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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Content warning: This article contains graphic images of displays at the Sinchon Museum. Reader discretion is advised.
Last year, NK News’s sister site NK Pro revealed that regular visits by students and work units to North Korea’s Sinchon Museum of alleged U.S. war atrocities were ongoing despite the government’s efforts to remove anti-U.S. propaganda from public spaces.
Now a month into the new year and amid a new official propaganda line, it appears state media is continuing with a style of coded, inexplicit anti-U.S. propaganda in covering visits to the Sinchon Museum and other “class education” museums.
In a program on recent visits to the museum titled “Rusted Key (녹쓴 열쇠),” aired on Korean Central Television (KCTV) on February 1, the narrator describes brutal murders of unspecified “invaders and class enemies” — the main substitute terms as of late for the U.S. and allied South Korean soldiers during the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Mentions of “imperialist American invaders” and “bloodthirsty murderous American imperialists” were still visible on the walls of the rooms shown in Saturday’s program, however, suggesting visitors are receiving an uncensored message in person much different from KCTV’s coded descriptions.
Paintings and dioramas of the atrocities against North Korean civilians shown in the program also followed a pattern — seen in 2019 as well as last month at the Sinchon Museum and elsewhere — of only allied South Korean soldiers and no American soldiers appearing.
The narrator urged North Korean viewers in Saturday’s segment to “never forget the class enemies, and take 100,000 fold revenge on the invaders” as scenes of thunder and lightning and ominous waves crashing were shown.
“Time passed, the world changed, but there’s one thing that has not changed: the imperialists’ brutality and true colors as invaders,” he added.
The museum was rebuilt in 2015 on the orders of DPRK leader Kim Jong Un, who at the time said the facilities “served as a… source of the will to take revenge upon the enemy and a historic place bearing witness to the U.S. imperialists’ monstrous atrocities.”
In other recent spotlights on the Sinchon Museum, the ruling party daily Rodong Sinmun on February 3 profiled museum guides and workers but avoided explicit mention of the U.S. — the primary subject of the facilities.
Another Rodong article published on January 9 repeated visitors’ vows to take revenge on the “invaders and class enemies” for their “savage brutality.”
These follow regular articles in the party daily throughout late 2019 on visits to county- and town-level “Houses of Class Education” focusing on both Japanese and the vague enemies specified above, with sometimes graphic descriptions of torture and murder of innocent civilians.
ANTI-U.S. PROPAGANDA IN THE NEW YEAR
The persistent propaganda strategy in recent weeks comes as DPRK leader Kim Jong Un laid out on January 1st a more overtly anti-U.S. policy while announcing he was moving on from efforts to negotiate with Washington.
Kim in state media accounts of the plenum speech released on the first day of 2020 frequently referred to the “hostile forces” or just the “enemies” as innuendos for the U.S., South Korea, and Japan.
But the speech coverage did not venture into more graphic descriptions which were a staple in state media before 2018, and anti-U.S. propaganda was not included in the state’s official first batch of 2020.
These could potentially signal that the space previously said to have been created for improvement in DPRK-U.S. relations remains part of Kim’s propaganda strategy.
More explicit references to “murderous U.S. imperialists” and similar epithets largely disappeared from state media and North Korean streets in early 2018 amid the country’s warming to South Korea and that summer’s historic first summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The move to scale back anti-U.S. messaging was interpreted as either an attempt to create space among the public to accept a potential detente with the U.S., or to convince outside observers of consistent, genuine North Korean commitment to the process.
With the revelations over continued internal education, however, consisting of extreme accounts of U.S. and allied South Korean soldiers’ alleged atrocities — intended to arouse notions of “hundred-thousand-fold revenge” — the North’s intentions have been called into question.
Writing for NK Pro last fall, DPRK media analyst Rachel Minyoung Lee said that a “class education” campaign in state media, though subtle in terms of U.S. references, nonetheless was on the rise in conjunction with deteriorating negotiations with Washington.
The campaign, she said at the time, “appears to be part of North Korea’s broader anti-foreign influence propaganda since a national propaganda functionaries meeting, which was … held in early March, shortly after the Hanoi summit.”
“North Korea’s renewed ‘class education’ and anti-outside influence rhetoric seems to reflect leadership concern about what it views as a relaxation of socialist principles after more than a year of toned down anti-U.S. and anti-South Korea rhetoric,” she continued.
“Against this backdrop, the North Korean leadership may have felt the need to reinforce the people’s ideological soundness, which it historically has viewed as critical to regime survival.”
It appears that with the latest examples of this strategy in state media, combined with a vague new foreign policy which does not necessarily rule out more talks with Washington, North Korea’s anti-U.S. messaging is likely to remain coded — yet present — for the near future.
Edited by James Fretwell