Decoding N. Korea's mindset


KCNA: Bizarre news releases are short on information, but reveal much about the government's thinking.

March 23, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - The world has one place to turn when trying to decipher what the isolated North Korean regime is thinking during the standoff on the Korean peninsula: Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency, KCNA.

The only problem is, KCNA propaganda is just about as cryptic as the regime itself.

Reading KCNA news releases is like peering into a kaleidoscope of the bizarre. In the past week alone, KCNA has admonished Japan to "mind its own business" in the current confrontation, boasted of the impoverished regime's "powerful economy" and accused the United States of intending to "unleash a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula at any cost."

And those are just the statements that actually make sense. The other day, KCNA relayed an inscrutable "anecdote about Kim Jong Il" from 1976, during another rise in tensions with the United States, when he urged that even during war, "merry sounds of singing" should continue at a military rest center. Then, perhaps in expectation of war, the agency lauded a North Korean distillery's liquor for "its marvelous anti-radioactivity and anti-cancer effects."

"If you're from a democracy and you read this stuff, you just think to yourself, they're crazy," says Scott Snyder, Korea representative for the U.S.-backed Asia Foundation and author of Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior.

"It's very easy to misinterpret it."

That poses a peculiar challenge during the confrontation over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The KCNA releases, available in English on the Internet at, are easy fodder for newspaper headlines, but analysts and diplomats say KCNA's flair for the melodramatic is part of Pyongyang's uniquely calculated brand of diplomacy.

"It is easy to look at only the volatile words that come out of North Korea, so we must be careful and understand precisely the messages that lie between the lines," says Dong Yong Seung, chief researcher for the North Korea Research Team at Samsung Corp. in Seoul. "The South Korean government monitors the KCNA reports very carefully."

The Korean Central News Agency has been an essential component of the Kim dynasty's rule in the North from before the beginning. Founding leader Kim Il Sung created the agency in December 1946, before the formal establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as a propaganda tool for his Worker's Party of Korea and his government-in-the-making.

The agency has served both as the reclusive leadership's voice to the outside world and as a provider for domestic state broadcasts and for the state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun - the only media the people of North Korea are allowed to read, hear or see. All foreign broadcasts into the country are jammed. Over the years, the KCNA has regularly produced accounts about the accomplishments of the North Korean people and their leaders, Kim Jong Il and his late father, who, despite being dead, is still president of the country.

Today, the domestic and external messages of the KCNA reflect a leadership in firm ideological control of the nation's 22 million people, determined to hold its ground against the United States - and, experts say, increasingly desperate to talk.

Domestically, the agency's propaganda castigates American "aggressors" and extols Kim Jong Il, national unity and a cultlike philosophy called Juche, which confers almost divine status on the Kim family. Perhaps most prominently, the propaganda praises Kim's army-based policy, which justifies the impoverished country's heavy investment in the military as essential to the nation's survival.

"The Korean people can survive without sugar but not without bullets," Rodong Sinmun declared in January, in an article translated by KCNA into English for a general audience.

External KCNA releases project much the same rhetoric, albeit selected and tweaked for audiences in South Korea, the region and the United States. The agency promotes pan-Korean unity or sympathizes with anti-American protests in Seoul in an effort to drive a wedge between South Korea and America. Historically despised Japan is a frequent target for rhetorical abuse.

"The Japanese authorities should not meddle in the matters that have nothing to do with them," the KCNA said recently, criticizing Japan for siding with the United States and for refusing to improve relations with Pyongyang. Japan's position, the agency said, "is as foolish an act as lifting a rock only to drop it on one's own toes."

During the current standoff, the KCNA regularly issues breathless accusations of a U.S. invasion or military strike and of a second Korean War - followed by increasingly urgent calls for talks and a non-aggression treaty. The KCNA said in another typical release that the United States had "openly disclosed its intention to launch a war" and that "nuclear war may break out at any moment."

Analysts argue that such rhetoric is significant not so much for its doomsday scenarios as for the mood and mindset it reveals.

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