and with revolutionary intonation. People just read it to kill time, nobody reads it seriously,” he told NK News.
Andray Abrahamian, director of research for Choson Exchange and holder of a Ph.D on media and North Korea, suggested to think of “elsewhere in some ways.”
“Readers of the news synthesize the information in different ways, that is true in the DPRK, too. Just within my family, I have loved ones who generally accept what they see on cable TV news while I tend to be a bit more skeptical,” he said.
So where are the papers going after being read?
Joo described how to use this paper as a toilet paper, tobacco paper and wallpaper.
“Originally, people should return this paper to the publication supply base, but people rarely do and instead sell it at the jangmadang (market).”
He said one week of the Rodong Sinmun has about the same value as one kilogram of corn, and one piece of Rodong Sinmun paper can make 40-50 tobacco sticks.
“Once he starts to smoke the Rodong Sinmun tobacco, he cannot smoke other kinds of tobacco. I used to smoke the Rodong Sinmun tobacco, and after defection, couldn’t smoke with Chinese paper tobacco due to the poor taste.”
However, there is one strict rule on recycling: Papers including the North Korean leaders’ pictures should not be used for other purposes.
There is another controversy regarding the amount in circulation. Abrahamian said he once heard North Korea “can” produce up to 1 million copies per day, but said this doesn’t sound true.
Joo said the circulation had decreased after the Arduous March.
“There used to be 300-400,000 papers before the Arduous March, but it fell to 3-4,000 after the (famine) period. I heard Kim Jong Un increased the number, but it would be less than 500,000 papers at most,” he told NK News.
WHO WRITES IT?
The Rodong Sinmun is the most popular workplace after graduation, followed by Korea Central News Agency, Korea Central TV and other local media
As for the “journalists” working at the Rodong Sinmun, who are they and how are they trained?
They are students who graduated from Kim Il Sung University’s Department of Newspapers, said Joo, himself a graduate.
“The Rodong Sinmun is the most popular workplace after graduation, followed by Korea Central News Agency, Korea Central TV and other local media,” Joo said in his blog.
Remarkably, all selected journalists should work in the rural area or construction sites for their trainee period of about three to six months. After that, the life of a Rodong Sinmun staffer is highly secure and privileged. “The provision to the journalists is allegedly better than artists and actors, the people who are treated very well,” Joo added.
Other than the Rodong Sinmun, there are local newspapers in each province, which are more accessible to ordinary people.
“These local newspapers include articles from the Rodong Sinmun and additional information in the local areas,” Joo said. A defector from Pyongyang said there is another special newsletter only available for the high-ranking officials mainly residing in Pyongyang, called dang-bo which means organ of Workers’ Party of Korea. “It was sometimes thick like magazine and sometimes thin like newspaper. It was much more detailed and specific, and many of my friends didn’t know about this newspaper. It was delivered central party officials, higher than section head.”
Featured Image: Eric Lafforgue
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