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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean media were quick by their own standards to report on the activities of Kim Jong Un during his trip to Singapore earlier this week for the much-anticipated summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, but viewers of DPRK television had to wait until Thursday to see a video of the event.
State newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported in their Monday edition Kim’s arrival in Singapore the previous day, and the front page of the Tuesday edition was filled with photos from Kim’s surprise stroll about downtown Singapore less than 12 hours earlier.
The paper devoted three pages of images to Kim’s June 12 meeting with Trump, but a day later Wednesday’s Korean Central Television (KCTV) coverage did not include any video of the summit.
It was anticipated that all video would be saved to be made into another long documentary, as is often the case for big events involving the country’s leadership, which indeed was released late Thursday in the form of a 42-minute film bookended with Kim’s airport send-off and reception in Pyongyang and filled with a range of what may be considered quite remarkable footage to the average North Korean.
LOVE OF THE PEOPLE
Upon his arrival in Singapore, it becomes immediately clear that one major intention through the film is to emphasize Kim’s pop-star status abroad and complement the North’s characteristic promotion of the world’s ‘adoration’ for its leaders through extended shots of ‘adoring fans’ lining the streets.
North Koreans have been told for decades through daily newspaper articles and television broadcasts of the countless instances of the love and respect for their leader expressed worldwide.
For this reason, it is not very surprising to hear the narrator say that Kim captured the “interest of the whole world” or that “the trembling hearts of the people of Singapore could not be suppressed as they welcomed (Kim), for whom they hold infinite respect.”
North Koreans have even seen films before of their leaders on diplomatic trips abroad receiving pompous stately welcomes and even excited foreign faces in their presence.
Peter Ward, a writer for NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, pointed to several films produced by North Korea in the past which North Koreans may be familiar with, that show Kim Il Sung surrounded by dancing residents wearing traditional clothes in the streets of Romania and Kim Jong Il being treated to similarly staged receptions from cheering locals in China.
But Thursday’s broadcast was different, exemplified by the sheer scale of spontaneous crowds shown lining the streets and walkways to catch a glimpse of the “respected Supreme Leader,” though the difference is mostly in the details.
Most North Koreans will not have detailed knowledge of the freedoms and restrictions of Singaporean society or how they compare to their own country or the Romania and China of the past, so they may lack the context to be able to compare these images with previous scenes of their leaders being received by raucous crowds abroad.
But a boost to his international image is surely to take effect among at least part of the population after viewing the latest documentary, which repeatedly shows not only a diverse crowd of foreigners smiling in excitement as Kim Jong Un waves back at them, but also a detailed look at the lifestyle of the average person in Singapore.
AN ECONOMIC MODEL
The sight of so many people holding up cameras and smartphones to take pictures of Kim Jong Un in Singapore is just one piece of evidence in the film that North Korean censors have, at least for now, relaxed concerns over how much of the developed outside world to reveal to the population.
Many North Koreans in both Pyongyang and other cities these days can be seen using smartphones, but as usership is still relatively miniscule compared to other countries, North Korean viewers may take notice of the commonplace nature of phone ownership abroad.
The Rodong Sinmun coverage of Kim’s night tour provided an early hint that even more of Singapore’s economic development would be highlighted in the coming documentary, saying he would “learn from” the country’s “good knowledge and experience” – comments which were repeated verbatim in the video as Kim looked out over the night skyline from the roof of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. (Much of the narration reflected text from articles published earlier in the week.)
Daytime shots of the streets of the city and the skyline from above were then featured heavily in the film version of the trip, revealing in unprecedented form the full scale of a modern metropolitan downtown.
The lengthy shots of multiple aspects of the Singaporean success are striking, considering that when KCTV showed images of downtown Seoul in January 2017 during large protests against (now former) President Park Geun-hye, most buildings surrounding the crowds, at least which would otherwise be clearly visible, were blurred out.
Kim Jong Un’s recent visits to Beijing and Dalian were also featured in documentaries of their own, but the modern skylines of those cities were not included, and most street scenes do not look much different than Pyongyang.
NK Pro writer Peter Ward said that the locations shown in the Singapore film, such as upmarket hotels and a shipping port in addition to simple shots of the city at large, “seemed designed to signal an interest in foreign trade and tourism.”
“Not only did it show a city… far richer than Pyongyang, both during the day, and at night, in great detail, but it also showed Kim Jong Un as being interested in learning about the place,” he said.
Regardless of whether Kim implements in North Korea his supposed plan to learn from this prosperous, foreign city as a potential model for economic success, North Koreans now have his word and his visual example against which they can compare the current level of development of their own cities.
And after all of these striking and significant scenes, there was still the meeting with the leader of their long-time enemy at the end of the documentary.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Besides the much-talked-about example of President Trump exchanging military salutes with DPRK Minister of the People’s Armed Forces No Kwang Chol, there are many other scenes which demonstrate the new image of America being broadcast to North Koreans.
When Trump and Kim first walk towards each other against the backdrop of the luxurious Capella Hotel and side-by-side American and North Korean flags, Trump’s admittedly high regard for Kim is shown through a series of affectionate pats on the arm and back. His cheerful thumbs-up at Kim during their first sit-down talks is also included.
“The U.S. President was shown in person as a normal head of state on (North Korean) TV perhaps for the first time in North Korean history – rather than as an incompetent, bloodthirsty, warmongering idiot as U.S. Presidents are usually portrayed,” Ward said.
For his part, during his one-on-one scenes with Trump, Kim mostly appeared stoic and occasionally joyful, even returning an affectionate pat on the back of Trump when the two exited the room after signing the joint agreement.
The depiction of the Donald Trump to the uninitiated viewer would appear in the typical style of diplomatic meetings between high-level individuals shown on North Korean TV, but the added weight of it being the formerly-vilified position of U.S. President makes the scenes more significant.
Kim Jong Un and others in the North Korean leadership through this documentary have decided to show their population a series of things which were previously considered taboo, but the signs of this change have been in the works for some time.
From “military-first,” to the “byungjin line” of simultaneous military and economic development, to now an increased focus on strictly the economy, this documentary introduced the ‘foreign economic model’ as an acceptable concept, and offers the U.S. and its President as a worthy partner in this goal.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCTV