Changing of the Guard: North Korea’s State-controlled News Entertainment

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NANJING–In North Korean TV news, possibly the most strictly controlled journalistic entities in the world, content is not merely censored but carefully crafted and even invented. When North Korea played Brazil in the 2010 World Cup, the Korean Central Television (KCTV), the only official source of television news for North Koreans, jubilantly announced that their “glorious warriors” had defeated Brazil in a stunning victory which shocked the world. They did not in reality, North Korea lost 2-1 against Brazil.

In the totalitarian state, television media has long been one of the most important tools used by the regime to spread propaganda and maintain control on public information. News is usually presented by one grim-faced anchor, projecting the regime’s absolute authority and unflappable defiance with the fervent rhetoric and soaring cadence we have come to associate with North Korean news. Phrases such as “American imperialist dogs” or “we will turn Seoul into a sea of fire” have become the staple catchphrases in the North Korean newsroom. There are no guests, no correspondents reporting in from the scene, no fancy graphics or music. The anchor alone is tasked with delivering serious official information coming straight from the regime, and there is little to no regard for entertainment or production value.

No one better embodies the North Korean television news than Chun Hee Rhee, widely known as “North Korea’s Mouthpiece”. Rhee is something of an anomaly even by North Korea’s standards. Born in 1943, Rhee is now 76; the retirement age for women by North Korean law is 55. Rhee’s continuous presence in the North Korean television news is a testament to her value and status as the most respected newscaster in the country’s history. Trusted by both the people and the regime, Rhee has been the central figure in the Korea Central News Agency since the time of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, father to Kim Jung Il, and grandfather to Kim Jung Un.

Source: Wikimedia Commons;

Rhee’s ability to capture the defiant spirit of North Korea has made her powerful voice famous worldwide. There is a good chance that anyone who follows news events surrounding North Korea has heard Rhee’s distinctive voice. As “North Korea’s Mouthpiece”, Rhee’s words are not only aimed at North Korean viewers but also at the rest of the world; North Korea provokes, threatens, and taunts the international community through her voice.

For over forty years, she has delivered news on North Korea’s most momentous events: it was Rhee who announced the deaths of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, it was Rhee who declared that North Korea had successfully conducted its first nuclear test (and every subsequent test since), and it was Rhee who was called upon to tell the world about all those missile launches. So it was a surprise when Rhee was not on the anchor seat to announce the latest missile launch last month.

It is true that Rhee’s appearances became increasingly rare around 2013, only appearing for the most important news events. This in turn sparked rumors of Rhee’s failing health and final retirement. However, Rhee resurfaced in January of 2016 to deliver the news of the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test. At the time, South Korean media outlets claimed that Kim Jung Un called on Rhee Chun Hee to be the voice of his regime because her presence would show continuity and add credibility to his new leadership. Rhee’s unprecedented absence in the March missile launch may signal an end of an era, but South Korean news agencies have picked up on a new trend in the North Korean news media which could perhaps be even more remarkable than Rhee’s disappearance.

According to South Korean news, the KCTV news agency has recently launched a series of news programs in an unexpected departure from the traditional one-anchor North Korean news. In this new segment, the camera follows a young and cheerful news reporter to various locations around North Korea. The journey often starts from the presenter’s own home, where he talks to the viewer as he gets ready for work. When the reporter arrives at a location, he engages with regular people in natural conversations, asking questions about their life or eliciting opinions on current events. Meanwhile, upbeat music and colorful captions punctuate his playful questions and commentary. In one such scene, the announcer stands in front of a mirror adjusting his tie and hair, jokingly admiring how good he looks in his new suit.

The segment showcases locations such as a solar energy research center, a children’s hospital, a college campus, or a shoe factory; in every location, the reporter’s discussion with “regular people” take on a positive and hopeful tone, and they focus on the North Korean people’s achievements and stories of success. Although it is obvious that these “random encounter” scenes are staged, the informality of the format, the sleek visual and sound effects, and the overall playfulness of this new type of television programming, stands in such stark contrast to the traditional North Korean news that it has caused a heated discussion among observers as to its meaning and purpose.


Source: Wikimedia Commons;

Some South Korean news agencies speculate that the lighter tone and more entertaining news programs in the North Korean media is in response to the pressures of South Korean soft power. South Korean psychological warfare currently includes the spread of South Korean media to the North in the form of radio broadcasts or by sending wireless network signals across the border. Even though the internet is outlawed for most North Koreans, smuggled smartphones and tablet computers can pick up internet services coming from across the South Korean border. The Chinese border with North Korea is another channel by which South Korean media is smuggled in, and North Koreans have long been illegally watching South Korean TV shows, movies, and music videos, sometimes even risking their own lives to do so.

It may be the case that as more North Koreans become exposed to higher quality entertainment, the traditional North Korean media began to lose some of its appeal to the public. The new trend of “news entertainment” may be an uncharacteristic attempt by the North Korean authorities to compete for the attention of its people, a necessary response to the changing tastes and expectations of the North Koreans. This would also explain why the subject matter of the new programs deal almost exclusively with eye-catching technologies and stories of prosperity within North Korea.

Despite its best efforts to sequester its people from outside information, many North Koreans, especially those who live in cities, are now aware of the wealth and prosperity of the South. In an interview filmed for a documentary which aired on the national South Korean TV station KBS, one North Korean defector who now resides in Seoul said that, “no one [in North Korea] still believes that we live in the richest country in the world. Maybe we believed it before, but not anymore. We all know that we live like dogs”.

At first glance, the changing trend in the North Korean TV news programming may seem interesting at best but ultimately inconsequential. However, this may only be a symptom of something much more serious, a sign of trouble brewing under the surface in North Korean society. Even as Kim Jung Un continues to violate the international order with a show of military strength, there are signs of internal forces which could threaten his hold on power. According to Russian news outlets, Kim Jong Un has recently ordered approximately 600,000 people to be evacuated from Pyongyang immediately, around 25 percent of the city’s entire population.

The purpose of the evacuation is ostensibly to make room for people in the capital’s bomb shelters in light of the rising tensions with the US, but the move is also seen as a swift and convenient way to cleanse the capital of potential threats to the regime; official reports on the evacuation claim that people removed from the city include illegal distributors of South Korean media and criminals suspected of fomenting dissent against the regime.

For most of its existence, North Korea has been a very difficult place for foreign intelligence agencies to gather reliable information. Former CIA director Robert Gates once described North Korea as “without parallel the toughest intelligence target in the world”. Even with the advent of cyber technologies and the emergence of signals intelligence as a primary means of collecting data worldwide, North Korea has been able to avoid the gaze of the intelligence community because almost none of its citizens own computers or mobile devices.

However, there are finally some signs of cracks forming in the impenetrable shell of North Korea; glimpses of foreign ideologies and realities, through new media channels, are creeping into North Korean society. Despite the continued efforts by the Kim regime to misinform and repress its people, it would seem that K-pop and K-dramas are causing a stir where diplomacy and military force have failed.

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