Smile: You’re on North Korean TV

By | June 26, 2014 | No Comments

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In a world where media organizations are constantly shifting and reconfiguring, North Korea’s state media continues to slowly bulldoze along, digging and entrenching a pattern of critique that in many ways has changed very little since the late 1940s. Yet, as Christopher Green indicates, there are various wrinkles within the bulwarks of the system that might actually bear more attention. There is far more content being produced in Pyongyang than massive choreographed marches or repetitious on-site inspections (little men with their little notebooks, as it were), and the notion of a North Korean “talk show” is one such example. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief   

Christopher Green, Smile: You’re on North Korean TV, Groove Korea, June 2013*

Politics and Television: Categorizing Output | Broadly speaking, any North Korean television program can be slotted into one of a handful of categories. News about the actions of the Supreme Leader of the day naturally predominates, followed by coverage of a motley assortment of meetings held in support of government policy, documentaries and films, most of which reference the historical achievements of present and former leaders, coverage of sports and cultural events, and an extraordinarily long, drawn-out style of weather forecast.

But there is also a unique show that English lacks the language to describe. The best one can do is to call it a discussion format, although the problem with that is that there is no discussion. These mysterious productions, which are broadcast in support of the main themes of media content du jour, feature a gathering of expert analysts offering up an explanation of whatever phenomenon is deemed worthy of investigation. This is followed by “opinions,” which always reflect the righteous nature of government policy. The dialogue is completely pre-ordained and looks it, although it is not scripted per se.

The non-interactive nature of the shows is enhanced by the design of the studio environment: The chairs are lined up in a row, facilitating no dialogue, only declarations. The host sits at one end and delivers all his or her questions in a manner so loaded as to proscribe any deviating answers, which wouldn’t be allowed anyway.

No Witches Here: (Almost) All Content | Take an example from this spring. Running for half an hour – meaning that around 10 percent of all public broadcasting airtime on that date was devoted to it, as state television tends to only broadcast for five or six hours a day – the topic was President Park Geun-hye’s “Dresden Declaration,” which she delivered in late March. The goal was to explain why President Park, who was referred to by name throughout without any honorifics (the same disrespect was simultaneously conferred upon two other former leaders of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak and Park Chung-hee), had actually made a “proposal that was not a proposal at all.”

These shows are fascinating for a whole host of reasons. First, although it was not polite, it was also not overtly offensive about President Park. This was refreshing since the state media has excelled itself this calendar year, calling her variously a “bitch,” a “witch,” a  “whore” and a “political prostitute,” not to mention stating that the sinking of the Sewol passenger ferry with the loss of 300 lives was entirely her doing, thus making her the “owner of a grave keeper’s cottage.” Second, it stuck mostly to the topic, something of which state news agency KCNA can rarely be accused; and ​third, the most ​unusual aspect of all, it even presented coherent arguments about why the Dresden Declaration was inappropriate. Throw in a soupcon of transparent relativism and a huge chunk of hopelessly distorted logic, mix and serve.

And what was said? The North Korean argument is long-held, and simple. It proceeds from the presumption that denuclearization does not begin at home; rather, it begins in Washington. Pyongyang pretends to think President Park ought to be pushing the United States to denuclearize (some years ago, Kim Jong-il admitted privately that this demand is just propaganda). In addition, they assert that Park ought to worry about getting her own proverbial house in order rather than criticizing theirs. On this point, they think she should address South Korea’s admittedly problematic suicide rate (South Korea is, according to one of the participating experts, the “Kingdom of Suicide”) and acquiesce to the ardent wish of all Korean people by putting a halt to U.S.-ROK joint military exercises. Finally, she should tear down the wall put up by her father, who was supposedly inspired to erect a barrier the entire width of the Korean Peninsula by his own formative experiences of the Berlin Wall. (That this wall doesn’t actually exist is not permitted to get in the way of the narrative.)

If It Worked for Oasis: Conclusion | There is something quite compelling about all this. It is easy to see why they could have an impact on the target domestic audience. Not because you can sympathize to some degree with an argument about imbalanced denuclearization, although that is also true. Rather, it relates to a much broader point, one that friends from North Korea make repeatedly when we discuss cultural issues.

“If you don’t have a comparison point,” one put it best, “you cannot and do not compare.” For another, it’s a case of “when there’s so little electricity and so little television to watch, you take in everything no matter what it is.”

You can see a similar process at work in lots of different contexts. For instance, interviewed about the demise of 1990s Britpop band Oasis, guitarist and songwriter Noel Gallagher once commented that he, a working-class lad from Hulme, a sink estate of public housing in Manchester, never thought success could come his way. Why? “Where I come from it didn’t happen to people like me. How could it possibly happen? There was nobody like me on TV.”

Which is all the more reason to support activities that broadcast an alternative viewpoint to that of the North Korean state media. After all, who wants to see the discourse dominated by a media organization that is guilty of calling U.S. President Obama “a monkey” with “revolting facial features” who should “live in an African zoo”?

This Groove Column was made possible in part thanks to Academy of Korean Studies Grant (AKS-2013- R-11), which supports Sino-NK’s ongoing project to document the cultural and political strategies used by the DPRK government to promote its policy agenda and create strategic discord abroad.

* This essay has been modified to meet the style and formatting standards outlined in the Sino-NK Style Guide. No substantive changes have been made.

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