Unstable Rhetoric: Few Additions, Some Changes, Lots of Omissions

By | February 23, 2017 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un during a visit to the Designing Institute of the Korean People’s Army in December 2013. | Image: KCNA

In the first part of his series on reading (and interpreting) North Korean media, Martin Weiser examined the options for analysts who want to appropriately utilize North Korea’s digital outputs in their own research. Therein, Weiser posited the need for rigorous archiving and assessment of the content of North Korean websites, pointing out that without in-depth knowledge and easy access to everything North Korea puts online, the quality of journalism and scholarship is likely to be low. The material is there, he declared; we just have to mine it.

In this second installment, Weiser goes deeper down the deep well of the North Korean digital archive. He brings to our attention several key additions, changes, and omissions that shed light on aspects of North Korean government policy, and which may inform third-country responses to it. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Unstable Rhetoric: Few Additions, Some Changes, Lots of Omissions

by Martin Weiser

Having looked in my first essay at the changes made on North Korean websites, we may suspect that North Korea also regularly tampers with its texts, publishes alternative versions, adds or drops information, or reuses parts of its coverage. With no comprehensive database available that compares texts published by the North, those changes and differences have thus far gone largely unnoticed. Most might be negligible. KCNA coverage of the Ko Hyon-Chol press conference in July 2016, for example, was reprinted in Rodong Sinmun with just four changes.1)While KCNA spoke of the “South Chosun Puppet Intelligence Service” (남조선괴뢰정보원) in the title and the first sentence, Rodong Sinmun dropped both references to South Korea; where KCNA spoke of “children of the republic” (공화국어린이들) and “journalists of domestic publishers” (국내출판보도부문 기자), Rodong Sinmun exchanged both for less international terms, “our children” and “journalists of our country’s publishers.” Presumably, Rodong Sinmun editors made the latter changes with their domestic readership in mind. The English version, by contrast, was mostly republished without change. In English, only Naenara and Uriminzokkiri thought the text needed amendment: the official KCNA translation stated that the press conference was held “at the People’s Palace of Culture here,” but Naenara preferred to state that the Palace is located “in Pyongyang” and Uriminzokkiri simply left out this redundant information altogether (it was already included in the title). Pedantically, Uriminzokkiri translators insisted on stating that a South Korean mentioned by Ko was “around 65 years old” instead of only “around 65” as had been translated by KCNA, and Naenara editors took the time to change “U.S.” into “US”.2)“공화국어린이들을 유괴랍치하려던 남조선괴뢰정보원앞잡이 국내외기자회견에서 범죄행위 자백,” with the shortened version entitled, “반공화국범죄행위를 감행하다가 적발체포된 괴뢰정보원앞잡이 기자들과 회견” and translated as “Detained Defector to S. Korea Interviewed in Pyongyang,” KCNA, July 15, 2016

Very similar revisions can be found in KCNA coverage of a press conference for another two detained South Koreans in March 2015.3)“남조선괴뢰정보원 간첩들 국내외기자회견에서 반공화국정탐모략행위의 범죄진상 자백,” with the shortened version entitled, “남조선괴뢰정보원 간첩들 반공화국정탐모략행위의 범죄진상 자백” and translated as “Spies of S. Korean IS Confess to Truth behind Their Espionage against DPRK,” KCNA, March 26, 2015; “남조선괴뢰정보원 간첩들 국내외기자회견에서반공화국정탐모략행위의 범죄진상 자백,” Rodong Sinmun, March 27, 2015. Rodong Sinmun did not publish the English translation.. Interestingly, a shortened version of the original KCNA article saw the derogative term “nom” (놈) exchanged for a neutral term (자) and, on one occasion, completely omitted with all references to nom deleted from the paragraphs taken from the longer version. Possibly, this implies that editors of the shortened version tried to make the text more appealing to an international audience, but it might also reflect their own stylistic preferences.

A look at the text printed in Rodong Sinmun reveals two further differences: The word “National Intelligence Service” (국정원) was once written with a space in between, an apparent typo in the online article. But the newspaper editor also put the term into quotation marks in an unusual way. Quotation marks are usually used by North Korean media to denounce the legitimacy of the institution in question. Normally, this is only done when the term is not collocated with another overtly derogative term like “puppet.” But in this article – in print and online – even the reference in the phrase “spies of the puppet National Intelligence Service” had quotation marks added.

Kim Jong-un delivering his speech to the 7th Korean Workers’ Party Congress in 2016. | Image: KCNA

Editing Kim: Changing the Words of the Supreme Leader | In a few cases, revisions are more severe. For example, when Kim Jong-un delivered his lengthy report to the Congress of the Workers’ Party in May 2016, the text had to be uploaded quickly and KCNA decided to publish a shortened version as well. While one would assume that a summary would be published – as Kim’s words are presumably sacred and no changes are allowed – the shortened version was only a list of several sentences directly taken from his speech.4)“김정은동지께서 조선로동당 중앙위원회 사업총화보고를 하시였다” [Kim Jong-un makes Report on Work of WPK Central Committee at Its 7th Congress], KCNA, May 7, 2016.. Accordingly, this shortened version and the English translation based upon it were not a summary, as Rüdiger Frank has claimed, but more of a short excerpt.5)Rüdiger Frank, “The 7th Party Congress in North Korea: A Return to a New Normal,” 38North, May 20, 2016. In a similar fashion, four more short articles were created by KCNA on Korean unification, the building of socialism, accomplishments of the party, and global independence.6)“김정은동지께서 사회주의위업의 완성을 위한 과업 제시” [Kim Jong-un Sets Forth Tasks for Completing Socialist Cause]; “김정은동지께서 총결기간 조선로동당이 이룩한 성과에 대해 총화” [Kim Jong-un Reviews Successes Made by WPK in Period under Review]; 김정은동지께서 조국통일실현은 조선로동당앞에 나선 가장 중대하고 절박한 과업이라고 강조” [Kim Jong-un on WPK’s Tasks for National Reunification]; and “김정은동지께서 세계자주화를 실현할데 대해 강조” [Kim Jong-un Calls for Global Independence], KCNA, May 7, 2016. Although the phrase “Kim Jong-un said that” was added several times in all five articles to mark a quote, most paragraphs were copied without changes and a handful were roughly edited.

Of course, most changes were unimportant and therefore not necessary: Once, “Kim Jong-il” was changed into “General” and twice both Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung were changed into “the Suryeongs,” while “our country” was turned into “the Republic” and “our party” into the “Korean Workers Party.” Editors also made the surprising decision to drop “great” (위대한) in front of “Kim Jong-il” once, but added the term for Kim Il-sung where Kim Jong-un had in fact not used it. Several times, the beginning of sentences were dropped and once two sentences originally far apart were edited together. In a single case of intentional editing of the language of the supreme leader, in one phrase on unification the term “impatiently” (일일천추) was dropped from the KCNA report.

While it is the usual practice of KCNA editors to simply cut out paragraphs instead of actual editing to create a shortened version, it is surprising that the same method was even applied to a speech by Kim Jong-un. As hastily as the Korean text appear to have been uploaded, the English translations published by KCNA were also apparently written under severe time constraints.7)“Kim Jong-un Makes Report on Work of WPK Central Committee at Its 7th Congress,” KCNA, May 7, 2016. Phrases like “advancing victoriously along the orbit of Juche,” “revolutionize, working-classize and intellectualize,” and “state economic development” are nothing new to KCNA reports or translated speeches. But Rodong Sinmun and Naenara insist on using the preferable alternatives: “road of Juche” (주체의 궤도), “make all members of society working-class” (로동계급화), and “national economic development” (국가경제발전).

Apparently, Rodong Sinmun editors were aware of the deficiencies of the KCNA translation and used only a single paragraph unchanged in the translation they supplied – as they had done before with the opening address.8)Work Report at the 7th WPK Congress,” Rodong Sinmun, May 8, 2016. As the translators of Rodong Sinmun had one more day to finish their translations before it had to go online, they took the time to smooth out what KCNA translators had stitched together. But while Rodong Sinmun translators chose only to revise the translation offered by KCNA, Naenara even provided a full translation of the speech by the next day, again differing markedly.9)Kim Jong-un, “Report to the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea on the Work of the Central Committee,” Naenara, May 8, 2016. This translation appears to have gone largely unnoticed.

Search KCNA for the term “keobi” (커비) and it returns two versions with identical titles; one the longer version, and the other a truncated, edited copy. | Image: KCNA screen capture

Two is Better than One: The Long and Short Versions at KCNA | Sometimes, KCNA practice is to publish two versions of the same news text. This poses a challenge to foreign journalists and researchers unaware of this feature of North Korean news. Lengthy reports or statements are usually provided in an additional short Korean version with a translation of the shorter version then given as the official translation of the longer one as well. To name two examples, a statement of North Korea’s National Peace Committee of Korea on July 31, 2014, was reduced to only one-fourth of its original size in Korean10)“The Reckless Nuclear War Exercise to Invade the North by the Americans and their Puppets Has to Be Halted Immediately” [미국과 괴뢰패당은 무모한 북침핵전쟁연습책동을 당장 걷어치워야 한다 — 조선평화옹호전국민족위원회 대변인담화], shortened to, “조선평화옹호전국민족위원회 대변인 미국과 남조선괴뢰패당의 북침핵전쟁연습책동을 규탄” [NPCK Spokesman Raps U.S. and S. Korean Warmongers’ Projected Ulji Freedom Guardian], KCNA, 31 July 2014. The translation titled “NPCK Spokesman Raps U.S. and S. Korean Warmongers’ Projected Ulji Freedom Guardian” was dated August 1. and an opinion piece referring to the former head of the UN Committee of Inquiry on North Korea, Michael Kirby as gay in April 2014 was reduced to about half its original size by editors. The English translations were then based on these shortened version, and even for the piece on Kirby no Western journalist seems to have checked the longer original for differences.11)“Dirty Plot of Group of Political Swindlers and Insane People Will Be Firmly Dealt With – Korea Central News Agency Commentary” [정치협잡군,정신병자들의 너절한 모략행위를 단단히 결산할것이다 — 조선중앙통신사 론평], KCNA, 22 April 2014, shortened without changing the Korean title but amending the one accompanying the English translation, “KCNA Commentary Slams Artifice by Political Swindlers.“ Originally, this policy of adding a shortened version seems to have been adopted to allow smaller North Korean newspapers with fewer than six pages (the standard size of of Rodong Sinmun) to use officially-sanctioned news reports. But these shortened versions have become a (hopefully temporary) solution to what may be a lack of translators.

That journalists as well as researchers frequently miss longer original versions available at KCNA might be due to the setup of North Korea’s online news service. If one looks at the English website of KCNA, usually the link to the Korean text leads to the shortened version, with no hint at the existence of a longer Korean one. Accordingly, it might not always be the case that journalists and researchers are too lazy to read the original longer texts in Korean, as is often claimed.12)Rüdiger Frank, for example, complained “that few if any Western journalists bothered to read the full 14,000-word speech“ Kim Jong-un gave during the 7th party congress in favor of the shortened English translation. Rüdiger Frank, “The 7th Party Congress in North Korea: A Return to a New Normal,” 38North, May 20, 2016. A general unawareness of how the website is managed might instead lead to lapses. This happens not only to non-speakers of Korean but even South Koreans checking the Korean website. Journalist Kim Subin apparently did not check for multiple versions when he pointed out that a lot of information had been omitted from the English translation of the article of March 26, 2015, mentioned above.13)Subin Kim, “How North Korean state media sounds different in Korean and English,” Personal Blog of Subin Kim, September 22, 2015.

If Kim had checked the Korean site in detail, he could have simply pointed to the fact that the longer version was reduced to only half its original size, and this had then been translated. His conclusion that KCNA translators “sometimes don’t bother to work” and “don’t translate the piece in whole when it’s too long” therefore is inaccurate. It is simply KCNA policy to only translate the shorter version of a text if one is available. In how far translators are limited by workload and would, for example, rather choose to translate two shortened versions instead of one longer original text cannot be assessed here. But a larger analysis of translated content would surely give some more insight into this question.

To our knowledge, former US President Bill Clinton never fell foul of North Korea’s penchant for simian pejoratives. His successors were not so lucky. | Image: Wikicommons

Unnoticed Repetition: Offensive Simian References | A case where the shortened and then translated version omitted an important term and thereby did not get any Western media attention at all was a KCNA article of March 2014 comparing George W. Bush to a monkey. Two pieces at KCNA on May 2, 2014, had been singled out as being racist as they called Barack Obama a “monkey” and “a wicked black monkey” next to other dehumanizing comments.14)“세상에 하나밖에 없는 불량아 오바마에게 천벌을!” [Heavenly Punishment for Obama, World’s Sole Juvenile Delinquent!] and “박근혜야말로 한시바삐 제거해야 할 민족의 특등재앙거리이다 – 하늘끝까지 치솟는 분노한 민심의 폭발” [Cause of Disasters of Nation Park Geun Hye has to be Removed Immediately – Public Anger Explodes as High as Heaven], KCNA, May 2, 2014. It seems necessary to point out that in the first article only one of the four North Koreans interviewed used this aggressive dehumanizing language and extensive monkey references for Obama.Balasz Szalontai incorrectly stated in his article for NKNews, referenced below, that the first article “quoted four North Korean citizens who elaborated on the monkey image… For instance, a metal worker named Kang Hyuk was quoted….” But it was only Kang who used these monkey references.

Underlining how little is read of North Korea next to KCNA, a first reference to Obama only the day before as making a “monkey face” (잰내비상통) in Minju Choson, the newspaper of the Cabinet, went completely unnoticed.15)“뒈져야 마땅한 팔삭둥이기형아” [Prematurely born and deformed child worth killing], Minju Chosun, May 1, 2014. Like most other references, this statement was also made by an individual citizen outside of government. The same animal reference was used again in December that year by the spokesperson of the policy department of the National Defense Commission speaking of Obama as always going “reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest.”16)“국방위정책국 미국의 불순반동영화상영 규탄” [Policy Department of National Defence Commission Denounces Screening of Reactionary Movie in USA], translated as “U.S. Can Never Justify Screening and Distribution of Reactionary Movie: Policy Department of NDC of DPRK,” KCNA, December 27, 2014. Surprisingly, this official statement is not available at the official KCNA site and might have never been published there. Why the Japanese outlet decided to publish it is not clear, but the statement seems to have been considered less important. The daily print bulletin of KCNA could not be checked if it might have been included there and the Japanese outlet simply reproduced it. But anyone checking past North Korean rhetoric in Korean might have known that one of the two Korean terms used for monkey (잰내비) had already been used for Bush two months earlier. In a statement by a civilian, Jin Yung-il, published by KCNA one could read that “this guy had made a monkey face” [잰내비상판].17)“병진로선관철의 우렁찬 동음을 더 높이 울려나가겠다” [We Will Carry through Party’s New Line of Developing Two Fronts Simultaneously: Shop Head of Steel Complex], KCNA, March 6, 2014. The shortened version was published with the same title but had dropped the paragraph with this term which therefore was not included in the translation. In 2002, KCNA had already quoted “the internet” for an ape reference to Bush: “newly edited materials liken Bush’s gesture, posture and facial expression to those of an ape.” But no further reference in this regard by a North Korean followed. “’Anti-U.S. Cyber campaign’ brisk in South Korea,” KCNA, April 4, 2002. Considering this statement, comparisons of US presidents to monkeys (or apes?) in North Korean media appear to be not directly race-related and there are surely remarks somewhere in North Korean propaganda which describe Bush as a sub-human, monkey-born etc. as was done with Obama in the one May article.

North Korean leaflet dropped over northern Seoul in January 2017. It features customary representations of the triumvirate of North Korea’s enemies: Barack Obama as a wolf, Shinzo Abe as fox, and Park Geun-hye as a dog. | Image: Jean Lee Twitter feed

Sadly, this form of offensive and dehumanizing rhetoric is and will be part of North Korean rhetoric for some time to come. Still, directly imagining Obama in an African nature park and comparing his face to a monkey from the African jungle might, in fact, have been racist in so far as it “hammered home the message,” as Balazs Szalontai states, of Obama’s ethnic origin.18)Balazs Szalontai, “The Imbecile, the Leecher, the Harlot and the Monkey: Human Rights Concerns, S. Korea-Japan relations as subtexts in N. Korea’s War on Political Correctness,” NKNews, June 3, 2014. Although Szalontai did not check past rhetoric in Korean either or English references for an alternative term, “ape,” he pointed to a similar KCNA reference to Bush that compared him to a wolf using the same picture with Bush eating breadcrumbs thrown at him – but instead situating Bush in a zoo in the USA. Again, this KCNA commentary was given by an individual, now a soldier, and again it was published on March 6, 2014, when Bush also was likened to a monkey.19)“싸움이 일어나면 제일 먼저 부쉬부터 사냥하겠다,” translated as “I Will Hunt Bush before Any Others When War Breaks out: KPA Soldier,” KCNA, March 6, 2014. This article was also published in a longer version titled “부쉬사냥은 나의 몫” [Hunting Bush is My Duty]. The same animal reference was also used for Obama in April 2014, only shortly before being referred to as a monkey.20)“조선국방위원회 대변인 오바마의 남조선행각과 관련한 공화국의 원칙적립장을 천명,” translated as “Spokesman for NDC of DPRK Clarifies Its Principled Stand on Obama’s South Korean Junket,” KCNA, April 28, 2014.

While all those animal references appear to be used for Bush as well as Obama, a closer look on North Korean media also shows that these remarks only show up around certain time windows on KCNA also limited to North Koreans usually not directly involved with the government.21)Of course, the spokesperson of the National Defense Commission was the rare exception. It is also interesting to note that Jin Yung-il who called Bush a monkey appears to have been elected to the North Korean parliament only a few days after his comment. If he was chosen for this position because of his more aggressive rhetoric or was instructed to make this statement is impossible to say. “중앙선거위원회 보도: 조선민주주의인민공화국 최고인민회의 제13기 대의원선거결과에 대하여” [Report of the Central Election Commission: The Results of the Election to the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly], KCNA, March 11, 2014. Yoo Heo-yeol, a conservative professor and current executive vice-chairperson of the National Unification Advisory Council (민주평화통일자문회의) even claimed that North Korea is trying to get attention through publishing provocative statements, but prefers “reporting the story under some ordinary citizen’s name“ to not get entrapped. Hyung-jin Kim, “North Korea Unleashes Racist Slurs Against Obama,” Associated Press, May 9, 2014. Especially the single reference to Obama as a “wicked black monkey” directly referring to his skin color appears to have been linked to the other article of the same day in which one interviewee used the monkey comparison extensively. Whether this one North Korean chose to compare Obama to a monkey in such an extreme fashion by himself and because of a racist mindset or was instructed to do so is, however, impossible to say. But it likely is not as straight forward as scholars argue who believe North Korea to be outright racist or built on “race-based” nationalism.22)Bryan R. Myers came to this conclusion in his book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters (Melville House, 2011). Balasz Szalontai also rushed to point to two diplomatic documents of 1967 and 1968 found in Hungarian archives. While one only complained of a lack of work morals in developing countries, offensive remarks by another diplomat appears to stem more from frustration with his job instead of an actively racist mindset before he had to “visit“ Ghana, Guineau, and Mali. The translation of the diplomatic document unfortunately does not clarify if he stayed there as diplomat for several years or only for a short period. Although Balasz Szalontai then reversed and argued that “anti-black racism was not the sole or primary motivating force behind the attack on Obama,“ he still claims racism was at least a tool North Korean propagandists happily used to “hit the sorest spot possible.“ Balazs Szalontai, “The Imbecile, the Leecher, the Harlot and the Monkey: Human Rights Concerns, S. Korea-Japan relations as subtexts in N. Korea’s War on Political Correctness,” NKNews, June 3, 2014. The one insulting article on Obama in May 2014 even included the statement that “the human race had evolved over millions of years, but Obama still would have the shape of a monkey,” implying that its point was not a general difference between ethnicities but to slander Obama individually.

Deceiving Numbers: The Pitfalls of Counting | As outlined above North Korean rhetoric differs significantly not only across languages but also across websites and, for KCNA, even across versions of a text that is uploaded. This lack of correct representation becomes a problem when quantitative approaches are used, i.e. whenever references to specific terms are counted. Naturally, when omissions are frequent, counting becomes a problem. This is doubly so when no genuine North Korean source is used and the texts used are not in Korean. Scholars like Timothy Rich and Rüdiger Frank, for example, have in several pieces and over several years built their quantitative analysis of North Korean rhetoric solely on the English translations available at the Japanese KCNA site.23)Timothy Rich, “Like Father Like Son? Correlates of Leadership in North Korea’s English Language News,” Korea Observer 43, no. 4 (2012): 649-674; “Deciphering North Korea’s Nuclear Rhetoric: An Automated Content Analysis of KCNA News,” Asian Affairs: An American Review 39 (2012): 73-89; “Introducing the Great Successor: North Korean English language news coverage of Kim Jong Un 2010-2011,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 47, no. 2 (2014): 127-136; “Propaganda with Purpose: Uncovering Patterns in North Korean Nuclear Coverage, 1997-2012,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 14, no. 3 (2014): 427-453; Rüdiger Frank, “Socialist Neoconservatism and North Korean Foreign Policy,” in Kyong-Ae Park, ed., New Challenges of North Korean Foreign Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 3-40; based on a paper prepared in 2011, “North Korean Foreign Policy and its Domestic Connection: A Quantitative Analysis (1997-2010),” in Korea and East Asia in a Changing Regional and Global Environment (Seoul: Korea Institute for Economic Policy, 2013); Nordkorea: Innenansichten eines totalen Staates [North Korea: Internal Perspectives on a Total State] (Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2014), 224. Frank appears to have begun to use his quantitative research on KCNA rhetoric first in the 2009 edition of the Korea Yearbook and used it slightly different in the following editions. Originally, he had worked also with Korean texts available at the Japanese KCNA website which resulted in quite different counts for both languages and he also provided graphs for both languages. He stopped doing so later, without explanation, but apparently was aware that the English content differs significantly from the original coverage.

Although both are aware of differences with the original Korean texts, they still used this data for their articles. While Timothy Rich only acknowledged possible differences due to translation, Frank even was aware that English articles at times were severely shortened and that not all articles published by KCNA were uploaded on the site – pointing to the print bulletin of KCNA. While omissions of whole articles from the Japanese KCNA site can be addressed only in a short comparison for 2014, the omissions due to shortening and mistranslation are so severe and easily traceable that a brief analysis can be presented below. If we take, for example, the KCNA statement of July 31, 2014, mentioned above, its original Korean text referred to nuclear terms 21 times, the shorter one only eight, and the English translation seven times. Considering that Timothy Rich in his one analysis of nuclear rhetoric counted only daily aggregates of references and used them for statistical analysis, his data unavoidably becomes a stark misrepresentation of real North Korean rhetoric not to speak of his statistical results.

Rüdiger Frank instead used yearly counts of articles mentioning a certain term for simple descriptive graphs which makes his approach less vulnerable to those daily differences due to mistranslation or shortening. But counting central terms like Juche, Songun, or different references to Kim Jong-il, he runs into the same problem as these terms are not translated consistently and are often dropped with other paragraphs in translations. For example, Songun only began to be given as a transcription of the Korean term from 2003. Before, “military-first policy” and other variants were used, which Frank did not capture. The change in references to Kim Jong-il from “leader” to “general secretary” in English texts published beginning in 2006 implies, he argues, a shift from a “worldly” title to a more “ideological” one – in line with Frank’s claim of a rise of “socialist neo-conservatism” around that time. But again, numbers differ vastly between the Korean original texts and English translations.

References to Kim Jong-il at the Japanese KCNA website (click to enlarge). | Image: Martin Weiser

A closer look at KCNA texts shows that, surprisingly, articles referring to Kim Jong-il do not even appear to receive preferential treatment when it comes to translation: The North Korean KCNA website gives 22 percent fewer results when Kim’s name is searched in English, equivalent to the drop in overall article numbers between the two languages. But on the Japanese KCNA website the number of English articles mentioning his name dropped by half in January 2002, although total article numbers were only 25 percent less. During that time the various references to Kim Jong-il were still translated rather faithfully, whereas by January 2008 this was not the case any longer. Around that time, translators made the unintelligible decision to not translate the word “leader” (령도자) into English anymore when it appeared with the name of Kim Jong-il. While 70 per cent of the articles in Korean referred to Kim Jong-il as leader, only about two per cent did so in English. Instead, “General Secretary” was used much more often with his name, even when it was not present in the Korean text. Here the ratio doubled.

Something which should have raised alarms about this analysis was the sudden overall fall in the number of references to Kim Jong-il with a specific title in English per calculations by Frank. This was clearly visible in Frank’s yearly counts for 2007 but not explicitly addressed. While before about 800 articles per year had referenced Kim as either leader or general secretary, in 2007 only about 300 articles did so. Looking at the ratios in Korean, almost the same percentage of articles referred to him as “leader” in 2002 and 2008, while “general secretary” had dropped to almost half. This directly contradicts Frank’s claim of a different propaganda form around Kim Jong-il, which he claimed began to stress Kim’s formal position at that time. Ironically, a few years later in 2014 this picture completely reversed and now English translators began to use “leader Kim Jong-il” even where the Korean text spoke just of the great or beloved “Comrade Kim Jong-il” (김정일동지).

When the content of the Japanese KCNA is compared with the original North Korean KCNA website for January 2014, the numbers are also vastly different. In Korean, the Japanese website offers only 122 articles referring to Kim Jong-il, about half of the originally published ones on the North Korean website. Differences are less for English texts as only sixteen articles less (15%) were not available on the Japanese site. Accordingly, Frank’s graphs and the conclusions that are drawn from them should be treated with caution. Similar cautions apply then also to the work of Timothy Rich who considered overall references to the three Kims and other central terms which were also not translated consistently. Not all available KCNA texts in Korean and English used by Frank and Rich could be gathered and compared here to check their calculations. But given these discrepancies between both language versions of KCNA, any quantitative analysis relying only on English KCNA texts is eventually going to be very problematic. If quantitative content analysis on North Korea does not want to remain at such a low level scholars should at least consider using original Korean texts from original North Korean sources to avoid these pitfalls of imprecise translations and considerable omission.

In Need of Comparison | Not surprisingly, North Korean news editors show a certain lax attitude when it comes to editing and apparently also translating, which in other news agencies would not be permitted. Especially, direct quotations of important politicians are apparently dealt with much more professionally abroad. Other patterns are, however, very familiar, like the supplying of shortened articles, later corrections of grammatical or stylistic mistakes and the reduced reliability of translations when it comes to exact representation. But, as outlined above, how North Korean websites work and what texts they publish is still not fully understood (or monitored) by most researchers and journalists leading to frequent overlooking of key terms or whole texts – not always due to the oft-lamented use of English texts only. North Korean rhetoric differs significantly not only by language but also by website and source.

While only a few examples could be outlined in this piece, a larger comparison of texts published across the various North Korean media and websites likely would reveal that revisions and shortening are an important feature of North Korean media. It is not only those doing quantitative analysis who should keep this in mind. Revisions also often change partially the tone of documents, which could imply that North Korean editors, in fact, try to mold their media to the audience. But those changes also could mean that, at times, more professional editors disagree with the aggressive rhetoric of texts submitted by less professional writers. Similarly, in shortened articles what was omitted might be as telling as what was left.

Should a comprehensive database of North Korean texts ever come into being, locating of shortened and revised texts could be easily automated and appears to be a major strong point even for those who do not read the Korean originals. That way it also would become clearer that every North Korean website does publish the usual stock of major news and propaganda on the leadership, but at the same time also a large amount of unique prose not necessarily available elsewhere.

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