North Korea maintains subtle anti-U.S. rhetoric, despite diplomatic overtures
The party daily keeps up low-level criticism as DPRK withholds positive developments from the domestic public
The authoritative North Korean party daily Rodong Sinmun continues to publish news reports and articles critical of the U.S., generally low-level, retaining most of the themes and formulations that reappeared or experienced a significant uptick in recent months.
This is despite recent positive developments in DPRK-U.S. relations and the general absence from North Korean domestic media after the country’s last weapon test on September 10 of “self-defensive national defense capabilities” and “national defense industry,” two key themes during North Korea’s weapons test campaign from late July through August (see the timeline below for more information).
The North appears to continue low-key criticism of the U.S. because it has withheld from the domestic public its recent foreign ministry pronouncements expressing a willingness to return to working-level level talks.
Hence, from the domestic public’s vantage point, there is no change in North Korea’s position on the U.S. and for now Pyongyang likely does not feel compelled to adjust it current propaganda.
North Korean media typically makes domestic announcements only when it feels assured. For example, North Korean domestic media mentioned the second DPRK-U.S. summit for the first time while reporting on Kim Jong Un’s departure for Hanoi on February 24.
Pyongyang will likely maintain its low-key anti-U.S. rhetoric until it announces to its domestic populace a major diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries, for example another US-DPRK summit. North Korean media, for example, kept up its criticism of the U.S. until the eve of the first DPRK-U.S. summit in Singapore.
North Korea’s criticism of the U.S. decreased significantly after the Singapore summit in June 2018, both in volume and tone. It started to pick up after Kim Jong Un in his policy speech in April blamed the U.S. for the failed Hanoi summit.
The criticism further gained momentum from mid-July, when the foreign ministry’s position on US-DPRK working-level talks decidedly took a harder line and North Korea started to conduct a series of weapons tests.
The uptick in criticism not only reflected Pyongyang’s growing discontent with Washington, it likely was intended to pave the way for a smoother transition to a stronger anti-U.S. posture, if need be.
Bringing back old anti-U.S. themes
For the first time in months, the Rodong Sinmun since mid-July has reintroduced U.S. soldiers “crimes” in South Korea, ramifications of the U.S.-South Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and gun crimes in the U.S., all staple anti-U.S. themes in North Korean media that decreased significantly after the Singapore summit.
On August 1, the party daily published a third-party news report on U.S. soldiers’ “crimes” in South Korea, marking the first time since March 2018 the party daily carried such news. The party published another third-party report on a U.S. soldier’s “gangster act” in South Korea as recently as September 13.
For the first time since February, the party daily between July 17 and August 9 published news reports and an “analysis” dedicated to the “unfairness” of the SOFA and South Korean civic groups’ protests against the agreement.
The party daily since July 23 has started publishing reports and articles on gun crimes in the U.S. again. The last time it carried such a report was in January. As recently as September 3, Rodong Sinmun carried a featured section of three stories on gun problems in the U.S.
Stepping up critical tone
Moreover, the party daily’s uses of anti-U.S. or pejorative formulations have increased noticeably over the past few months, following a period of decline post-Singapore summit. These terms, which include “U.S. imperialist/s”; “U.S. imperialist forces of aggression”; “U.S. forces occupying South Korea”; and “U.S. ruler”; serve as a barometer of the state of U.S.-DPRK relations from North Korea’s perspective.
The party daily’s use of “U.S. imperialist/s” went up considerably in June, including the six mentions on June 25, the anniversary of the start of the Korean war. Rodong Sinmun’s handling of the June 25 anniversary stood in stark contrast to its treatment of this event in 2018, when it did not once mention “U.S. imperialist/s.”
The party daily most recently used this term on September 19, in an article on “atrocities” by the “enemies” during the Korean war.
The party daily in August mentioned “U.S. imperialist forces of aggression” for the first time since October 2018, in news reports and commentaries. The daily’s mentions of “U.S. forces of aggression in South Korea” and “U.S. ruler [chipkwonja]” went up noticeably since July 24 and July 27, respectively. The word “ruler” falls on the negative side on a scale of words North Korea uses for a state leader. Rodong Sinmun mentioned “U.S. forces of aggression in South Korea” as recently as August 28, and “U.S. ruler” as recently as September 18.
In addition, Rodong Sinmun’s coverage of news reports and articles on U.S. “interference” in other countries — a theme that North Korean media uses to indirectly criticize the U.S. — also increased significantly since late July, the latest such article published on September 23. Notably, approximately one-third of such articles and reports were on U.S “interference” in the Hong Kong issue.
These articles almost certainly had the dual purpose of supporting China’s position and criticizing the US. Pyongyang did not have to repeatedly publish such articles if its sole purpose was to voice support for the Chinese cause.
Timeline of Recent Notable Events for DPRK-U.S. Relations
July 16: Rare double pronouncement from the DPRK foreign ministry tying the upcoming U.S.-ROK joint military drills with U.S.-DPRK working-level talks’ resumption.
July 23: North Korean media reports on Kim Jong Un’s tour of a “newly built submarine” at a submarine factory.
July 25: North Korea’s weapons tests begin.
August 6: Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press statement criticizes both the U.S. and South Korea for the joint military exercises.
August 7: North media reports on Kim Jong Un guiding a weapon test, citing the leader’s “warning” to both the U.S. and South Korea.
September 6: U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun in a speech at the University of Michigan calls on North Korea to return to talks.
September 9: DPRK First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui’s press statement expresses a “willingness to sit with the U.S. side for comprehensive discussions” in “late September”; North Korean party daily editorial marking the DPRK’s 71st founding anniversary mentions “self-defensive national defense capabilities” — the last mention of the term in domestic state media as of September 22.
September 10: Last North Korean weapon test; the report on Kim Jong Un’s guidance of the test mentions “national defense industry” — the last mention of the term in domestic state media as of September 22.
September 16: The director general of the Foreign Ministry American Affairs Department issues a press statement saying: “The discussion of denuclearization may be possible when threats and hurdles endangering our system security and obstructing our development are clearly removed beyond all doubt.”
September 20: DPRK roving ambassador Kim Myong Gil issues a press statement as “chief delegate of the DPRK side to the DPRK-U.S. working-level negotiations,” welcoming Bolton’s dismissal and Trump’s “new method” remark.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House
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