SEOUL – North Korea has kept this region on edge in recent weeks primarily by using its weapon of choice in times of warmongering: the state-run news agency.
The massive wire service, known as the Korean Central News Agency, serves as the primary mouthpiece for the North’s authoritarian government, lauding upticks in factory production, documenting the arrival of floral baskets for the ruling Kims and occasionally warning about possible nuclear strikes on neighbors.
But the agency also serves a broader purpose, setting the mood for a nation – and changing that mood at the direction of the nation’s leaders.
Analysts and several defectors who have worked in the North Korean media say any message published by the agency is part of an elaborately coordinated effort that requires much the same work as a screenplay. Although North Korea is popularly portrayed as a loose cannon operated at the whims of young leader Kim Jong Un, those familiar with the media say the messages come from a slow-grinding process involving dozens of meetings and thousands of people – strategists, storytellers, ideological advisers and journalists.
Much of the KCNA’s content is mundane, but its employees – numbering more than 2,000, according to estimates – are not free to churn out content as they please.
North Korea’s media rank among the most restricted in the world and are under the absolute control of the ruling elite, the group Reporters Without Borders said in its most recent press freedom report.
But analysts and defectors paint a more complex picture. Few, if any, of those who work in the media are following direct orders from Kim, the supreme leader. Rather, they are trying to anticipate the sort of content that he would like.
In times of rising tensions, the KCNA leads the way, delivering key statements for foreign consumption. Two decades ago, a previous high point for strained relations on the Korean Peninsula, reporters and editors at the news agency received a memo from the Propaganda and Agitation Department, the high-level body that guides and censors North Korea’s news, said Chang Hae-song, a defector who worked at the KCNA from 1976 to 1996.
The memo called on KCNA reporters to increase their criticism of the United States and told broadcasters to raises their voices. It also suggested that the state television station, in its intermittent musical interludes, use selections that would help create a warlike atmosphere.
In addition, Chang said, reports faced six levels of editing and censorship before publication.
We have to keep in mind that North Korea’s propaganda apparatus responds much more slowly to current events than our own media do, Brian Myers, a specialist in North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, said in an email. This is not just due to logistical and technological problems but also due to the rigorous censorship process that everything has to go through. Even the most innocuous events tend to be reported only days later.