The Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, is by far the most important newspaper in North Korea.
The very first issue of the Rodong Sinmun was published on November 1, 1945. At that time, it was called Chongro (right way). Chongro was not a daily but a weekly newspaper and was an organ of the North Korean bureau of the Korean Communist Party.
Kim Il Sung, by the way, is mentioned by name only in its second issue, which came out on November 7. The issue was dedicated to the October Revolution, which took place in Russia in 1917 – quite understandable, given the total Soviet control of the northern part of the peninsula at the time.
After the Workers’ Party of North Korea was established in 1946, the newspaper changed its name to Rodong Sinmun (Labor newspaper), the name it carries until the present day. As the North Korean state took its shape, the Rodong Sinmun took the same place that Pravda occupied in the USSR: the most official information bulletin of the state.
On April 16, 1956, the design of the first page of the newspaper was altered, and altered quite radically. The pre-1956 Rodong Sinmun had an image of the Korean peninsula with the newspaper’s name inscribed on it. This was the typical design of newspapers in colonial Korea: among others, it was used by Keijo nippo, the Government-General’s bulletin, and by the Korean Tong-a Ilbo.
The new design was much more similar to Pravda, and the script was changed from vertical to horizontal. This might even have been an intentional change: after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin, Kim Il Sung feared for his position and for several months North Korea asserted its loyalty to the USSR with special vigor.
Kim, as we all know, survived 1956, and in 1967 he established the DPRK’s “monolithic ideological system” – and it was at that time that the North Korean press got the grotesque and hysterical style it is infamous for.
The cult took several more years to properly take shape, but in 1967, the word “Leader” was already being mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun about ten times more often than it was by Pravda under Stalin.
This is why the Rodong Sinmun evolved away from its Soviet prototype. This author once read a collection of Pravda from the late 1940s, and the difference between it and the modern Rodong Sinmun was truly remarkable. Pravda was constantly criticizing lower-level officials, and sometimes offered ways to make lives of ordinary people better by removing minor problems it acknowledged existed. All this would be unthinkable in North Korea: the country portrayed in the Rodong Sinmun is flawless, and all officials are good and noble patriots.
The news is usually published late, as it takes a few days for a censor to approve certain topics
Communist newspapers are usually quite thin, and the Rodong Sinmun is no exception. Usually, it consists of six pages, all of them being more or less the same thematically.
If the ruling Kim has just visited some non-secret object and passed instructions regarding it, the whole first page of the Rodong Sinmun will be dedicated to this news, and if necessary, a few other pages as well. If not, the first page will feature some news, mostly reporting on foreign media reporting something on the activity of the Leader.
While these are being quoted, the grammatic form addressing the Leader is always changed to the honorific ones, so readers would think that the foreigners being quoted are also paying respect to the Beloved and Respected Supreme Commander.
These reports not only cover major media – such as American, Chinese, Japanese or Russian, but each and every one they notice. If a newspaper in Zimbabwe or the Democratic Republic of Congo reports on Kim Jong Un making a speech, this important fact will be duly reported in the Rodong Sinmun.
The following pages cover domestic news. Mostly these are reports of the Korean people marching from victory to victory under the illustrious leadership of the Party or of them venerating their Leader even more. Occasionally, though, these can be of interest, especially when Kim Jong Un’s economic reforms are mentioned in passing. Additionally, you can sometimes find some official diplomatic telegrams (of course, only the most formal stuff gets published).
From the second to the fifth page, one can find reports on local affairs and general essays about how one is supposed to love the Party even more. There are no interviews, and all foreign friends and local laborers are quoted indirectly.
The last page is dedicated to foreign affairs. The news is usually published late, as it takes a few days for a censor to approve certain topics. For example, the Rodong Sinmun took four days to cover the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
If the ruling Kim has just visited some non-secret object and passed instructions regarding it, the whole first page of the Rodong Sinmun will be dedicated to this news
The news is delivered in one of two ways: either very hysterically or very neutrally. When it comes to stuff which is important for Pyongyang, they use expressions like “unforgivable crimes of the puppet traitorous clique.” When there is something going in a faraway land, journalists remain remarkably calm.
The Rodong Sinmun is published on its official site: rodong.rep.kp (blocked in South Korea). Since it usually takes a few days for a newspaper to be delivered to the North Korean countryside, foreign researchers get access to it sooner than some minor officials in out-of-the-way parts of the country. I, for example, usually start my day with a fresh issue of the Rodong Sinmun.
Finally, I would like to note that, even in these newspapers, there can be good and bad articles. Rodong, for example, once republished a KCNA article criticizing South Korea for its support of mixed marriages (which apparently pollute the bloodline of the Korean people), although they did not have an obligation to do so. On the other hand, a few years ago another journalist made a report about a woman who gave shelter to homeless children in times of famine and hailed her as a national hero – although this journalist also could have simply stayed in their cozy office in Pyongyang.
There is always some freedom of choice – and neither North Korea or the Rodong Sinmun office are exceptions.
Officially, the second newspaper of North Korea is the Minju Choson (“Democratic Korea”). In the beginning, it was conceived as a Korean version of the USSR’s Izvestiya – a somewhat less ideological version of Pravda. However, after the monolithic ideological system was introduced, a less ideological newspaper was no longer needed.
The modern Minju Choson has the same degree of ideological fervor as the Rodong Sinmun, and some of the content of the newspapers is identical – up to 50% in some issues. I once spend hours trying to find some nuance in Minju Choson – to no avail. The only difference is that the paper on which the Minju Choson is printed is of lesser quality. One may ask why such a newspaper is not closed, and that the resources wasted on it are not redistributed in a more useful way, but sadly, the Minju Choson is far from being the only thing in North Korea which begs such a question.
There are specialized newspapers in North Korea as well. One of them is the Kyoyuk shinmun (Education newspaper), which is aimed at school teachers. Apart from pure ideology telling readers about the Leader’s greatness, there is much useful educational stuff there as well: like articles on how to teach certain school topics in more effective ways.
The Kyoyuk shinmun is different from other newspapers: it is more educational than ideological. Other DPRK newspapers are mostly just the Rodong Sinmun with some flavor. Like chips can be cheese or onion flavor, Chonnyon chonwi (The Vanguard of the Youth) is the Rodong Sinmun with a youth flavor and Choson Inmingun (Korean People’s Army) is the Rodong Sinmun with a military flavor.
The second newspaper of North Korea is the Minju Choson (“Democratic Korea”)
A special place is occupied by the Choson Sinbo (Korean News), published by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. This Association is a strange hybrid of mafia, cult, and the DPRK’s representative office in Tokyo, and its newspaper has to compete with Japanese press. As a result, Choson Sinbo is much less ideological than the Rodong Sinmun and it sometimes publishes materials specifically targeting a foreign audience: like, say, a list of economic development zones to which foreign investors are encouraged to bring their money.
Finally, there are local newspapers. Almost always they are forbidden from being exported, but this author managed to get his hand on a few issues of the Hambuk Ilbo – the official newspaper of the North Hamgyong Party committee. Of course, there was nothing terribly secret there – it was the same as the Rodong Sinmun, with a few local stories for color.
The only significant difference between the style of the national newspapers and the Hambuk Ilbo was that the latter used bold script not only for the ruling Kims, but also for Kim Jong Suk – Kim Il Sung’s wife and Kim Jong Il’s mother: in materials for foreign consumption her name is always spelled in a normal font. But when it comes to writing for a local audience, writers seemingly operate at their own discretion – perhaps a choice influenced by the fact that Kim Jong Suk was born in the province of North Hamgyong.
Among the grim ideological landscape of North Korea, the fact that local officials can decide these things for themselves is certainly interesting.
There is no internet in North Korea, and listening to foreign radio is a criminal offence which can lead to several years in a labor camp. The state commands that North Koreans receive information only from North Korean media, and as the country still has problems with electricity, newspapers play an especially important role. In truth, these newspapers are many North Koreans only real source of information about the world.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: North Korea by Roman Harak on 2010-09-08 02:37:14