Press Conference as Discursive Battleground: Pyongyang’s Evolving “Double Defector” Propaganda

By | June 09, 2013 | No Comments

The spacious living room where all is revealed | image: Korean Central Television screen capture

The spacious living room where all is revealed as per the script. | Image: Korean Central Television screen capture

With the recent repatriation of nine young North Koreans from Laos, the defector issue is once again highly politicized. Human rights groups go on the legal (and discursive) offensive to have defectors in China recognized as “refugees” rather than “economic migrants.” In California, it seemed likely that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was pressured by the US to revisit China’s policy on refoulement of North Korean refugees. Refugee policy is bound to be a key agenda item on South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s trip to Beijing on June 27-30Against this encirclement, Pyongyang has mounted its own counter-offensive in an effort to redefine the defector narrative completely. By using press conferences by “redefectors” to the DPRK as domestic propaganda, the North portrays life in the capitalist South as Thomas Hobbes would the state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In the first installment of “Pyongyang’s Evolving ‘Double Defector’ Propaganda,” Brian Gleason outlined the emergence of the double defector propaganda trope. In this second and final installment, Gleason deconstructs the motivations, symbolism, and significance of double defector press conferences. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Press Conference as Discursive Battleground: Pyongyang’s Evolving “Double Defector” Propaganda

by Brian Gleason

Double Defectors and Press Conferences: Pyongyang’s Evolving Strategy | In addition to the consistent themes emphasized in each successive redefection, Pyongyang’s propaganda department has recently expanded the scope of its press conference strategy to incorporate other nefarious influences and threats. The most recent double defector press conference (North Korean television coverage here) featured Kang Kyong-suk (60), Kim Kyong-ok (41), and “serial” redefector Lee Hyeok-chul (26), who reportedly returned to North Korea for the fourth time on April 3 by stealing a fishing boat on Yeonpyeong Island and somehow slipping past the South’s radar. Notwithstanding that Lee visibly forgets his lines multiple times during the press conference, his testimony is full of symbolism.

Supposedly, Lee’s rich elder brother, Lee Sang-chol—who runs a car company in South Korea and owns several cars himself—convinced Lee to defect to the South, only to quickly betray him. The older brother supposedly left Lee Hyeok-chul to sleep in a measly church dormitory while greedily demanding part of his government welfare check as compensation for helping to bring him to South Korea. Here, the elder brother, who should have put family first and look out for his younger sibling, selfishly betrayed his brother in the Machiavellian South.

Covering All Bases: North Korea’s Propaganda Strategy | The themes implicit in this tale of family betrayal are neither unique nor new: No story—real or contrived—or corner of Korean culture is safe from utilization for Pyongyang’s propaganda purposes. Notably, though no explicit reference is made, Lee Hyeok-chul’s story resembles the popular Chosun-era fairy tale (동화) of two brothers, Heungbu and Nolbu (흥부와 놀부). The younger brother, Heungbu, is kind, obedient and filially pious, never betraying the Confucian family hierarchy. Nolbu, the older brother, is selfish and cruel; instead of showing empathy and care for his younger brother, he abuses him. After the death of their parents, Nolbu kicks Heungbu and his family out of the house, greedily keeping the father’s assets for himself and ignoring the younger brother’s pleas for help. However, though the younger brother struggles to get by at first, it is the older brother who ends up begging the younger brother for forgiveness and assistance after finally falling victim to his own greed. Heungbu, being the noble and respectful younger brother, forgives his elder brother of his selfish and cruel behavior and takes him into his home.

Heungbu’s family out in the dark and broken, like many families in a cutthroat capitalist society, according to Pyongyang. | Screenshot from Hangul Animation’s retelling of Heungbu and Nolbu.

Pyongyang’s evolving strategy involves vilifying North Korean refugees in the South as Heungbu-like figures: selfish, greedy, untrustworthy, and thoroughly corrupted by South Korean society. As in the story, though, Pyongyang’s propaganda artists leave the door to redemption open: If you redefect, you will be well received, press conference and all.

Meanwhile, whether Heungbu or Nolbu, another key message is that all North Koreans must beware of evil South Koreans seeking to influence familial destinies. Lee Hyeok-chul’s brother was supposedly lured to the South with the help of pastor Chon Ki-won from Durihana (두리하나 선교회), a Seoul-based Christian organization that seeks to help North Korean escapees resettle in a safe place.

In light of Kenneth Bae’s arrest and recent imprisonment as an alleged Christian missionary spy who planned to carry out a destabilization operation codenamed “Operation Jericho,” the fact that Lee specifically identified the Durihana Mission pastor as a deceptive agent is a clear message to the North Korean people: Christian missionaries in particular cannot be trusted. It is also a clear warning to Christian missionaries that they are now firmly in Pyongyang’s crosshairs.

Even as heavy-handed warnings about missionaries continue, North Korea’s propagandists have demonstrated a keen ability to tailor their criticisms and propaganda to correspond with actual news and events in the South. In Lee Hyeok-chul’s testimony, he claimed that North Korean refugees questioned by the South Korean authorities at the Joint Interrogation Center were insulted and tortured. Though this seems highly unlikely, the timing was perfect: The story gained credence from the fact that the South Korean media reported on a April 27 press conference featuring the sister of the alleged North Korean spy (surnamed Yoo), who was arrested for espionage in January. Yoo’s sister claimed that while she was being questioned at the Joint Interrogation Center, she was subjected to physical abuse, sleep deprivation, and other violations of South Korean law.

Furthermore, as I mentioned in my previous post, the North’s characterizations of a hard knock life for North Korean refugees in the South can have some truth, since many North Korean refugees struggle with education gaps, prejudice, a lack of employment opportunities, financial scams, and emotional trauma, among other problems.[1] Evidently, Pyongyang is increasingly keen on using real information from the outside world so that North Koreans at home and abroad might begin to corroborate its propaganda (however vaguely) and subsequently accept its skewed version of reality.

NK News has picked up on this shift, highlighting a three-minute video clip published by Uriminzokkiri of former President Lee Myung-bak talking with South Korean citizens about domestic problems such as unemployment, high suicide rates, and a stagnant economy. The NK News article goes on to explain how “the video provides a logical presentation and a carefully phrased selection of slides that portray a convincing argument when compared with North Korea’s propaganda of the past.”

Comfortable Settings and Information Warfare: Elements of the Press Conference | The setting of the most recent press conference is also a key indication of Pyongyang’s evolving strategy. In obvious contrast to the previous conferences—which showcased a big room full of people, bright lights, reporters, cameras and microphones that almost seemed to portray the double defectors confessing their crimes in a courtroom setting—the latest press conference had a marginally more relaxed atmosphere, as if a small group were sitting in an (implausibly spacious) living room having an intimate (if rehearsed) chat.

Interestingly, the “chat” included pointed criticism of young female defectors such as those who appear on the Channel-A variety (예능) show “Now On My Way to Meet You (이제 만나러 갑니다),” which features female North Korean refugees in a relaxed studio atmosphere where they share (often heartbreaking) stories and partake in various activities like singing and dancing. The double defectors claimed the stories in the show are completely fake and scripted by South Korean propagandists, who pay the North Korean refugees on the show to spew their slanderous lies against the North. Once again, Pyongyang’s message disparages as greedy, duplicitous, and thoroughly corrupted these North Korean refugees who are willing to accept money to slander their country.

The broad range of nefarious influences and enemy agents assailed in the double defector press conferences reinforces the notion that Pyongyang views the defector/redefector issue as a prime opportunity to intensify its information warfare on multiple fronts. Kim Kyong-ok recalled that she was taken to South Korea “due to threat and appeasement made by Kim Kwang-chol, specialist in buying and tempting people wandering about China’s border area, via refugee camps in China and Thailand.” Here, Pyongyang’s propagandists essentially brand a defection broker/guide as an exploitative human trafficker, which serves to bolster the redefectors’ description of South Korea as “the worst tundra of human rights.”

Furthermore, although the influx of information into North Korea may cause the North Korean people to question human rights abuses and view North Korean refugees empathetically, the recent press conference and subsequent KCNA article aimed to convince the North Korean people that North Korean “refugees” are actually “criminals who fled to the South”[2] and were subsequently paid to participate in a smear campaign against the DPRK by “trumpeting about the human rights record.” Both women at the press conference claimed that the South has been conducting a coordinated campaign to bring more North Koreans to South Korea. Kang Kyong-suk quoted a man who was in charge of her case at the Joint Center for Interrogation of Defectors from the North as saying: “We are trying to increase the ranks of defectors from the north, even spending [a lot of] money in order to win back even a person of the north to our side….”

However, just in case the North Korean people might take away the wrong message —that the South must have a lot of money in order to pay all these defectors and conduct so many anti-North operations—Kim Kyong-ok was there to clarify, quoting a South Korean agent who had questioned her: “We keep bringing people like you to the south not because money is in surplus. It is aimed to disturb the mindset of the north and spread liberal democracy to it.”

In Need of Protection and Support: Societal Divisions Exacerbated by Double Defector Press Conferences | For decades, part of North Korea’s strategy in the battle for legitimacy over the Korean Peninsula has been to garner pro-North support among South Korean citizens, whom Pyongyang counts on to support favorable policies in South Korea’s domestic political debates. South Korea’s foreign-policy towards the DPRK has long been a wedge issue in the South, but in recent years a new debate has begun to emerge over how the South Korean government, and society as a whole, should treat North Korean refugees.

Many North Korean refugees are acutely aware of how they are perceived in the South, and feel a palpable tension with certain members of South Korean society, particularly in the older generations, who may view them suspiciously, criticize them for being a drain on South Korea’s budget (especially the pension system), or treat them with ambivalence or indifference. In one (extreme) example of how the North Korean refugee issue can divide South Korean society, South Korean politician Lim Su-kyung reportedly told a North Korean defector who happened to be dining in the same restaurant as her that he was a “son of a bitch,” a “senseless North Korean defector,” and a “bastard betrayer,” sparking a heated debate among South Korean netizens about North Korea and North Korean refugee issues.

Although the South Korean media coverage of North Korean refugees is generally supportive and sympathetic, Pyongyang’s double defector strategy aims to further inflame tensions by making South Koreans view North Korean refugees as ungrateful freeloaders or seditious spies. Many South Koreans see through Pyongyang’s double defector strategy, but the increasing amount of redefector press conferences will certainly add to the exasperation and outrage felt by some in the South.[3] As the North Korean refugees continue to face a variety of problems on numerous fronts, increasing protection and support from South Koreans and concerned members of the international community is clearly essential.

Further Readings

Brian Gleason, “Overwhelmed by Guilt: Pyongyang’s Evolving ‘Double Defector’ Propaganda,” Sino-NK, May 25, 2013.

Brian Gleason, “Double Defectors: Signifiers of Pyongyang’s Strategic Shift,” Sino-NK, December 6, 2012.

Gianluca Spezza, “What Double-Defection Tells us About the Prospects For Korean Unification,” NK News, August 9, 2012.


[1] Nevertheless, my post also highlights the numerous efforts from South Korea and the international community to help North Korean refugees. Some North Korean refugees are doing well and South Korean society and many more are determined to overcome their present challenges in order to find success and happiness. Furthermore, I also covered the disillusionment that many North Korean people feel toward their leadership, as well as their desire for change.

[2] This raises very important questions about how South Korea and other countries who accept North Korean refugees should deal with the North Korean refugees who may have committed crimes in the North. For example, should the young North Korean soldier who killed two fellow soldiers before defecting to the South be charged with a crime or in any way disciplined? Do the countries that grant asylum to North Korean refugees have a duty to screen for fleeing North Korean criminals? If so, how should these issues be addressed?

[3] Some, if not all of the translated user comments provided by the koreaBANG articles could have potentially been posted by North Korean agents or other subversive pro-North elements, but based on my conversations with North Korean refugees and South Korean citizens, some are likely genuine. Moreover, if North Korean agents are making disparaging comments about North Korean refugees on popular South Korean websites and blogs, this only reinforces the notion that the North intends to divide the South Korean citizenry on the North Korean refugee issue.

No Comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.