Mind your language: N Korea’s self-defeating propaganda

By Simon Mundy in Seoul

North Korea’s recent slurs against the presidents of the US and South Korea exemplify a high-pitched, extravagant and often venomous propaganda style unmatched by any other nation – as well as the inherent contradictions and hypocrisy within much Pyongyang propaganda.

Despite the country’s well-documented human rights abuses, North Korea‘s state media has sought to promote a message of opposition to discrimination. Two weeks ago it published a report attacking racism and other problems in the US, which it described as “the world’s worst human rights abuser”. In March it gave extensive coverage to International Women’s Day, trumpeting the rights accorded North Korean women and highlighting complaints about sexism in South Korea.

All this sits awkwardly with recent, repeated descriptions of US President Barack Obama as a “monkey” and of South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a “prostitute” – among other racist and sexist insults.

“This shows us the incoherence of the system at times,” says John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, suggesting a lack of co-ordination between different arms of the North Korean state.

Mr Delury points to the description of Ms Park as a “comfort woman” – a term used to describe victims of sexual slavery under the Japanese occupation – as evidence that “the people who produce the propaganda are clueless about South Korean society and how you could try to exploit some of the divisions within it”. Anger about these sexual abuses is a rare point on which nearly all Koreans are united – ostensibly including North Korea, which has repeatedly attacked Japan over them.

Pyongyang abstained from personal attacks on Ms Park during the first months of her term last year. But it has been angered by the failure to prevent mockery and criticism of supreme leader Kim Jong Un in South Korean media and Seoul’s lack of enthusiasm for talks aimed at relieving sanctions and reopening South Korean tourism in the North. Its most recent ire has been directed at South Korea’s claim to have retrieved multiple drone aircraft allegedly sent by North Korea.

On Monday, North Korea’s propaganda team provoked fresh outrage in South Korea by comparing the children who died in the Sewol ferry disaster to “fish food”.

The recent attacks on Mr Obama – including the suggestion that he live with monkeys in an African zoo – is another possible reflection of North Korea’s frustration at its international isolation, as well as demonstrating the sometimes self-defeating nature of its propaganda.

Mr Kim’s most successful publicity stunt to date has been his warm treatment of Dennis Rodman and other African-American basketball players. African countries such as Nigeria and Ethiopia are among the few with which Pyongyang regularly exchanges expressions of friendship – a legacy of its enthusiastic building of ties with non-aligned nations in Africa during the Cold War. Last week North Korean diplomats sealed a visit to the continent by signing an economic co-operation pact with Nigeria.

Yet the attack on Mr Obama reflects a racial prejudice that has always been present in North Korea’s official world view, according to Andrei Lankov at Kookmin university in Seoul. “They have offered support to African nations and liberation movements – but combined that with a not-so-secret assumption that black people are inferior,” he says.

The unsavoury abuse chimes with the author and professor Brian Myers’ theory of North Korea’s state philosophy as “paranoid, race-based nationalism” and his observation that the country’s propaganda organs have sought to portray “the contaminated nature of American racial stock” in their attacks on the country.

“They live in the mental walls of their own propaganda,” Mr Lankov says.