This past Wednesday, the Institute of World Politics hosted a lecture on propaganda in North Korea. Jang Jin-Sung, a former propaganda poet within the North Korean regime, came to talk about his former country and the nature of psychological control.
There is a great deal about Jang’s comments which I believe most Americans need to understand when we talk about North Korea. Despite the harshness and misery of the regime, it does not rule entirely through fear or the point of a bayonet. The people of North Korea really do believe a great deal (though not necessarily all) of the tripe which is forced down their throats by the propaganda regime. In fact, the army does not govern North Korea as much as Westerners think it does. The Workers’ Party of Korea may no longer adhere to Communism, but they still are the most important organization within North Korea ( along with an organization called the OGD which I will get into below)
And that propaganda regime, according to Jang, is more restrictive than any other regime in history. He even compared Stalin’s cult of personality favorably to the Kims’ cult of personality – at least Stalin’s cult did not try to build the entirety of world history around the man. North Korea does. For example, Kim Il-Sung’s birth date, April 15, 1912, happens to be the same day on which the Titanic sank. North Korean propaganda claims that the two events are related, as they show the decline of the West in favor of the rise of the glorious Kim family and North Korea.
That is hardly the worst or the most absurd propaganda fact of the North Korean regime. Jang said that in contrast to the “socialist realism” famous in other Communist countries, North Korea practices “realist socialism.” Reality itself must conform to the socialist ideal practiced and preached by North Korea, and Jang all but stated that “doublethink” is applied in that country. It is not enough to ban culture which criticizes the Kim regime, or may import values incompatible with Juche. ALL art produced in North Korea must be officially produced and sanctioned by a North Korean Worker’s Party art division, and ALL art must praise the North Korean regime – no exceptions. The three leaders of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un must be the protagonists of any and all North Korean stories. While there may be other official protagonists, such characters are inevitably saved by the great North Korean leaders. On film sets, when the actor who plays the role of the North Korean Supreme Leader is in costume, everyone is required to treat him with the same respect that they would show to the Supreme Leader himself.
Jang also took some time to focus away from North Korean propaganda to focus on a secret North Korean organization called the Organization and Guidance Department(OGD) of North Korea. While Western media generally focuses on the Kim family, or sometimes the generals surrounding him, Jang states that the OGD are the real power in North Korea. The OGD controls all appointments to higher office in North Korea and runs North Korea’s StateSec. They are not loyal to North Korea or to Juche, but rather serve the Kim family and ensure that they maintain their grip on power. While he did not state so, my impression of Jang’s description of the organization would be to compare them to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary who all but ran Germany during the final years of the Third Reich.
However, the OGD suffers from the limitation that no member of the OGD actually holds political office. It is an ingenious system for the protection of the Kims. Those who hold office do not have enough power to actually threaten the family, while those with power do not possess the public reputation to overthrow them either.
But the OGD and North Korean propaganda aside, there is one issue regarding North Korea which irritates me, and it definitely came up in the question and answer session following Jang’s lecture. While the North Korea is a cruel, vicious regime which the world would be better off without, there are far too many people who seem more concerned with the visceral abuses which the regime inflicts on their people or their ludicrous displays done for the purposes of internal consumption instead of actually trying to understand North Korea. North Korea is more than just a bunch of propaganda and prison camps, just like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were more than the concentration camps and the gulags. To understand a country, you have to figure out their goals and how they intend to pursue them. Purpose is more important than facts. While I cannot speak highly enough of Jang’s lectures and the truth he has helped bring to light about North Korea, truth is not a purpose in and of itself. It is the means which truth serves that matters.
If you are further interested in what Jang had to say, I have attached my notes/transcription of what he had to say in Wednesday’s lecture below.