Among the many mistakes which South Korean propaganda aimed at North Korean audiences tends to make is its standard anti-missile message.
The logic of this message is well known: launching missiles, South Korea claims, places an unreasonably large burden on the DPRK’s national budget, and in a needy country, this sum could be spent in a far more rational way.
This line of reasoning may sound logical to Western or South Korean audiences, but it hopelessly misses the point. An attempt to dissuade North Koreans from launching missiles because of the deficit of the state budget has as much chance of success as an attempt to dissuade a five-year-old from celebrating Christmas because the costs of Christmas tree decorations are getting too high that year.
To begin with, the attitude of North Koreans to their state’s budget differs from that of taxpayers in contemporary democracies, who tend to be personally invested in how their money is spent. In contrast, regular people in the DPRK perceive their national budget as a rather vague phenomenon. To them, the budget is a kind of wonder hat of a great magician, in this case the Father Leader, from where, as the citizens well know, he can get live rabbits, Ryomyong apartments, and other amazing things. To get these things from the leader you just have to behave yourself.
Through their lives, North Koreans learn to make arguments in favor of the nuclear program and become real masters of this art. A child could tell you a story about three little pigs, two of which painfully die because they failed to develop a reliable defense for their houses, with the smartest one launching a missile – sorry, building a solid house.
A North Korean of mature age might take you to the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities to demonstrate the scary testimonies of American atrocities on Korean soil and argue that only a rocket can efficiently protect the country from a repetition of such atrocities. A well-read intellectual will cite the contemporary examples of non-nuclear states like Iraq and Libya, which failed to protect themselves because of excessive trust in international agreements.
The narrative of successful missile launches is filled with soft sentimental intonations and a total lack of aggression
What North Koreans will probably not tell you is that launching missiles, for them, is a matter a much greater than the practical issue of efficient defense.
It is the greatest celebration of the country’s self-confidence and “we can do it” pathos; it is about national glory and grandeur, about happiness and pure joy, on which no material sum can be placed. Official literature and arts in the DPRK work hard to promote this vision among North Korean audiences.
While North Korean militarist propaganda necessarily employs harsh, even barking, tones when referring to arms and defense, the narrative of successful missile launches is filled with soft sentimental intonations and a total lack of aggression. In many contemporary works of cinematography, missile launches serve as a symbol of personal happiness and sense of achievement.
Take for example the film “Run to the Sky”(2000), which is centered on historic events. The film tells the story of marathon runner Chong Song-ok, between her crushing defeat at the Atlanta Olympic Games and her triumphant victory at the women’s marathon at the 1999 World Championships in Athletics in Seville, Spain.
At the climax of the film, the moment when the heroine touches the finish-line first, the camera simultaneously shows the launching of the Unha-1, the first North Korean satellite (actually, it failed, but this was never admitted officially).
Chong Song-ok, who is played by the actress Ri Bun-suk, is an important figure in North Korean discourse. Propaganda used her victory as a national symbol, used to inspire the people during a moment of national economic crisis: the famine of the late 1990s. In official discourse, the famine was given the name of the old idiom gonan-ui haeng-gun (“Arduous March”), which alludes to the march of Kim Il Sung’s guerillas in 1938.
A satellite launch is equal to an Olympic victory; it is a national triumph, which every North Korean can share and take credit for
The recycled term has connotations of struggle and overcoming times of great difficulty, intended to distract people’s attention from their personal sufferings and to extort them to fight through hardship, which, as North Korean propaganda consistently emphasized, had been imposed on the country by a foreign economic blockade and bad weather conditions.
The suggested course of action presupposed even harder work, the tightening of belts, and the importance of staying loyal to the Dear Leader.
The launch of Unha 1 in 1998, as well as the victory of Chong in 1999, were presented as the positive results of this all-national strategy. “Run to the Sky” portrays Chong as an ultimately devoted person who is inspired by the leader in every single moment of her life, and her victory comes as a logical result of this unwavering loyalty.
Chong Song-ok crosses the finish line with a triumphant cry of “Changunnim! Aboji!” (Marshal! Father!), and the following scene of an exploding rocket aims to demonstrate that Chong’s strategy of thinking about the leader at every single moment works for the whole country as well.
To emphasize the message, the scene is accompanied with the excited voice of the narrator proclaiming: “Only if we work hard following the will of our leader we will reach a final victory”. A satellite launch is equal to an Olympic victory; it is a national triumph, which every North Korean can share and take credit for.
In the 2013 TV serial “Our Neighbors”, a rocket plays the role of a family peacemaker
SOMETHING TO AIM FOR
In another work of North Korean cinema, “Our Aroma” (2003), a lyrical comedy which tells the story of a burgeoning love between a devoted researcher of kimchee and a female interpreter at a tourism bureau, a rocket launch serves as a spiritual benchmark for the protagonist.
The young researcher confesses to the girl that he does not feel worthwhile because so far he has not had any achievements which would match the high standards of North Korean rocket science. The hero is ashamed of his poor performance yet strives to improve it in the near future, guided by the lodestar of Unha 1.
The 2013 TV serial “Our Neighbors” utilized the motif of the-then recent launch of Unha 3 (the first actually successful satellite test in 2012) in a rather unusual way. In this show, the rocket plays the role of a family peacemaker.
The serial tells the story of a long-term spousal conflict in a family. The rude, insensitive and tyrannical attitude of the husband toward his wife, a nice hardworking woman, leads her to a painful, though perfectly logical, decision: divorce.
In the settlement, the teenaged son stays with his father, and the daughter, an elementary school student, stays with the mother.
The children suffer from the separation, miss their parents and meet secretly, with caring neighbors doing their best to act as mediators between the spouses. Yet the relationship seems to be destroyed beyond repair. They have apparently had enough of each other, and even the hospitalization of the son, who they both adore, fails to rekindle their love.
But at the end of the film we find out that there is still one passion which is able to bring the dysfunctional family together: a common love for a big rocket.
When mother and father hear the news of the successful launch of the Unha 3, they rush to a neighboring apartment, and, together with excited neighbors, begin a wild dance of happiness around the TV. In the process of the dance, they naturally hold hands and this becomes a moment of mutual awareness, where they understand that they love each other. Soon after they reconcile, much to the joy of the neighbors and the children.
Notably enough, the reunion of the spouses is not preceded by any discussion or conscientious analysis of their mistakes, personal differences, or communicative problems. A common love for a big rocket serves as an enough of a litmus test for their true mutual feelings.
Of course, like any propaganda, these films exaggerate the mental role of missiles in the life of North Koreans. Yet the joy and pride which regular North Koreans do feel about the achievements of their space and nuclear programs is often quite real, and anti-regime propaganda has to take it seriously.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: “Our Neighbors”
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