We frequently read that North Korea is absolutely steeped in the legacy and the lessons of the Korean War. Look no further than the spate of recent essays which sought to explain that North Korea has never really recovered from the brutality of three years of American aerial pummelling of its cities.
The Korean War, we are often reminded, is the North’s ultimately fuel for anti-American education, as well as the legitimate foundation of the pervasive sense of insecurity that North Koreans feel from that unfinished war. Historian Bruce Cumings, whose work is often imitated and criticized but rarely surpassed in the genre, calls the North Koreans “the party of memory” when it comes to the war, juxtaposed against American amnesia.
If it is true that the DPRK as a whole was traumatized by the unbridled violence unleashed upon it by the United States, then the North Koreans must surely know it. Moreover, they would be wise to remind Americans of it as often as possible.
After all, the segments of U.S. public opinion prone to advocating for a peace deal with North Korea as a key element of solving the nuclear issue would find it useful to have more factual fodder for their pacifist positions. Yet, the North Koreans tasked with dealing with American journalists over the past couple of months have not spent a great deal of time working the historical angle.
If the legacy of the Korean War is as palpable in North Korea as we are led to believe, then how does that impact Korean Workers’ Party members specifically employed in the handful of departments which deal with the transmission of propaganda to international audiences? Does it not make their job easier?
Unfortunately, things have not worked out that way. North Korea had many more credulous (and credible) friends during the Korean War than it does today. North Korea, in other words, has lost much ground since the Korean War in terms of international public opinion, and “true believers” in its national security narrative today consist of a small number of noisy but ineffective outliers.
An easy example to see how far things have fallen off is to compare the past with the present. In the 1950s, the DPRK had journalists like the British communist Alan Winnington and the Australian contrarian Wilfred Burchett writing dispatches from Pyongyang and Beijing, who absorbed North Korea’s own narratives wholesale and transmitted them regularly via small but relatively influential communist party newspapers across Europe.
North Korea has lost much ground since the Korean War in terms of international public opinion
During the late Cold War, the country could take more solace that its anti-imperialist views were shared across the socialist bloc.
Today, things are far worse for the DPRK. North Korean officials largely eschew interviews, only occasionally agreeing to them and always using the same language.
Instead, in the event of a particularly acute anxiety over a North Korean missile or nuclear test, Alejandro Cao de Benós is perhaps offered up twenty minutes of airtime to rant at a BBC presenter under the mistaken impression that he is himself ‘North Korea’s top [official] in Europe’ rather than a perplexing oddity of a man who is better off ignored.
It used to be that there were areas of ambiguity and doubt in terms of dominant news narratives that North Korea could benefit from exploiting. When it came to the core question of “Who started the Korean War?”, the DPRK could count on encouraging and tapping the deep reserves of skepticism in Britain and the U.S. toward the June 1950 American military intervention on the peninsula and the broader East Asian region.
Even as the U.S. and the United Nations moved to support South Korea in its early fight against the overwhelming force and speed of the Korean People’s Army, voices were questioning the very basis of the labeling of North Korea as an aggressor.
Sir John Pratt, a respected China hand with years of experience in the UK Foreign Office, was convinced that the war had been ignited by Syngman Rhee as part of a larger plot to deny Taiwan to the Chinese Communist Party.
Pratt went on a lecture tour across the UK denouncing the United Nations intervention in Korea, composing letter after letter to magazines and newspapers on the same theme, disturbing the status quo with the kind of tenacity particular to a highly intelligent elderly person who has oceans of time, nothing to lose, and who is slowly losing his or her faculties.
Monica Felton, a Labour Party activist who virtually planned the rebuilding of Stevenage after the Second World War, was a far more convincing channel for North Korean narratives during the Korean War.
The general assumption is now that the regime in Pyongyang is not only capable but desirous of extending violence beyond its own borders
She traveled to Hwanghae province in May 1951 to take on the brutal sights and smells of Sinchon about six months after what would become its controversial massacre.
Felton returned to Britain via Moscow, broadcasting interviews which compared the UN armies to those of Adolf Hitler and indicating that the women of Britain should support neither the UN’s goals nor its reportedly genocidal practices in Korea.
THEN AND NOW
What were the lessons that North Korean propagandists today might take away from looking back at the Korean War era?
First, having a foreign advocate who is fluent in the logic and means of getting press attention in the West can be a very useful chip in the broader battle. Promoting skepticism within the U.S. or British press toward the motives of foreign intervention in Korea can clog up Congressional or parliamentary machinery.
Secondly, having foreign friends can be as valuable, for its uses in terms of feeding their protests back into the domestic propaganda apparatus. The North Korean people can thereby be reminded that they are not alone, that there are noble peace activists beyond their borders who understand the justice of their struggle, and that ultimately the revolution may prevail.
But this points to a serious flaw in today’s North Korean outlook. Whereas Kim Il Sung in the late 1960s used to talk about the importance of the “three revolutions” – those in North Korea, South Korea, and in the international anti-imperialist movement – any rhetoric about global communism winning out remains residual, and contacts with foreign communists, or unaffiliated peace activists, is small at best.
The North Korean state has continuously undercut voices in the West who in the past have argued that the DPRK is primarily a misunderstood and unjustified victim of American imperialism. Indeed, the general assumption is now that the regime in Pyongyang is not only capable but desirous of extending violence beyond its own borders.
The ambiguity that once surrounded North Korea during the Korean War – is it a victim of American imperialism, or a fundamentally aggressive independent actor? – seems to have been stripped away by the regime’s ongoing missile and nuclear tests. North Korea’s own unrelenting wall of images, words, and even music that assert the country’s ability and its right to destroy the United States with a nuclear attack have meant as much.
Finally, there is Kim Jong Un’s own role to consider here. Kim Il Sung used to occasionally meet foreign journalists; he was clearly confident in his ability to steer them towards at least a portrayal of himself as being in control of the state and preoccupied with basic questions of national survival.
The time span over which all of this happened is somewhat remarkable – Kim met Monica Felton in 1951, and Mike Chinoy in Pyongyang in 1993 – but it also speaks to a desire from the top to “get the word out” about the perils that Pyongyang saw abroad.
The visits of a handful of American journalists to North Korea of late, and the activity of men like Alejandro Cao de Benós, should not be considered a coherent or ambitious strategy by North Korea to change the international narrative about its behaviour.
The DPRK’s strategy with respect to cultivating foreign public opinion has been generally ineffective
Kim Jong Un, for all of his bravura in responding directly to Trump’s unadvisable salvo at the United Nations, has yet to be interviewed by a single foreign journalist.
In this sense, he has yet to learn from his counterpart, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who in the midst of an awful civil war has seen fit to occasionally inflect the international narrative by meeting with journalists from Der Spiegel or the BBC.
Assad also welcomed U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard on a controversial mission that at least gave some rhetorical cover to the regime in its narrative for what others have called a genocidal conflict.
PUBLIC RELATIONS NIGHTMARE
During the putative “crisis” over the last six months between the U.S. and North Korea, the DPRK’s strategy with respect to cultivating foreign public opinion has been, generally, ineffective. The North Koreans have done a poor job of exploiting the huge terrain that has opened up between the American public and the President.
Americans may be worried that Trump will get them into a war, yet this has not translated into enhanced support or sympathy for North Korea. In a recent Washington Post poll, only 8% of U.S. respondents said they trusted Kim Jong Un to be rational in a crisis, and nearly one in five Democrats polled supported a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang.
North Korea today has few foreign defenders; their external propaganda relies on the assumption of a global understanding of American malfeasance rather than an active flow of sympathetic foreign visitors.
As a result, the battle for the master narrative about such topics as the harmful effect of sanctions will be fought weakly by the regime, using only a handful of foreign reporters who have no sympathy for the regime, and a handful of loud but ineffective outliers who are not taken seriously.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK Econwatch
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