North Korean State TV Gets A Makeover The nation's broadcaster revamped its style and format — but not its message — after authorities ordered propagandists to "disregard the established customs" in the face of an influx of foreign info.

With New Style And Graphics, North Korea Gives Propaganda A Makeover

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Over to North Korea, where leaders there are facing a new challenge - explaining things, events to a public which now has its own sources of information. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul on North Korea's dilemma.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: There's a show on North Korean State Television, or KCTV, that brings soldiers news from their hometowns.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: In an episode last September, the show's anchor is interrupted by an announcer with an urgent update - something that normally does not happen on North Korean television.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: Look, he says, another piece of news from our families on the homefront, just in from Kangson steel factory. Soldiers from Kangson will be happy to hear that, the anchor replies.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Korean).


KUHN: The anchors are fresh-faced. Their attire is business casual, and their dialogue is chatty. The update is from a soldier's father at the steel factory. He tells the show that workers there are so ideologically fired up, they can beat their factory's production targets by 50%. Jang Haesung is a former KCTV reporter who defected to South Korea in the 1990s. He says North Korea's leaders are not overhauling their propaganda apparatus. They're just tinkering with it.

HAESUNG JANG: (Through interpreter) They know that they can't go on with the old ways of propaganda and idolizing leaders, but they have no choice because if they admit their failings, the regime could collapse.

KUHN: In recent months, Kim Jong Un has instructed his propagandists to stop building myths around the country's leadership. Authorities have called for fact-based propaganda that does not underestimate people's intelligence. Behind these statements, analysts say, is the fact that Pyongyang's narrative is competing with outside information. It's smuggled into the country on DVDs, thumb drives and memory cards, and it's carried over the airwaves.


KUHN: That's the Seoul-based North Korea Reform Radio broadcasting news over shortwave. Its president, Kim Seungchul, is a North Korean defector. Kim argues that the February summit in Vietnam between President Trump and Kim Jong Un illustrates how Pyongyang is losing control of the narrative. In Hanoi, Trump walked out on what he thought was a bad deal. Kim says North Koreans working overseas with access to foreign news were told by North Korean diplomats...

SEUNGCHUL KIM: (Through interpreter) We have our own position on this. You just wait and see. But in the meantime, don't tell anyone about it. Don't even discuss it with each other.

KUHN: But the news got out anyway. And after a week of claiming the summit was a victory for Kim Jong Un, North Korean media did an about-face, blaming hard-liners within the Trump administration for sabotaging the summit. Kang Dong-wan is an expert on North Korean media at Dong-a University in Busan. He says despite the great lengths North Korea's government goes to to control information, it still seeps in. And even though North Korea's leaders can easily jail their critics, they still have to at least appear to care what people think.

DONG-WAN KANG: (Through interpreter) No matter how much propaganda it puts out, the North Korean government knows that its people know that what they are telling them is not true.

KUHN: Kim Seungchul says it used to be that getting caught listening to foreign broadcasts could land you in a political prison or worse. Now so many people are listening, he says, that getting caught usually just means a fine or a short stint in a detention center.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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