Spin This: South Korean Politics Seen, or Not Seen, in North Korea's State Media

Steven Borowiec

December 20, 2016 - A friend posted the following Facebook status almost as a taunt, “So, South Koreans can hold peaceful gatherings for 6 weeks and have their leader voted out of power. Spin that, North Korean media.”

North Korea does have media, in the sense that the country has organizations that report and disseminate information in text, audio and video forms. But the bodies that fulfill these roles are entirely state owned and have no editorial independence. Their objective is not to provide the citizenry with accurate information or storytelling.

Their primary function, as my pal’s Facebook post alluded, is spin. Whatever the news story, North Korea’s media is sure to present it in a way that casts North Korea in a favorable light, while whenever possible kicking dirt on Pyongyang’s enemies, usually the U.S., South Korea, Japan and the United Nations. Anyone who peruses the North Korean state media will come across story after story of claimed successes in the development of North Korea’s infrastructure and nuclear weapons. There is rarely, if ever, any mention of the poverty, isolation and environmental degradation that have been documented in North Korea.

Such skewed and incomplete reporting is one way that North Korea tries to manage its image, for audiences both domestic and international. Since being divided in the 1940s, South and North Korea have been in a propaganda battle to depict themselves as the more desirable of the two Koreas. As South Korea has in recent decades grown into an imperfect but functioning democracy, with vastly higher living standards, this battle has become near impossible for the North to win.

The political movement that has gripped South Korea in recent months will be a tough one for North Korean editors to spin. In case you missed it, a brief recap of the saga: evidence surfaced that President Park Geun-hye had taken direction from and shared classified materials with Choi Soon-sil, a shadowy confidante and daughter of a cult leader. Park was also alleged to have helped Choi extort corporations for millions in donations to dubious foundations, and got Choi’s daughter admission to a prestigious university in Seoul.

The public demonstrations set in motion the wheels of the National Assembly, and on December 9, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion to impeach Park, with a fair number of lawmakers from Park’s own Saenuri Party voting to oust her. Unless the Constitutional Court overturns the motion, Park will be removed as president and will face criminal charges for her role in the affair.

The scandal was the latest, and perhaps most blatant, case creating the impression that South Korea’s wealthy, well-connected elite have rigged the system in their own favor, while regular folks are told to work hard if they hope to have any chance of succeeding.

The result has been a whole lot of anger -- well-organized, peaceful and articulate anger. Millions of people nationwide participated in weekly rallies, shutting down the center of Seoul and other cities as they marched holding candles, chanting and singing, calling on Park to step down.

While determined, the protests have mostly been lighthearted, with participants using humor instead of intimidation to express their views. Multiple generations of the same family have come out, and the demonstrations have generally had festive atmospheres, blurring the line between cultural and political event.

Perhaps sensing the difficulty of using this exercise of democracy as a propaganda coup to, as it is wont to do, depict South Korea as a cruel and disorderly society under the control of the U.S., North Korea has yet to comment on the movement that led to Park’s ouster (early on in the scandal, through propaganda website Uriminzokkiri, the North castigated Park for her alleged misdeeds, and called for her to resign).

Just three days after the impeachment vote, the North spoke out while all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, while opting not to mention the scandal directly. That day, a report carried by Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s main propaganda outlet, depicted a military operation targeting the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office and Park’s place of residence. On the cover of that day’s edition of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper ran two photos of North Korean soldiers descending on the Blue House, and the building going up in flames, as leader Kim Jong Un chuckled as he looked on.

As of now, it is safe to assume that, save for a small elite with access to outside sources of information, North Koreans aren’t aware of the popular movement that has flipped its southern neighbor’s politics on its head. North Korea’s state media has proven to be of no use in helping its citizens understand events outside the country, and this case is an example of North Korea’s media fulfilling its primary function: keeping the populace unaware of the freedoms enjoyed elsewhere in the world, keeping them in the dark as candles of democracy burn in the South.

*Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul