Fake News in North Korea: Censorship, Propaganda, and the Rewriting of History
In the era of the Trump administration, ‘fake news’ has arisen as a significant concern. What is true? What is fake? These are questions that many Americans now ask of their government and media platforms. In the first amendment of the Constitution, free speech is guaranteed for all Americans. That right is expertly exercised by American citizens and often taken for granted.
On the other side of the matter lies North Korea, where free speech is outlawed and the state tightly controls all forms of media. Citizens of North Korea have virtually no freedom of speech: internet is only accessible by a select number of powerful individuals in Pyongyang, television and radios can only access North Korean-operated stations, and accessing foreign media is illegal and punishable by death or by imprisonment in political prison camps.
Beyond harsh media censorship, North Korea also engages in a constant rewriting of history, dictated by the Kim family and executed by government officials. The foundation for extreme censorship lies in the core North Korean ideology of Juche (“self-reliance”). Juche encourages complete national independence from the outside world, which includes the disregard of foreign media and the creation of a uniquely North Korean history. Ultimately, the intense censorship serves as a protection for the Kim family and their continued survival as dictators.
Article 3 of the North Korean Constitution defines Juche and the purpose it serves:
“The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is guided in its activities by the Juche idea, a world outlook centered on people, a revolutionary ideology for achieving the independence of the masses of people.”
To achieve said independence of the masses, censorship and propaganda begin at a young age. North Korean children learn the history of the three Kim leaders - Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un - starting in preschool. Songs and theater performances tell the stories of the Kim family’s brilliance and describe the Kims as higher beings who have devoted their lives to serving their country.
In Jang Jin Sung’s memoir of his defection from North Korea, Jang tells a well-known North Korean fable of a man whose house was burning down. This man had just enough time to save either his children or the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. He saved the portraits and was regarded a hero.
Censorship and propaganda continues into adult life with the monitoring by neighborhood supervisors. The Inminban are networks of North Korean women who patrol their neighborhoods for criminal activity, which includes any questioning and disparaging of the Kims or of the North Korean state. While cellphones are allowed, they are heavily surveilled by the state.
Within North Korea, there are two main news sources: the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and Rodong Sinmun. Since these news sources exist online, they are difficult to access for the North Korean people. These newspapers primarily are written for foreign onlookers and detail the daily activities of the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Articles contain heavy propaganda and report a “straightforward reflection of Pyongyang’s policy stance”, leaving no room for personal opinions.
Censorship, state-run media, propaganda in schools and in the arts, and surveillance all serve the purpose of controlling the North Korean people, to achieve the desired ‘independence of the masses’ from outside influences. The most startling effort; however, is the rewriting of history.
Historical reshaping became a talking point of international media in the early 2010s, following the release of the memoir Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung. Jang worked in Pyongyang as a propaganda poet and assisted with the rewriting of Kim Jong Il’s biography.
Reshaping began after the Korean War in the 1950s when North Korea was established as its own state. Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea, had his biography rewritten by state officials. Kim Il Sung’s birth conveniently fell on April 15, 1912, the same day the Titanic sunk. His biography opens with the telling of how the world began to change from the moment he was born, starting with Titanic’s demise. The biography served to “solidify a narrative of his [KIS] own unblemished record” from the Korean War and into his time as Great Leader of North Korea.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Kim Jong Il had his past similarly rewritten once he took over as Dear Leader of North Korea in 1994. This process began with the location of his birth. Despite reports that he was born in the Soviet Union, the North Korean state claims that Kim Jong Il was born in a military camp in on Mount Paektu. Given the claims that all three North Korean leaders were born on this mountain, they are referred to as the “Mount Paektu Bloodline”.
Despite being merely a child during the Korean War, his biography tells the story of a young boy at the front lines of battle, learning to conduct military operations with his father. After the fall of the Soviet Union, stories about North Korea’s relationship with the Soviet Union were modified to give the impression that North Korea had been skeptical about the survival of the Soviet state since the very beginning. Along with the rewriting process, Kim Jong Il ordered a “massive purge of libraries” to destroy any unflattering stories of North Korea’s past.
After Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, Kim Jong Un began his reign as Supreme Leader with a purge of over 400 high-level government officials. Unlike his father, who had years of experience in the government before assuming the role of head of state, Kim Jong Il’s death took North Korea by surprise. This forced Kim Jong Un to step up as Supreme Leader having had little experience dealing with his father’s officials. His purging of most of his father’s government was with the intention of proving himself as a strong and legitimate leader.
The most well-known executed official was Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle. Jang and Kim worked together for two years without much issue until late 2013. After constantly disagreeing with the Supreme Leader, Kim decided he had enough. Jang was arrested at a meeting, stood for trial a few days later, and was executed. Rumors said he was “stripped naked and fed to 120 dogs”; however there is no factual basis for this claim. In media coverage of the event, Jang was referred to as “despicable human scum” and after the execution, Rodong Sinmun erased tens of thousands of articles referring to Jang from their online databases, as if he had never existed.
The intense controls on the North Korean media lead one to ask whether North Koreans are convinced of their altered history and of the propaganda. Coverage of North Korea in popular media sources presents the people as being brainwashed by Kim Jong Un. For example, the film The Interview perpetuates some stereotypes of the North Korean people, despite being written as a comedy. The following quote is Jang Jin Sung’s take on this issue:
“North Koreans are people, and they aren’t stupid. In the North Korean system, you have to praise Kim and sing hymns about him and take it seriously, even if you think it’s only a shit narrative. That’s the block, you see? It’s not that people are brainwashed and think he’s god. These are the things that people know, but they don’t dare to challenge.”
There are likely people who believe in the North Korean state and trust the stories they are told. However, there are also likely people who have zero faith in the state. With the rising number of defectors each year, it is clear that more and more North Koreans are aware of the situation they are in and are actively trying to escape.
The severe punishment waiting for North Koreans who attempt escaping is enough to scare someone into staying put. After three failed escape attempts, the defector will be executed along with three generations of their family. The state does not stop with one execution, but they continue to execute the entire close bloodline. This way the state can deter any future attempts by this family to escape from North Korea.
Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done about this issue. North Korea has no incentive to stop their censorship, propaganda, or rewriting of history. It is in their best interest to continue these practices to maintain the intense cult of personality surrounding the Kim family.
Given the outcome of the recent Hanoi summit between North Korea and the United States, the US is in no position to interfere in Kim’s affairs. Relations between North Korea and the US have returned to being hostile and do not show any signs of improving. International actors, like the United Nations, have also used up all their cards in recent attempts to shame North Korea into addressing human rights violations.
The state with the most leverage regarding North Korea is South Korea. President Moon Jae-In ran for president on the platform of reunification as his primary goal. He is positioned well to work bilaterally with North Korea, especially since their recent summit at Panmunjom in April of 2018 was successful. It is up to President Moon to determine the future of inter-peninsula relations. Ultimately, South Korea is the sole government that could potentially improve the freedom of speech in North Korea. However, change is not likely. North Korea has no incentive to loosen their censorship. It will take expert level negotiations and agreements in order for Kim Jong Un to relinquish some control. It is likely that fake news will continue to prevail in North Korea for some time to come.
In looking ahead to a future where the United States, South Korea, and North Korea are working together, the most practical way to go about remedying this situation would be a gradual rollback of censorship. North Koreans have been raised to believe that Americans are their ultimate enemy and that South Koreans are poorer than they are. If either the US or South Korea enter North Korea and immediately expose citizens to the whole truth, North Koreans would not be likely to believe them. Incremental exposure to their true history and contemporary affairs would be the best method of reintegration into an uncensored state.