WASHINGTON – The scribes at North Korea’s official news agency have long elevated hyperbole into an art form, but even by their high standards, last week’s pronouncement was something special.
Here is a typical sentence from the Korean Central News Agency’s release announcing the execution of Jang Song Thaek, leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle:
“Despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.”
The phrase “thrice-cursed acts of treachery” turns out to be a common one in official North Korean news releases, suggesting that the propagandists are driven more by time-honored procedure than by passion.
The reclusive state’s propaganda is well known for its permanent pose of righteous outrage, for its odd proclivity for piling on metaphors and colloquialisms and for language so wordy and over-the-top that it verges on self-parody. But there is a certain internal logic to the official declarations, despite their apparent absurdity, according to B.R. Myers, author of “The Cleanest Race,” a groundbreaking 2010 study of the North’s propaganda.
Beneath the flowery language, Myers argues, is a state ideology so simple it can be summarized in a single sentence: “The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”
That ideology helps explain the sense of victimhood and grievance that seems to drive so much of the outrage voiced by the KCNA.
Consider this line from an Aug. 30 release condemning Western sanctions that blocked North Korea from importing Swiss ski lifts:
“This is an intolerable mockery of the social system and the people of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.”
In the state media’s view, the North Korean state and people are engaged in a high-stakes drama meant to enlist every citizen, unifying them against their enemies and imbuing their lives with a sense of great purpose that just happens to demand absolute loyalty.
What the media really excel at is firing off threats and insults. The North’s military is far too weak to survive an actual war, but no one wages verbal war like the KCNA.
“Let Us Cut Off Windpipes of the Lee Myung Bak-led Swarm of Rats,” declared an April 23 headline, one of many threatening the former South Korean president from as far back as 2008. Pledging to cut windpipes is something of a North Korean specialty.
So is threatening to turn various locales into “seas of fire.”