SEOUL – North Korea has kept the surrounding region on edge in recent weeks primarily by using its weapon of choice in times of warmongering: its state-run news agency.
The Korean Central News Agency, a massive wire service, serves as the primary mouthpiece for the North’s repressive government, lauding upticks in factory production, documenting the arrival of floral baskets for the ruling Kim dynasty — and occasionally warning about possible nuclear strikes on its neighbors.
But the agency also serves a broader purpose, setting the mood for a nation — and changing that mood at the direction of the nation’s leaders.
Analysts and several defectors who have worked in the North Korean media say any message published by KCNA is part of an elaborately coordinated effort that requires much the same work as a screenplay. Although North Korea is popularly portrayed as a loose cannon operated at the whims of young leader Kim Jong Un, those familiar with the country’s media say the messages come from a slow-grinding process that involves dozens of meetings and thousands of people — strategists, storytellers, ideological advisers and journalists.
KCNA is just one of a handful of North Korean news outlets, including radio stations and a newspaper of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, but it is the most influential among them, providing much of the content seen elsewhere.
Its messages are geared toward foreigners and the North’s 24 million people. During the country’s appalling famine in the mid-1990s, when much of North Korea’s economic activity ground to a complete halt, KCNA was one of the few agencies that didn’t miss a beat.
The agency acts as the nation’s public relations and multimedia firm, running news that is indistinguishable from state propaganda. South Korea’s Defense Ministry maintains a team of readers who try to decipher the significance of KCNA’s output, according to an official with the ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details about its intelligence-gathering.
“They don’t hesitate to drop so-called verbal bombshells. But a lot of it is exaggeration for the sake of their own pride,” the official said.
Much of the news agency’s content is mundane, but its employees — numbering more than 2,000, according to some estimates — are not free to churn out content as they please. North Korea’s media rank among the most restricted in the world and are under the absolute control of the ruling elite, the free press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in its most recent report.
But analysts and defectors paint a more complex picture.
Few, if any, of those who work in the North’s media are following direct orders from Kim, the country’s supreme leader. Rather, they are trying to anticipate the sort of content that he would like to see and that would benefit him the most.
In times of rising tensions, KCNA leads the way, delivering key statements for foreign consumption. Two decades ago, a previous high point for strained relations on the Korean Peninsula, reporters and editors at the agency received a memo from the Propaganda and Agitation Department, the high-level body of the Korean Workers’ Party that guides and censors the North’s news, said Chang Hae Song, a defector who worked at KCNA from 1976 to 1996.
The memo called on KCNA reporters to increase their criticism of the United States and ordered television and radio broadcasters to raise their voices on air. It also suggested that the state TV station, in its intermittent musical interludes, use selections that would help create a “warlike atmosphere.”
“After those instructions came out, we’d brainstorm about ways” to raise the tensions, Chang recalled. “Our ideas would go back to the propaganda department for approval.”
In addition, Chang said, reports were screened during six levels of editing and censorship before publication. Every Thursday, a bundle of prepared reports would be sent to then-leader Kim Jong Il, he explained.
“But for some cases of emergency reporting, we could write it and the story would be published more quickly,” although it would still go through several layers of scrutiny, Chang said.
Thus, North Korea’s media tend to respond slowly to outside events.
After tightened sanctions were imposed on the country by the U.N. Security Council earlier this year for conducting a third nuclear test, Pyongyang waited more than a day to publish its retaliatory announcement — a threat of more prohibited nuclear tests and missile launches. When South Korea last week set a 26-hour window for the North to accept an offer for dialogue, Pyongyang responded — by rejecting the proposal — hours after the deadline.
“We have to keep in mind that North Korea’s propaganda apparatus responds much more slowly to current events than our own media do,” said Brian Myers, a specialist in Pyongyang’s propaganda at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. “This is not just due to logistical and technological problems but also due to the rigorous censorship process that everything has to go through. . . . Even the most innocuous events tend to be reported only days later.”
For years, those who wrote the North’s propaganda had a relatively easy job because they never had to contend with “other visions of reality,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar at Seoul’s Kookmin University, wrote in his 2007 book, “North of the DMZ,” referring to the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
But that is slowly changing as more foreign media push illegally into North Korea. Cross-border traders smuggle in DVDs and foreign radios from China that North Koreans watch or listen to despite the risk of harsh punishment. A 2012 study of defectors commissioned by the U.S. State Department found that one-fourth of North Koreans have accessed foreign radio and that nearly half have watched foreign DVDs. Among the main motivations are curiosity and boredom.
Pyongyang’s media churns out “the same pattern and content almost every day,” said Kim Cheol Hoon, a North Korean defector who worked as a regional radio broadcaster between 1974 and 1994. “It was almost boring, to be honest.”
Analysts say KCNA and other state-run media outlets have recently moved toward hewing more closely to facts — albeit selectively.
Just over a decade ago, newspapers in the North told tales of South Korea’s decrepit economy. Though they no longer do, they emphasize that defectors tend to lead difficult lives south of the DMZ.
As one of those defectors, Kim spends her nights working for a Seoul-based radio station whose programs can be heard in North Korea. The show runs from midnight to 2 a.m. — the hours when North Koreans have the best chance of listening to foreign content without being caught.
Kim tries to be straightforward, covering subjects ranging from the weather to China’s military budget. But sometimes she sneaks in information designed to make her listeners in the North think, by talking about the corruption of the ruling Kim family and the fall of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East.
“They don’t know what is happening in their own country,” Kim said, “because the news they get isn’t valuable.”