Content warning: This article contains graphic images of displays at the Sinchon Museum. Reader discretion is advised. 

As Pyongyang and Washington continue to assert military readiness while working-level denuclearization talks remain on hold, the lack of overt anti-U.S. propaganda on North Korean streets has nonetheless remained a notable constant since mid-2018.

But these measures, along with decisions to forego holding large outdoor rallies commemorating the “Struggle Against U.S. Imperialism Month” in 2018 and 2019, stand in contrast to other, apparently uninterrupted, anti-U.S. propaganda at an internal level.

Daily medium-resolution satellite imagery courtesy of Planet Labs suggests that buses have continued to populate the parking lot of the Sinchon Museum, known informally as the Sinchon Museum American War Atrocities, throughout the period of détente with the U.S. 

While it is not possible to confirm if the buses were full of locals who entered the museum, known measures restricting foreign tourist visits there — as well as occasional mentions of work unit visits in state media  — suggest the DPRK has not abandoned some of its more extreme anti-U.S. propaganda.

And with such enduring policies to keep up deep anti-American education at the internal or inner-track level, it would appear that North Korea is also not yet ready to give up the anti-imperialist rhetoric that has dominated its state discourse for decades.

This, and the additional promotion on state television in recent weeks of another smaller but similar museum west of the capital, the Susan-ri House of Class Education, raises questions over how state propagandists are presently managing official sentiments towards Washington. 


An installation outside the museum says “Let’s take 100,000-fold revenge on the U.S. imperialist murderous devils!” while the propaganda poster to the left, a staple in the country’s media over the years, says in the caption “Never forget the U.S. imperialist wolves!” | Photo: Sogwang

What is the Sinchon Museum?

The Sinchon Museum, located about 75 kilometers south of Pyongyang, is the most specifically devoted to anti-Americanism among the major class education centers, containing dozens of paintings and dioramas depicting alleged U.S. wartime atrocities.

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.”

Kim also declared upon viewing the museum’s exhibits at its old location in 2014 that “the massacres committed by the U.S. imperialist aggressors in Sinchon evidently showed that they are cannibals and homicides [sic] seeking pleasure in slaughter,” according to state media.

Many historians accept that the U.S. committed what could amount to war crimes during the Korean War in the form of indiscriminate bombings and massacres of civilians, though independent observers have yet to find evidence of some of the more gruesome crimes depicted at the museum.

Speaking to AFP about the museum just a week before the first DPRK-U.S. summit in June 2018, University of Leeds history lecturer Adam Cathcart said the depictions are “simply extremely out of line with the reality of the war.”

Dioramas show American soldiers murdering, torturing, and burying North Koreans alive, with the help of South Korean troops | Photos: Sogwang

“This was a case of Koreans killing Koreans in the fog of war, not an American attempt to wipe out an entire county of communists through medieval methods,” he said.

The graphic exhibits appear to be intended to instill a sense of anger and, as guests are explicitly encouraged by text on the walls, desire to carry out revenge — ideas which arguably are not exactly conducive to Pyongyang’s ongoing rapprochement with Washington.

The museum’s continued use as a destination for work units and other citizens, then, begs the question: why eliminate anti-U.S. messaging in some areas while still maintaining its place in historical education?

Does such a half measure really allow space for North Koreans to accept some eventual peace deal with the U.S., or was it done in an attempt to somehow appease American observers?

Activity at the museum since 2018

In June 2018, around the time of the first Trump-Kim summit, western tour companies were told they would no longer be allowed to bring tourists to the Sinchon Museum.

While two tour companies who spoke with NK Pro both said their North Korean partners did not imply at the time that the museum had been completely shut down, the move was still seen as related to other measures aimed at reducing the visibility of anti-U.S. propaganda.

The museum’s new building appears over the summer of 2015, while the final frame shows, in the most recent open-source high-resolution image, buses in the parking lot on March 7 of this year — a week after the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit | Click to enlarge | Photo: Google earth, edited by NK Pro

But as satellite imagery shows a full parking lot at the museum on June 12 — the day of the summit itself — as well as consistently over the entire period since then, reduced visibility of the propaganda may have been the extent of the goal of such policy measures.

Available imagery provided a clear view of the museum on multiple days of each week over the course of the period reviewed from the beginning of 2018 until early August this year, and showed only Saturdays and Sundays consistently with an empty parking lot.

The only prolonged period of no apparent tours to the museum fell over the new year holiday, through the last week of 2018 and the first week of 2019. 

The parking lot at the Sinchon Museum is shown as empty on weekends but apparently full of vehicles on the day of the June 12 Trump-Kim summit, as well as a week later | Photo: Planet Labs, edited by NK Pro

Besides those examples, there were days in every week over the past 20 months, during both high and low periods in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, where buses appeared to pack the parking lot of the Sinchon Museum.

Mention of those visits has largely been absent from state media since the Singapore summit, though there have been several instances where ongoing tours for the purpose of “class education” of citizens are described.

In one example published in the party daily newspaper the Rodong Sinmun in May, the Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory was spotlighted for productivity efficiency in sending propaganda “agitators” on the vital task of visiting the Sinchon Museum to relay class education to other workers afterwards.

Apparent activity in the parking lot and likely the museum continued even in the days before and after President Trump visited the inter-Korean border on June 30 to meet with Kim Jong Un | Photo: Planet Labs, edited by NK Pro

The career of museum director An Hyon Hui was also in May spotlighted in the Rodong as a “flag bearer of party ideology propaganda,” while last November the paper published an article stating tours had been organized to the museum that month as well as in April and August 2018.

In all of these examples, however, the U.S. is never mentioned by name, with only vague references to “invaders” and their atrocities — a glaring omission suggesting steps are being taken to suppress overt anti-American sentiment while still maintaining such education behind the scenes. 

Other class education centers

In another example of promotion of anti-U.S. and South Korean propaganda museums, the Susan-ri House of Class Education was featured in the daily Korean Central Television (KCTV) news broadcasts twice in recent weeks.

On July 31, a work unit visit was broadcast with an interviewee mentioning the “murders” committed by the “enemies,” with no explicit mention of U.S. or South Korean troops, while the camera zoomed in on a painting depicting a civilian being purposely smashed under a large stone, cutting out the face of the enemy soldier standing on top.

In another work unit visit broadcast on the August 6 news, however, the cameras zoomed in on South Korean soldiers in paintings and dioramas depicting brutal atrocities committed against civilians, though mentions and depictions of American troops were again omitted despite their heavy presence at the museum.

 

These production choices track with a focus on South Korea rather than the U.S. as the primary target of Pyongyang’s ire elsewhere in state media in recent weeks, as analysts point to the likely sidelining of Seoul in the negotiating process.

And while KCTV continues to frequently air programs dedicated to exploring the exhibits of the Central House of Class Education in Pyongyang as well as visits there from work units in news segments, these have since March 2018 been focused solely on Japan’s colonization of Korea.

Prior to that time, segments highlighting exhibits within the building of U.S. atrocities during the Korean War were also frequently aired under the same program (“새겨주는 력사의 고발장- 중앙계급교양관을 찾아서”).

But the fact that the Central House of Class Education contains exhibits both on the Japanese as well as U.S. and South Korean alleged atrocities in the separate conflicts also raises the possibility that visitors are still being taken through the sections promoting anti-U.S. sentiment. 

In addition to the museums, NK Pro has also found other examples around the country which show that anti-U.S. propaganda continues to be displayed in other forms.

These include displays of caricatures of American soldiers as targets at small carnival shooting games in Sinuiju and Manpho, and a laminated propaganda poster and news article hanging inside a tram in Pyongyang, depicting a fist smashing U.S. soldiers and the American mainland.

The laminated anti-U.S. article was found inside a tram in the North Korean capital in April, while the shooting game in Manpho was photographed in early summer this year | Photos: NK Pro

Reconciling the two

This reluctance to abandon traditional anti-U.S. rhetoric is both not surprising from a historical perspective and also likely not permanent in the context of current denuclearization talks with the U.S., one expert told NK Pro.

Andray Abrahamian, a Koret fellow at Stanford University, used the example of how the Chinese Communist Party in the 1970s “began to test attitudes or present different portrayals of Americans in certain media, more limited media, before rolling those portrayals out on a bigger scale as they explored rapprochement with the United States.”

“I think we might look to see something similar with North Korea,” Abrahamian said, explaining that a similarly slow process would be necessary because the country’s “base principle is basically resistance to the United States.”

“The whole country is designed with that in mind, and the state justifies every piece of repression, all the limitations that people endure, by the presence of the United States specifically and ‘imperialism’ in general,” he said.

“With 70 years of that, it would be really hard to imagine them undoing that narrative quickly.”

Kim Jong Un inside the Sinchon Museum after the new facilities were finished in 2015, just in time for the July 27 “Day of Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War” holiday marking the end of the Korean War | Photo: KCNA

Abrahamian pointed to recent rare positive messaging about the U.S. President in state media surrounding the Panmunjom meeting in late June as a sign of the possibility to lift public opinion of the U.S. in case of a breakthrough in talks.

Any such change, he said, will likely be “more evident after a deal takes place and as the process of implementing a deal moves on.”

Until then, internal anti-U.S. education conveyed through visits to the Sinchon Museum and other class education centers is likely to persist, while state media propagandists continue to adjust the level of anti-American messaging depending on the circumstances.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: DPRK Today