Self-reliance. Glory to the Kim Family. Vigilance against the Americans. Vitriol towards Japan. Read the latest edition of the Rodong Sinmun and these key themes play out in virtually every article. With anti-American sentiment a tentpole of North Korean ideology, a warming in US-DPRK relations would fundamentally change the landscape of DPRK media. The 2018-2019 window for deal-making between the two adversaries may or may not be closed; it is nonetheless useful to think through how the North Korean ideological machine might need to adapt to a potential future in which US-DPRK relations are being remade.
Luckily, such a rapprochement is not without precedent. There are a number of useful parallels between the current US-DPRK situation and the US-PRC rapprochement of the 70s. Mao’s China, like modern North Korea, had exceptionally tight control over the flow of information, dominated media through government ownership and censorship, and relied on anti-Americanism a key tenet of state ideology and policy. An analysis of the structure of Chinese media of the time and how content producers shifted to accommodate a thaw in US-PRC relations provides a potential framework for comparing the recent state of North Korean affairs and what changes North Korea observers can keep an eye open for. Perhaps most importantly, China shows that such a propaganda shift is possible as a country moves from an “anti-imperialist, anti-American” stance to a more pragmatic, complex position.
Gradual change in a two-tier system
Under Mao, the Chinese information system could be roughly characterized as a two-tier system. Close to the center of power, party elites and other privileged citizens had access to a curated selection of translated foreign materials and contemporary debates on policy issues. A fraction of this information and exchange then made its way out to the second tier, where views tended to adhere closely to party lines and reflected the victors of the policy debates occurring in the first tier. The goal of the first tier was to foster an educated discourse among elites, within certain political boundaries, and allow for some experimentation and debate with novel policies. The second tier, by contrast, served a more typical propaganda function of spreading party ideology, disparaging enemies of the state, and lauding the achievements of the people.
In the case of the US-PRC rapprochement, the two-tier system allowed China to slowly prepare officials for the possibility of warming relations. Internal circulations, most notable Reference News, reprinted uncensored translations of foreign, including American, articles and speeches, including such occasions as Nixon’s first official reference to the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, outward facing publications like People’s Daily maintained an overall strategic line of anti-Imperialism in the broader culture, even while policy shifts were being explored at upper levels. When elite debates decided that the signals from America were genuine and worth pursuing, the dual transmission system allowed the press to slowly titrate the amount of pro-American media and information available, including translations of Nixon’s speeches or positive coverage of sympathetic American visitors. By 1971, People’s Daily was running stories about Americans meeting Premier Zhou Enlai weekly, often on the front page.
American friends and American foes
Short of proclaiming a new friendship with the US, the preferred mode of increasing pro-American sentiment in the leadup to rapprochement was the trope of the “American friend.” Visits from Communist-sympathetic American figures, such as Edgar Snow, featured prominently in the late 60s and established a key distinction between “good” Americans and an evil American government. One such emblematic headline from January of 1971 proclaimed “American People are Full of Promise,” and described the American citizenry as struggling against the “fascist rule of their own government.” By breaking away from a monolithic approach to Americans, Chinese media could find ways to applaud dialogue with America without causing undue dissonance with the typical anti-capitalist, anti-American elements of state ideology.
Let others do the talking first
Lastly, when it came time for the epochal summit, state media was reserved and careful in initial coverage. People’s Daily initially didn’t even run its own commentary of the summit, instead pulling an editorial from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, which saw the summit as the failure of an American attempt to isolate China. The DPRK editorial further warned against optimism, lest the imperialists were ‘shaking an olive branch in one hand and brandishing a knife in the other.’ Only a little later, when the summit seemed to have been a clear-cut success, did media run its own, more optimistic coverage. This coverage heavily reported foreign reactions and praise for the summit, giving the state a convenient out from accusations of being fooled should the thaw in relations fall short of expectations.
The DPRK comparison
All three of these elements are present to some extent in the current North Korean system.
An equivalent of Reference News existed in North Korea, and although it is unclear if the bulletin is still in circulation, department-specific informative bulletins are likely circulated among key groups of officials. Members of the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) also have access to translations of foreign news and knowledge of current events is clearly reflected in their articles.
Access to foreign news is critical in reporting the reactions of foreign nations, including paraphrases of international commendation of the Trump-Kim summits. Unlike the Chinese case, however, North Korean foreign references are rarely lengthy reprints or excerpts and seldom attributed to a specific entity or person, making them hard to verify. At times, such “foreign media” when printed at length, is fabricated even if the source actually exists and produces pro-DPRK content.
The closest parallel, and perhaps most important as a first step in improving public perceptions of Americans, is the American friends narrative. Basketball star Dennis Rodman stands out as the shining example (and perhaps only sample) of the genre, and it seems no coincidence that an article about him tellingly titled “Honourable American” appeared in the days following the Hanoi summit to nostalgically rehash Rodman’s 2013 visit to the DPRK. The power of Rodman’s narrative is not to be underestimated. A member of Rodman’s organizing team once recounted a North Korean middle schooler telling him, “I want an American friend someday, because my Supreme Leader has one.”
A watered-down version of this narrative surrounds media coverage of Trump. Early in his presidency, North Korean coverage pulled no punches in insulting Trump; following the summits, they routinely emphasized the good personal relationship between Trump and Kim and have gone out of their way to avoid directly blaming Trump for pitfalls in relations. Instead, blame is shunted off onto figures like Bolton, Pompeo, and the nebulous “conservative politicians” (and, occasionally, Japan) when progress falters. This is a calibrated attempt to divide hawks from Trump, whom the North Koreans have seen as more willing to make a deal favorable to the DPRK. By singling out conservative politicians, the state can also continue its usual line of criticism of the US system at large without closing the door on the possibility of future negotiations.
The Chinese model is not the only way for a state like North Korea to prepare its public for a rapprochement for the United States, should we someday again be faced with such a prospect. However, the Chinese model provides some helpful guidelines for the type of media that can cushion a public relations transition as critical and fraught as a US-DPRK rapprochement.
In propaganda terms, if the Chinese case is applicable, we should look for North Korea beginning to distinguish the American people from the American government and highlighting a select handful of ‘American friends’ to hold up before the North Korean public. Dennis Rodman would, despite everything, be a good starting point; the 2019 ‘Honoured American’ article suggests that perhaps the PAD have recognized the capacity for this as well. Even if continued criticism of the United States as an ‘imperialist power’ continues, some officials and their policies may be highlighted as sensible.
North Korea’s hesitancy to engage directly with foreign media will remain a potential stumbling block as the youngest generation of North Koreans grow up in a world of mixed information, especially as they learn about summitry with the United States from unofficial sources. The Chinese case, where the state took charge of regularly providing foreign material accompanied by party-approved commentary, demonstrates a model where the state can be the predominant source of outside information for the general public (Reference News eventually rapidly readership in the early 70s), satisfying their curiosity while maintaining a safe level of ideological control. Still, this model existed before the internet, USBs, DVDs and mobile phones revolutionized access to and proliferation of information. Pyongyang will be concerned that shifting the narrative on America, in combination with the public’s viewing of illicit media, could drastically undermine some key justifications for some of its more restrictive policies.
Going forward, the North Korean system could experiment with more inclusion of foreign content in state mouthpieces and sustainably shift the object of friendship from Trump to American friends and the American public at large. Perhaps most importantly, China of the 1970s shows that a state like North Korea truly can dramatically change its relationship with a former enemy and deal with that change in its propaganda system. Propaganda doesn’t simply present narratives; it shapes events themselves. How North Korea handles coverage of US-DPRK relations will be an important factor in the very success of future summits, and the Chinese case, if North Korea so chooses to study it, offers a rough road map for the hard path to rapprochement that hopefully one day lies ahead.
Rose Adams is a graduate student at the Center for East Asia Studies at Stanford University and Andray Abrahamian is an Adjunct Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.