The Road to Pyongyang II: Inter-Korean Summits and North Korean Media

By | April 21, 2018 | No Comments

“Let’s follow the path of Juche opened up for us by the Great Comrade Kim Il-sung to accomplish the great Mt. Baekdu country’s strength and prosperity,” reads the title of the lead editorial. | Image: Sino-NK

The first part of this two-part series on Pyongyang’s domestic media coverage, Kyle Pope examined the language surrounding inter-Korean summits. In this second part, he shifts the focus to the portrayal of the chief actors involved: the leaders of the two Koreas. In North Korean media nothing is more important than the titles used for the three leaders of the Kim dynasty. Maintenance of the personality cult in the North means strict message discipline when referring to any of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un. Readers of North Korean media note the style consistency.

Conversely, the leaders in the South never rival those in the North. They are usually ignored, often mocked, and usually criticized. Adjectives like “traitorous” (역도) are common. The dawn of the Sunshine era, however, created a partial exception to this rule. Based on his research at the North Korea information Center, located in the National Library in Seoul, Pope investigates how South Korea’s leaders were referenced and discussed during the Sunshine period and especially around inter-Korean summits. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

The Road to Pyongyang II: Inter-Korean Summits and North Korean Media

by Kyle Pope

Lee Myung-bak’s electoral victory in 2007 meant the definitive end of the Sunshine Policy, the hallmark foreign policy of the previous two liberal administrations under Kim Dae-jung (1998-2002) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007). During the Sunshine years, inter-Korean relations were less tense and at times amicable. But how, exactly, did North Korean media refer to the two liberal presidents? Did it remain negative, as it had almost always been, or did it trend positively? What lessons, if any at all, can be taken from this and applied to today’s understanding of North Korean media? Using the materials at the North Korea information Center, I searched for key terms in available media resources (including some education materials) between March 9 – June 13, 2000 and August 8 – October 2, 2007.

Not Exactly Traitorous: Coverage of Kim and Roh | Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun are spared the invective and libel usually reserved for South Korean leaders. I find that Kim’s case is more complex than Roh’s. While both Kim and Roh’s kindling of warmer Seoul-Pyongyang relations result in them receiving the highest honor a leader of the South is afforded — to be referred to by their correct title of president — it was not always the case with Kim. As the foremost political dissident in the South, he receives intense coverage in the 1970s and 1980s. Appearing in headlines a total of 34 times in late 1973 and even more heavily in the period from 1980 to 1983 before disappearing from the pages of the newspaper from 1985 to 1999. While the coverage of Kim in the 1970s and 1980s can be described as positive, as he was an opponent of the authoritarian, strongly anti-Communist regime in Seoul, there is a dramatic turnaround when his name re-emerges more than a year after he gains the presidency in May 1998.

On July 28, 1999 nearly a full-page is dedicated to the so-called hypocrisy of the corrupt activities of the traitor Kim Dae-jung. Further attacks on the Kim regime as being criminally pro-Japan and pro-America, as well as demands for an end to the regime’s development of long-range missiles, follow on the 11th and 27th of November, respectively. The next time Kim is mentioned is in an entirely different light, on June 14, 2000, the day after Kim has arrived in Pyongyang to great fanfare. Thereafter the prefix of “traitorous” (역도) is replaced with “President” (대통령) until his death in 2009 and beyond. Roh Moo-hyun is similarly spared the usual derogatory adjectives reserved for South Korean leaders.1)It should be noted that direct references to either of the Sunshine era presidents using their name is relatively uncommon. The best illustration of this tendency comes in a section of a school textbook dedicated to the 2000 summit, which at no stage mentions Kim Dae-jung’s name.

Moving Towards Unification? Summit Coverage | The account of the June 15th Summit that appears in school textbooks from 2003 onwards is noteworthy in a number of ways. According to the textbooks, the second half of the 1990s heralded a new period for the unification movement. The reality of a famine-induced crisis for the North Korean state is overlooked for a period in which the strong leadership led the way. In the breakout of this new phase of the unification movement, the South is said to have approached Pyongyang with a request to meet. In response, Kim Jong-il heads into icy blizzards of Mt. Baekdu in early 2000 and contemplates deeply at the summit. The Dear Leader then announces an agreement with South Korea in April and his wise leadership, as it is described, guides intense preparation for the summit. The period is described as coming to a crossroads, when the right path must be chosen.

While the text is vague with reference to times, places and people, it is conspicuously specific in a few instances. No mention of Kim Dae-jung is made at any point and Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai conglomerate, is referred to as a businessman from the South. However, when it comes to the date that Kim Jong-il goes to meet Kim Dae-jung at the airport on June 13, and for the remaining days of the summit, exact dates are used. An event described as ranking among the greatest in human history, the return home of long-term unconverted prisoners in the South is also very specific. Sixty-three such people returned on September 2. While the overall tone can be said to be reconciliatory and celebratory, General Kim is referenced as saying that the power of the people lies in its unity and military strength and that without the latter the people could become pitiably weak, like Taewon-gun and Queen Min. The language is typical of commentary on the summits, sovereignty, or independence.

The only noteable phrase missing from the textbook is “6.15 unification era” (6.15통일시대), a term in circulation in Rodong Sinmun. First appearing years after the 6.15 summit, on July 11, 2004, it becomes a more frequently used term in the years that follow, appearing 21 times in 2007 alone. While very few people in the South would be able to recall the dates of either of the inter-Korean summits, the use of June 15th to define an era in the North reveals a contrast in summit discourse. The “6.15 unification era” (6.15통일시대) is often employed as a rallying call for progressive action on both sides of the 38th parallel.

Although the above descriptions of the first summit in North Korean literature are not insignificant, they are overshadowed by the inter-Korean joint communique of July 1972 (7.4 북남공동성명). The inter-Korean event that is enshrined in North Korean history is found in the 20th, rather than the 21st, century. References to the July 4th statement are found scattered throughout the pages of Rodong Sinmun, with a cluster of pieces in 1992 in honor of the 20th anniversary. Wider literature in the North also speak of the 7.4 summit in glowing terms. School textbooks, for instance, regularly include entire chapters dedicated to developments in 1972. It certainly seems to be a far better institutionalized part of the state-sanctioned North Korean story than either of the summits in the 2000s.

The 2000 summit, however, did spawn more than one term of significance. The idea of “uriminzokkiri” (우리민족끼리; among our own race/nation), is better known as the name of a propagandist North Korean media outlet targeting South Korean audiences. But it is also an integral part of Pyongyang’s unification lexicon. While the Uriminzokkiri website was launched in 2003, the term first appears in the January 11, 2001 edition of Rodong Sinmun under the headline, “Let our race join hands to open the door to a groundbreaking advance in sovereign peaceful unification” [우리 민족끼리 힘을 합쳐 자주적평화통일의 획기적국면을 열어 나갈데 대하여]. Pyongyang’s account places the birth of the term squarely at the feet of Kim Jong-il, the visionary author of the fateful words uttered at the first summit, which then spread among the people.

North-South Talks or North to South Talks? | When looking at coverage of inter-Korean dialogue in general, clear patterns are revealed. “North-South talks” (북남회담) are mentioned infrequently, appearing for the first time on January 5, 1985, urging the pioneering of a new state of improved inter-Korean relations. In what seems to be a response to conversations regarding economic cooperation in 1985 and a general shift towards cooperation in inter-Korean relations in the latter half of the 1980s in what seems to be a response to conversations regarding economic cooperation that took place in 1985 and perhaps a general shift towards cooperation in inter-Korean relations in the latter half of the 1980s and only 10 times between then and 1990.

The use of “North-South talks” is often used in a highly critical way in reference to the attitude of the South, which “blocks”, “hinders”, or “delays”2)Terms used include: 대화부정, 결릴시킨, 파탄시킨, 저해하는, and 연기되게 된. the development of inter-Korean talks. Notably, its usage disappeared after 1990 for 21 years, not returning until the frostier Lee Myung-bak era. On February 13, 2011, usage resumed, with furious condemnation of the “criminal activity of hurting inter-Korean talks” [북남회담을 결릴시킨 범죄행위를 단죄], and continues in a similar vein with further mentions in subsequent years. Overall, the term “inter-Korean talks” is mostly found firmly settled in negativity, holding Seoul responsible for preventing talks from occurring. There are however a handful of more positive which focus on the urgency or positive developments of talks.

Conclusion | Ultimately, it seems that little should ever have been read into the non-acknowledgement of impending summits. Attention should always instead be paid to shifts in tone and terminology in the days directly preceding a summit. It will also be informative to monitor Pyongyang in the weeks and months post-summit as a narrative is chosen and developed. As we have seen, there are clear benchmarks and precedents in summit history which provide comparison points for Pyongyang’s upcoming output.

Corrections: Kim Jong-il met Kim Dae-jung on June 13, not June 16. Additionally, the July 4 joint statement was made in 1972, not 1974.


1 It should be noted that direct references to either of the Sunshine era presidents using their name is relatively uncommon. The best illustration of this tendency comes in a section of a school textbook dedicated to the 2000 summit, which at no stage mentions Kim Dae-jung’s name.
2 Terms used include: 대화부정, 결릴시킨, 파탄시킨, 저해하는, and 연기되게 된.

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