Technology Linking: The DPRK’s “Quiet Opening”

By | October 26, 2012 | No Comments

Arise! A signal from North Korea of the 1970s, transmitted via digital technology in Beijing, April 2012 — Image and story via China Radio International

Jimin Lee demonstrates her mastery of the audiovisual realm by analyzing the recent visit of China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (国家广播电影电视总局 ) to Pyongyang.  As an agency whose explicit mandate embraces the propagation of China’s official line and soft power via the electromagnetic spectrum, the SARFT has tremendous technological tools at its disposal with which to broadcast, receive, and whatever else one wishes to do with an amalgamation of technology and culture.  Having visited Russia first, once they arrived in Pyongyang, the SARFT donated equipment and engaged in various exchanges which resulted in almost instantaneous substantive and stylistic changes to KCNA broadcasts. These Chinese-enabled changes are likely passive reflections of dynamics we in the West are still not privy to, yet they also have the effect of actively puncturing an hermetically sealed North Korea. — Roger Cavazos, Coordinator 

Technology Linking, String Crossing: The DPRK’s ‘Quiet Opening’

by Jimin Lee

After the respective collapse of market experiments in 2002 and devastating currency devaluation in 2009, the Chinese state expressed its disappointment in North Korea’s abortive attempts at reform.  In the digital realm, change has not been so dramatic, but it is also subject to similar paranoid pressures that halt advancing measures for fear they will result in too much opening-up, too fast.

If Beijing has long pressed Pyongyang to enact reforms similar to Deng’s first steps toward a market economy, the Chinese government is also seeking to see a North Korean modernization in information technology.

With the help of China — North Korea’s sole military ally — recent change occurred with the state news agency of North Korea, Korean Central News Agency. China’s state TV broadcast agency donated 5 million yuan (~US$800,000) of Japanese-made equipment to North Korea Central Television. [1]

Led by SARFT’s chairman Li Wei (李伟), China and North Korea agreed to “…strengthen exchanges and cooperation of the broadcast television, propaganda and ideological workers between the two countries to work hard to make a greater contribution to promote the China-DPRK traditional friendship between the older generation of revolutionaries.”

The English-language North Korea report was as follows:

Pyongyang, September 26 (KCNA) — The Chinese Central TV donated equipment to the Central Broadcasting Committee of Korea. 
A donating ceremony took place here on Tuesday. 
Present there were Ri Chol (Li Zhe, 李哲), first vice-chairman of the Central Broadcasting Committee of Korea, officials concerned, a delegation of the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television led by Vice-Minister Li Wei, Chinese Ambassador to the DPRK Liu Hongcai and embassy officials.
 Speeches were made at the ceremony. 
The participants looked round the donated equipment.)

Interestingly enough, the Xinhua report on the same event focused on the remarks by Yang Hyong-sop, among the most senior and significant of North Korean cadre who seems to have been chosen as one of the regime’s point-men when it comes to navigating cultural waters with the Chinese Embassy. The Chinese report also indicates how the North Koreans sought to frame the assistance: not as a means of opening up North Korea, but as an explicit counterpoint to American sanctions.  (Translation of the original Chinese by Adam Cathcart.)  

 新华社平壤9月26日电(记者杜白羽 曾涛)朝鲜最高人民会议常任委员会副委员长杨亨燮26日会见来访的由中国国家广播电影电视总局副局长李伟率领的中国国家广电总局代表团。Xinhua, Pyongyang, September 26 (Report by Bai Xi and Ceng Tao).  Yang Hyong-sop, the Vice-Chair of North Korea’s Supreme People’s People’s Assembly, met the visiting delegation today from Chinese SARFT led by Vice-Chair Li Wei.

杨亨燮对中国国家广电总局赠与朝鲜先进设备表示感谢。他说,众所周知,美国对于朝鲜的严密封锁使朝鲜不能引进先进的技术设备,中国的帮助对朝鲜的发展非常重要。相信代表团此访将巩固和加强朝中两国文化领域的交流合作。Yang Hyong-sop stated his gratitude to SARFT…He said, “Everybody knows that the United States has placed very strong restrictions on the DPRK which have made our technical advancement impossible, [so] China’s aid to the DPRK’s development is extremely important.  The arrival of the delegation will consolidate and strengthen the exchange and cooperation between DPRK and China’s two leading cultures.” (Emphasis added.)

李伟说,代表团此访与朝鲜广电委进行了深入会谈,双方计划今后在技术人员培训、电视剧目提供等方面加强合作,为促进中朝两国的多领域友好往来作出贡献。Li Wei said, “The delegation had a deep dialogue with the North Korean Broadcasting committee, and that both sides planned to have more technicians trained from now on, stronger cooperation in using/making television series and other fields, and that this would be create a great advancement in the abundant friendship between the two countries.

中国驻朝鲜大使刘洪才参加了会见。China’s Ambassador to the DPRK, Liu Hongcai, participated in the event.

25日,中国国家广电总局代表团在朝鲜中央电视台向朝鲜广电委赠送了网络制作播出系统。On September 25, the Chinese SARFT delegation presented a digital networked broadcast system to the DPRK Broadcast Committee.

On September 27, Yang would continue the love for China by chairing the final awards ceremony for the Pyongyang Film Festival, for which what appears to be a few hundred foreigners made the trek to Pyongyang. (Video here.)

Preaching the Gospel of Technology at the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang, September 26, 2012

Changes at Korean Central Television |  The station is now experiencing a dramatic makeover in terms of its appearances. The makeover includes a new news desk and  backdrop, improved graphics and a more modern look in opening the show, dialogue between the anchors, and a wider range of facial expressions. The silicon facelift was not sudden, but the graphics and designs are quite a surprise compared to the previous looks.

The opening scene of the news now includes italicized font, a symbol  pops from the side as though indicating horizontal change vice change from below – or above.  The computer-generated backdrop in the evening news is fully digitized and thus allowing for depictions of as much reality or fantasy allowable by artistic content and political expediency. Before the changes, the news bulletins were very much vintage 1970 presentation style oft seen in many poorer countries.

KCNA, likely thanks to Chinese assistance, prodding or preternatural stubbornness joined  the convention of a graphic appearing above the anchor’s right or left shoulder to accompany the story. When the report begins, the graphic moves forward to fill the screen. These changes may seem minor, but represent a “great leap forward” in presentation style. Having the two news anchors (man and woman perhaps a nod to “holding up half the sky”) sitting next to each other and taking turns reporting is unusual for the North Korean audience, but shows changes in delivery and is almost like a visual metaphor for an increased national dialogue; maybe not.

The North Korean news report for October 25 provides a few examples of the new style.  The content, however, remains rather similar; a top story entails a Kim Jong Suk mosaic: 

North Korea Tech and Martyn Williams provide more analysis and images of the changed looks of the KCNA:

As shown in the picture of the control room above, there are three Sony MPEG IMX video players, each worth about US$40,000. Perhaps this was a small positive gesture to Japan, but was more likely a result of pure technocratic considerations.  There’s a lot of other expensive broadcasting gear, flat screens, and other manufacturers bearing the Sony badge (Sony is the biggest manufacturer of broadcasting gear and it is obviously popular worldwide).  These new equipment probably make at least some of the station high-definition capable, and it definitely signals we may see the first HD images from North Korea’s state TV very soon. This news operation was not possible before when China Central Television went behind the scenes.  KCNA is definitely prepared to present “Pretty Only, Please.”

North Koreans who are accustomed to a certain style of news have no doubt noticed the changes, but as far as is known, there was no explanation of the changes given to the North Korean populace.  The average North Korean may read the changes in style and substance as a leading indicator of changes.  However, if there’s anything most people learn quickly in a controlled environment, it’s to wait for the lagging indicators of change to modify behavior lest one act too early and be punished.

Captive mixed audience at SARFT event in Beijing, April 11, 2012 | Image via CRI


[1] It bears noting that the access that China has to KCNA is not entirely the design or the desire of the Chinese side.  The North Koreans have also set up ties between KCNA and AP, and KCNA and Itar-TASS in Russia.  Just as American diplomats state explicitly that they welcome Chinese investment in sensitive zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese appear to be glad to see North Korea interact with such agencies so long as they drive the modernizing project forward in Pyongyang.


No Comments

  1. Sweet! The stylistic changes are nice, but when am I going to get KCTV on my Roku? I miss my live-streaming KCTV over the internet! only gives me some capitalist Home Shopping Network infomercials, when it’s not spewing out 남조선 괴뢰 YTN news. And yes, that’s correct: I’d rather be staring at KCTV testcards ( than watching the Home Shopping Network.

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