SEOUL, South Korea — Fans of North Korea’s state media should brace themselves for fewer images of a beaming Kim Jong-un and less focus on matters that, to Western eyes, are amusingly weird and wacky.
Aware that some images and media segments from the isolated, authoritarian state have become objects of ridicule in the wider world, Pyongyang propaganda czars are raising their game, according to a leading South Korean scholar.
Despite their sometimes alternative-universe take on the news, outlets like the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) are intensely scrutinized by outsiders for signs of what the opaque, often inscrutable Kim regime is focused on — and what it wants its population to know.
“My analysis does not show any traces of freedom of North Korean media control from the state,” Tatiana Gabroussenko, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s elite Korea University, said in a briefing for foreign reporters here. “However that does not mean North Korean media stays completely unchanged and does not experience any transformation.”
Propaganda by no means has disappeared from the daily North Korean news diet. The top stories from KCNA and other state media outlets for Wednesday included a new issue of stamps marketing the regime’s 75th anniversary; the strong state of the economy and the government’s disaster-relief efforts; a congratulatory message from Mr. Kim to the nation’s centenarians; and an article in the Minju Joson newspaper praising Mr. Kim as a “peerless patriot who opened up the new era of a dignified, powerful nation.”
Even so, Ms. Gabroussenko, who has spent 30 years viewing North Korea’s strictly controlled media landscape, said that current-generation news managers are actually taking some lessons from overseas capitalist competitors.
“Recently, we see them actively imitating foreign media to make North Korean versions more emotional and appealing,” she said. “They are pioneering new forms or genres, imitating Hollywood, South Korean dramas and TikTok.”
Coils of yellow goo
Many around the world were struck by the “Top Gun”-style production values of a 2022 video featuring the portly Mr. Kim, decked out in a black leather jacket and sunglasses, co-starring with a giant intercontinental ballistic missile and its transporter-erector launcher. Pacing in slow-motion in front of the weapon’s impressive hangar, Mr. Kim and his generals count down the seconds on their watches before the missile rises majestically into the heavens.
Even mainstream Western media could not resist running that clip, in full, on their sites.
Smaller details of overseas news are also showing up in the North’s new coverage. A recent photo of Mr. Kim being briefed, in front of another ICBM, by an official of the country’s strategic missile forces has the latter’s face blurred out, presumably for security reasons.
The emerging trend may disappoint overseas viewers, dulling the uniqueness of the official media’s adulatory coverage of Mr. Kim and life in North Korea.
A striking 2014 set of images of Mr. Kim beaming in apparent delight as coils of yellow sludge are excreted from a pipe at a lubricant factory went viral. Another set of photos showing him grinning broadly amid a group of apparently star-struck female soldiers sparked much ridicule abroad, as did yet another featuring the North Korean leader sandwiched between huge stacks of medicinal mushrooms.
These unintentionally comic images are being phased out.
“My feeling is North Koreans are very careful at seeing what the world writes about them when they became the object of fun,” Ms. Gabroussenko said.
Even Mr. Kim’s once-omnipresent grin is being seen less often. “There are no more cheesy political smiles, more natural images,” she said.
The new look was evident in the North’s coverage of Mr. Kim’s trip to flooded areas struck by a typhoon earlier this month. Rather than flashing his pearly whites, the national leader is shown looking grave as locals tell him of the damage.
The famous and longstanding practice of “on the spot guidance” — in which Mr. Kim briefs reverential officials and officers as they dutifully scribble down his wisdom in notebooks — is being pushed down the state hierarchy.
“Now, more and more leaders and officials are involved in the same thing,” Ms. Gabroussenko said.
The turgid nature of past propaganda is also getting a makeover: With the YouTube and Tik Tok generation suffering from shortening attention spans, North Korean editors are slashing their reports into faster-paced, bite-sized chunks.
Discussing news items covering typically the regime’s collectivist themes — a couple who adopt an ill girl, a woman who marries a disabled soldier, citizens heroically donating blood for burn victims — Ms. Gabroussenko noted that such segments are now just two minutes long. In the past, each would have merited an 80-minute report. Footage of sports, parades and industrial achievements are also getting a quicker editorial hook.
Some trends are in flux. In 2015, the song “Three Years of War” featured lyrics and a video detailing the horrors of war — bombs falling, a dead mother, a sobbing child — that were strongly at odds with the triumphalist tone of prior Korean War content pushed by the state. Things swiftly reverted, however, with the revival of an old song with upbeat music called “Pretty Girl” about a maiden who hurls herself under an enemy tank.
“The words and the images were completely incongruent,” Ms. Gabroussenko said.
The reporter’s job
Today’s media content generators in Pyongyang may share with their global colleagues an interest in seeing their stories well presented and widely viewed, but other comparisons fall short.
North Korean journalists are “not creative individuals running around the place. They are serious people,” the professor explained. “When a journalist visits a workplace or a home, it is almost equal to the visit of a Party inspector, they should be treated with great respect.”
There is little benefit in a reporter having a unique vision, specialist knowledge – or even a scoop.
“There is no concept of a hot fact which they have to hunt after,” Ms. Gabroussenko said. “Sensationalism is considered bad in North Korea. … The ultimate rule is working for social harmony and stability of society.”
So accustomed are they to this approach that North Koreans who defect south are sometimes shocked at displays of social freedoms, such as the mass protests against then-President Park Geun-hye in 2016 and 2017.
“They considered this sensationalism a little bit disturbing,” she said. “They asked how a president could work in such a destabilized society.”
Ms. Gabroussenko suggested North Korean journalists are better compared to hired public relations professionals in the West than reporters.
“It would be most precise to compare them to an advertising agent, to do things in the most creative, active, interesting form and try to develop all forms of media for that,” she said.
Given this, ongoing upgrades in production are stylistic, not indicative of substantive shifts in the Kim regime.
It’s “a revolution in form, but not content,” said Ms. Gabroussenko.