Speculation has been mounting over recent weeks about the whereabouts of Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un. With multiple rumours about his death circulating, and articles running-down the likely successors to the throne, I was curious to see what was going on.
After finding a live stream of Korean Central Television, the state-owned television service, I realised I had not only found a possible way to find out news about Kim’s whereabouts and actives, but an insight into the lives of North Korean people. Obviously, I did not expect to see the truth from a channel which is essentially the government’s main means of disseminating propaganda, but it could give me an idea how North Koreans think of the wider world beyond their borders. So between April 28 and May 5, I watched one hour of Korean Central Television each day from the 5pm bulletin onwards.
Since I don’t speak Korean, what I could learn was limited to educated guesses and copying subtitles into a translator. However, I wasn’t so much looking to understand every story, but to gain a feeling for the sort of media the North Korean government exposes its people to.
What I found was different to what I had expected in more ways than one.
The Korean Central News Agency (KNCA) is the only legal source of news for North Koreans, and one of the few parts of the state propaganda engine foreigners are aware of. Its oft-parodied newsreaders project their voices as if delivering speeches to a theatre, sometimes theatrically. There’s a strange dissonance between their excited deliveries and stiff deportments.
Every 5pm bulletin starts with five minutes dedicated to the Kims, in some form. While watching North Korean news, I saw items on the publication of a book about Kim Il-sung, correspondence between Kim Jong-un and President Assad of Syria, and Kim Jong-un being presented with a medal by Putin to commemorate the end of the Second World War.
News about the Kim family is always relayed by a woman in a pink hanbok (traditional dress) who is clearly modelled in the form of Ri Chun-hee, the legendary “Pink Lady”. However, she only reports on the most important news.
Despite the unique presentation, most of the news is actually incredibly mundane: reports from collective farms, mines and factories about industrial quotas being met and surpassed. Naturally, whenever they interview one of these workers, they’re full of praise for Kim Jong-un, red badges pinned over their hearts. These workers look very different to the pale-skinned, plump-faced newsreaders or prim teachers in traditional dress who don’t have a hair out of place: their skin tanned brown from exposure and worn by the wind, their faces gaunt from memories of hunger. They may live in the same country as the Pyongyangites, but they clearly inhabit radically different worlds.
There was no obvious mention of COVID-19 (which I could identify as a non-Korean speaker) in the 5pm bulletin. The only time a hospital was shown, it was in an item about how beautiful the gardens looked now spring was arriving and the Kimjongilias and Kimilsunglias were in bloom. Although the country has not reported any cases (as of time of publishing), factory workers, pedestrians and students sitting in classrooms are all shown wearing either surgical or cloth face masks. However, COVID-19 is covered in the 8pm bulletin with a particular emphasis on how badly the United States is suffering under the pandemic.
Kim Jong-un finally reappeared on May Day – May 1 – to open a fertiliser factory in Sunchon after a three week absence from the headlines. Naturally for such an important event, Ri Chun-hee (the Pink Lady) fronted the story with her trademark booming voice.
The entire bulletin was dedicated to footage of Kim walking around the facility, smoking, pointing at machinery and giving his “on the spot guidance” while a circle of men take diligent notes. Kim’s younger sister and rumoured successor Kim Yo-yong was by her brother’s side on the daïs, handing him the scissors as he cut the opening ribbon as enormous crowds cheered on. British journalist Alistair Coleman reckons the sound of the crowd was dubbed in post production. His evidence is compelling.
Clearly social distancing measures are not in place in North Korea. But everyone is wearing a mask, although not everybody wears it over their nose.
When he visited North Korea for a documentary, Sir Michael Palin commented that the lack of advertising may be the strangest thing about the capital. While North Korean TV doesn’t have any ad-breaks, that’s not to say that products aren’t promoted. It just happens a little differently.
Maybe it’s just because I’m approaching this with my experiences of living in a capitalist system, but whenever I saw a tour of a factory where the directors proudly showed-off their products and photographs of Kim Jong-un admiring them, I couldn’t help but feel that these products were being actively promoted.
Nowhere was this more obvious than a five minute programme which aired after the daily children’s cartoon. What started as a surreal conversation between a badly 3D animated question mark at exclamation ask (I know) turned out to be extolling the virtues of a series of textbooks for primary school children. Textbooks endorsed by Kim Jon-un himself, nonetheless, as we’re told through footage of him flicking through its pastel-toned pages while nodding with approval. This may not resemble the adverts that have become the background music to our daily lives, but if I was a North Korean mother who saw that the Supreme Leader had endorsed a series of teaching materials, I would immediately go and buy a copy. That is, after all, what good advertising is supposed to do.
Scattered between different shows are short performances by musicians or dancers. If you’ve ever been to North Korea or watched a travelvlog by somebody who has, you’ll be familiar with performances of North Korean Children skipping across a stage or performing with robotic synchronism in brightly coloured hanbok. It’s a bit creepy, the way their faces are fixed in these unmoving smiles, almost like they’re wearing masks. Sometimes, you have to admire the musical talent, but there’s still something off about it.
A curious feature of North Korean television are the frequent music videos after the day’s edition of the Ridong Simmun newspaper. Thankfully, they all have the lyrics at the bottom (karaoke is a popular activity in the Koreas), which is a gift to me as I can copy the hangul symbols into a translator.
As expected, these music videos are all patriotic in nature, supposed to inspire loyalty and faith in the Kim regime with lyrics such as “socialism is our happiness). Normally, the music is accompanied with sweeping landscapes (North Korea has some beautiful vistas), happy citizens living carefree lives, and workers or soldiers who are working hard and ready to fight.
There’s something kitsch about these music videos: staged-looking shots of factory workers raising their fists defiantly or soldiers running through the snow waiving enormous red banners may be intended to project North Korea as an unstoppable force (while their army has high rates of starting), but are difficult to take seriously with the jaunty “Ppongjjak” (literally “trot”) music playing over the top. The rocket launch at the end of this particular video is something Freud would have taken particular interest in.
North Korean children’s programmes have developed a reputation for being strangely violent and filled with propaganda. I was already familiar with “Squirrel and Hedgehog”, in which the fluffy critters of Flower Valley (North Korea) fight to protect their home from the evil weasels, rats and wolves (Japanese, South Koreans and Americans, respectively). It’s blatant propaganda and surprisingly mature and surprisingly violent for its target audience: characters are beaten up, tortured and threatened with execution. It’s also a surprisingly engaging espionage thriller.
Nothing I saw was as memorable as that, nor as obviously strange beyond the usual realm of kid’s TV. However, identifying themes or imagery which could be construed as propaganda is an interesting exercise. One animation about a preschool-aged boy included a storyline about the importance of dental hygiene. That doesn’t sound notable, except that the offending bacteria are depicted as a marauding Japanese-coded army, rampaging along the little boy’s teeth until his kindly dentist zaps them with toothpaste. The bad 3D animation was certainly bad enough to scare me into flossing.
Not all North Korean animations are of bad quality. One which was pleasant to watch was a stop-motion animation about a couple of boys living in a medieval Korean village with their father (I have no idea if they even had a mother). Mysterious lumps are growing on the necks of men in the village (which is humorous if you know about Kim Il-sung’s goitre), including the father and a thief caught stealing pears from the family’s tree. Upon consultation with the village elders, the father treks off to the mountains where he finds the spirits which are supposed to be able to cure him. These spirits reminded me of the gargoyles from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. They teased the father and tempted him with gold as a test of character. Being pure-hearted, the father turned down the treasure, and was cured. Contrast that with the thief who, after trying to escape with the treasure, was cursed with more lumps growing on his neck. One can interpret this as a warning against the material temptations of capitalism, where the humble father is a model North Korean citizen who refused temptation.
Though, of course, I could be over-interpreting everything I’ve written. Sometimes, an army of bacteria drilling holes in teeth, a man with a strangely pulsating lump on his neck, or a squirrel with a red star on his cap karate-kicking a wolf in a GI helmet is just that.
I had heard lurid tales of what North Korean TV was like, so I was surprised by how mundane it was.Often, it felt like an uncanny-valley facsimile of media I was familiar with albeit it dated in both execution and fashion. Obviously, I missed out on a lot because of details because I was reliant on context clues and translating text at the bottom of the screen. No hidden meanings included.
KCNA Watch hosts a livestream of Korean Central Television, along with a video archive and a host of translated articles from North Korean newspapers and websites. These deserve to be covered in another article in their own right.