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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is a Senior Editor with the Sino-NK research group. He's lived in South Korea since 2014.
This week a delegation from Russia’s RT news service spent three days in Pyongyang with officials from the DPRK’s radio and telecommunications committee. Also present at meetings between North Korean and Russian media officials was Moscow’s ambassador to the DPRK, Alexander Matsegora.
The meeting comes weeks after senior representatives from across Russia’s media landscape convened in Pyongyang to meet with officials from KCNA. Among those present were officials from Russia’s TASS news agency, Channel One Russia, and the Russian Agency for Press and Mass Media.
During the meeting, which took place from October 7-8, the North Korean and Russian sides agreed on measures to fight against “fake news” coverage of the DPRK in the international media.
At the gathering of media officials in early October, the director of the North Korean foreign ministry’s press department Cho Yong Sam claimed that TASS was well-known among the North Korean people for its objectivity in reporting on North Korean affairs, and stated that the media had a crucial role to play in solidifying the DPRK-Russia friendship.
The allusion to “friendship” between DPRK and Russia media ultimately ties the two media landscapes back to the wider goals of Moscow and Pyongyang’s bilateral partnership, as codified by the friendship treaty the two countries signed in 2000.
Indeed, in two countries lacking a free and independent press, interactions between North Korean and Russia media inevitably have wider strategic implications beyond simply conveying news.
Both TASS and RT are connected to the Russian government: TASS is a state-controlled corporation, while RT receives funding from Moscow.
TASS for its part is the only Russian media outlet with a permanent bureau in Pyongyang.
Given the immense power of information, North Korea and Russia’s steps toward cooperation in media are a significant area where the two states can advance their interests free from problematic issues such as sanctions.
Indeed, particularly from Moscow’s point of view, the main issue of contention is the widespread negative perception of the DPRK, as well as the Russian Federation’s relationship with Pyongyang.
Moscow and Pyongyang think in the same way when it comes to combating negative images of themselves in the West
In the internet age, where the international media, and information in general, is overwhelmingly available in English and where the West has great sway over the narrative of several topics, the Russian Federation has been keen to counter by promoting a more positive image of itself and its partners.
International media coverage of the DPRK-Russia relationship itself can be a touchy area for Moscow, given the possibility that Russia’s role in North Korean affairs could perpetuate the idea that the Kremlin is backing a rogue state.
A case-in-point in how political sensitivities factor into media coverage of North Korea is the issue of how the DPRK managed to acquire some of its nuclear know-how.
Throughout 2017, Russian media and Ukraine-based Russian-language outlets sparred over whether or not a lack of security in Ukrainian nuclear facilities immediately following the Cold War may have played a role in the DPRK’s development of nuclear capabilities.
Russia-based outlets were particularly happy to cite an August 2017 New York Times piece pointing a finger at Ukraine for a lack of diligence in securing materials the North could use to advance its technology.
Likewise, widespread accusations in 2018 that the Russian Federation was deliberately violating UN sanctions against the DPRK drew condemnation from some of Moscow’s top Korea hands as “fake news.”
The recent series of meetings between North Korean and Russian officials – both in media and government – naturally raises the question of why Moscow and Pyongyang are interested in cooperation and in shaping the narrative of the DPRK.
From the North Korean end, collaboration with Russia’s media landscape provides an opportunity for Pyongyang to portray a softer image of itself than it is otherwise normally able to.
Several news outlets affiliated with the Russian government, including RT and Sputnik, produce content in several languages. The main purpose behind Russian media’s multilingual outreach is to help promote a positive image of the Russian Federation as part of Moscow’s soft power strategy.
Pyongyang’s most likely goal is to rely on Russian media’s global outreach to shift the narrative on North Korea.
From the Russian end, a positive view of the DPRK also serves the Kremlin’s interests.
If the generally negative view of North Korea held in the West persists, Moscow’s goals vis-à-vis the DPRK will become more difficult to achieve.
Principal among these is sanctions relief.
The Russian government continues to insist on lifting UN sanctions against the DPRK, in part so that Moscow can pursue its economic interests across the entire Korean peninsula.
Yet if the general public, as well as policymakers across the globe, continue to perceive the DPRK as a threat, interest in reducing or even abolishing sanctions is not likely to take root.
Of course, even within the United States there has been disagreement over the way the DPRK has been portrayed in the most influential outlets.
Interactions between North Korean and Russia media inevitably have wider strategic implications beyond simply conveying news
North Korea’s cooperation with Russian news outlets, however, does not appear to be directed at attempting to promote a more positive image of the DPRK within Russia itself, as this is hardly necessary.
Not only do Russian intelligence agencies tend to assess the threat posed by the DPRK with less alarm than the U.S. does, Russian citizens themselves view the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program as being pretty low, at least according to a survey conducted by a Russian state pollster.
So, media cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang represents a prime opportunity for the DPRK in particular to convey a more favorable image of itself. If negative perceptions of North Korea can be diminished, this would also serve Russia’s interests as well, as it could lead to a lessening of North Korea’s isolation on the international stage.
Indeed, just as the DPRK and the Russian Federation share a sense of solidarity in facing international sanctions, Moscow and Pyongyang think in the same way when it comes to combating negative images of themselves in the West.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: DPRK Today