The North Korean media are propaganda tools. In 2003, they tried to rally the people behind the Stalinist regime’s dispute with the United States over its nuclear programme. North Korea continued to be world’s worst country for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders’ second worldwide ranking in 2003.
Kim Jong-il had himself re-elected in September 2003 for another five years as head of the national defence commission, from where he controls his country’s destiny with an iron hand. He named a new prime minister: Pak Pong-ju, a specialist in small and medium-size enterprises who is supposed to re-launch the moribund economy. The official news agency KCNA, which blew hot and cold on relations between Pyongyang and Washington in 2003, said North Koreans had shown they were united behind their leader by keeping him in office.
The media, whose journalists are members of the country’s one party, tried to revive the anti-American sentiment that goes back to the Korean war. Pyongyang’s newspapers were full of slogans hostile to President George W. Bush’s administration while radio and TV commentators adopted a fiery tone whenever referring to the United States. University academic Cho Myong-chul, who has followed North Korea since 1994, said the anti-American and militaristic propaganda has helped create a "new linguistic culture" in which, for example, "I’m going to kill you like an American imperialist" is now common insult.
All the media serve as mouthpieces of the regime. Praise of the leader Kim Jong-il fill page after page in the newspapers and entire radio and TV programmes. The TV news programmes consist largely of footage of the dictator visiting new companies or attending opening ceremonies, accompanied by lyrical comments on the greatness of Kim Il-sung’s son and successor. Those running the news media, including the editor of Rodong Shinmun (Labour Daily), the chairman of the Korean Central News Agency and the directors of the state TV broadcaster, are all senior members of the party central committee and came under Kim’s direct supervision.
The official newspapers are posted in the street but few people stop to read them or buy them. On the other hand, they are distributed very extensively throughout the state ministries and state agencies. Labour Daily, the organ of the Korean Workers’ Party, and the national news agency have Internet sites hosted in Japan.
There are strict controls to prevent access to any kind of news coming from abroad. Nothing is said about the human rights situation. An American NGO reported in 2003 that at least 200,000 people are being held in concentration camps where torture, forced labour and summary executions are common. The authorities are able to count on the complicity of the Chinese police to track down anyone trying to smuggle information in or out of North Korea by its northern border.
Radio Free Asia, which is financed by the US congress, doubled its Korean-language broadcasts on 16 January from two to four hours a day to satisfy the North Korean population’s "thirst for news" during the "nuclear crisis." The programmes are also available on the Internet. North Koreans have been listening to Radio Free Asia clandestinely since the Korean-language broadcasts were launched in 1997, the station says. Other international radio stations try to break the regime’s monopoly on news inside North Korea. South Korea’s KBS, for example, beams a special programme to the north which has interviews with the regime’s opponents. Radio Free Asia’s website quoted a North Korean refugee as saying: "Thanks to these radio stations, I realised that North Korea was not a state that was concerned about its people’s fate."
The North Korean media were untypically discreet in their reactions to the start of the US offensive in Iraq in March. Contrary to what happened during the first Gulf war in 1991, the newspapers stuck to factual reporting and refrained from any comment. Expression’s of outrage over the Iraq war appeared to have been reined in by concern that the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme might induce the United States to make Pyongyang its next target after Baghdad.
The standard programme opening message referring to Kim Jong-il’s father, the deceased "eternal president," was finally dropped by the government radio on 15 April. "Long life to the revolutionary great chief Comrade Kim Il-sung! And long life to the glorious Korean Workers’ Party!" was replaced by "Long life to our motherland, the Democratic Republic of Korea! And long life to the Korean Workers’ Party, which has organised and guided all the Korean people’s victories!"
The authorities designated radio sets as "new enemies of the regime" on 13 June. Backed by Reporters Without Borders, human rights activists in South Korea had just announced their intention of launching hundreds of small transistor radios across the border by balloon to enable North Koreans to listing to foreign radio stations. The official daily Rodong Shinmun described it as a "US attempt to destabilize the government" and to serve "imperialist interests" in Asia through Radio Free Asia and other stations.
Possession of an unauthorised radio was considered by the security services to be a "political crime." Refugees said North Koreans have been sent to concentration camps for being caught with an unregistered radio. North Koreans are supposed to register their radio sets with the local police. When the authorities return the sets to their owners, they are locked on to the frequency of the government radio station and are sealed to prevent tampering. But the price of radio sets has fallen because of an increase in trade with China. Refugees have said some North Koreans register a radio set with the authorities and buy an additional one. The number of listeners was said to be significant. In a survey in 2001, six out of 12 refugees said they have listened to Radio Free Asia’s Korean-language programmes. It was only one in 12 in 1999. According to another survey, 20 per cent of North Korean homes have a radio set.
North and South Korea undertook on 30 July to put an end to "hostile propaganda" by their respective state-owned radio and TV stations. North Korea stopped broadcasting its daily anti-South Korea programme, "The Voice of National Salvation," two days later. But those in charge of Radio Liberty, an offshoot of the South Korean public radio station KBS that has been targeting programmes at North Korea since 1948, refused to shut down a few weeks later. Its news programmes no longer explicitly attacked North Korea’s policy, but they included interviews with North Korean refugees and reports that are sensitive for the authorities in Pyongyang.