Area: 120,540 sq.km.
General Secretary of Korean Workers’ Party: Kim Jong-il
Head of state: Kim Yong-nam
Despite the announcement of reforms by Kim Jong-il, the press has not undergone any positive evolution. All the media are controlled by the single party or, according to some, the "Dear Leader" himself. The regime continues to serve up the same mind-numbing propaganda to the population. Some journalists are reportedly held in concentration camps.
It just took the removal of Kim Jong-il’s portraits from the walls of official buildings in mid-November 2004 for news media throughout the world to start wondering if there had been a leadership change in the planet’s most hermetic government. Nothing of the sort. The "Dear Leader" had simply decided to restrict the personality cult to his father Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994 and who was subsequently proclaimed North Korea’s "President for Eternity."
Article 11 of the North Korean constitution defines the strict, one-party-state regime: "The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea must conduct all of its activities under the leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party." The single party is guided by "juche" (the quest for self-reliance and autonomy) and Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary ideology. The central committee or its political bureau is supposed to take the decisions. But in practice, it is Kim Jong-il at the head of the presidium (of which he is the sole member) who runs the country, like his father before him.
He is surrounded by a corps of bodyguards consisting of family members and, by all accounts, he personally commands the fear state security, the Kukka Anjon Bowibu, which runs the concentration camps where some 200,000 North Koreans are detained and tens of thousands of others have died in the course of the past four decades.
Today the "Dear Leader" is promoting economic reforms that are meant to improve living conditions for his fellow-countrymen, but six million of them depend on international food aid to survive.
The press defends the regime’s big lies
The Kim family dynasty took the decision decades ago to develop North Korean socialism in complete isolation from the outside world. This facilitates domestic propaganda. The official media can concoct the big lies without any competition from independent or foreign media. It is distressing to hear what North Korean refugees have to say after they have fled to China and have been confronted with what actually goes on in the world. It is no surprise that, after been crushed by the reality of the regime’s lies, 70 per cent of those interviewed by Doctors Without Borders are suffering from acute post-traumatic disorders.
The dozen or so national media, especially Rodong Shinmun (The Workers’ Newspaper), the Korean Central News Agency and the state TV company JoongAng Bang Song - known as "Kim Jong-il’s troops" in the official terminology - are exclusively dedicated to the personality cult of the two Kims.
At the journalism school of Kim Il-sung university in Pyongyang, students learn to comply with the "permanent information plan," which establishes a strict hierarchy for the work of the media. The first priority is publicising the greatness of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. Then comes demonstrating the superiority of North Korean socialism and denouncing imperialist and bourgeois corruption. Criticising the invasion instinct of the imperialists and Japanese comes fourth.
"Once a month, the head of the TV station organised a monthly press plan and distributed subjects to the different sections," said Jang Hae-sung, who was an editor with the TV station, JoongAng Bang Song, from 1976 to 1996. "For example, I would be assigned three reports on Kim Jong-il’s greatness and two on the imperialist threat. For this, we had access to the TV archives. A large room where cassettes are filed away by such themes as ’Kim Jong-il’s greatness in agriculture’ or ’Kim Jong-il’s greatness in industry.’ Obviously, there were secret archives as well, especially South Korean TV footage. We needed the head of the TV station’s permission to use those."
The party also counts on journalists to promote the official history. North Korea’s big lies are defended daily in the press. According to the propaganda, for example, the South attacked the North in June 1950 and healthcare is free for all North Koreans.
Throughout their career, journalists must continue to receive ideological training. Former editor Kim Gil-sun said: "We had to attend lectures every Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm. Central Committee members taught us about the achievements of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, their leading speeches and the party’s ideology (...) Our test results were obviously crucial for our careers. The party counted on the most disciplined journalists."
The effect on news coverage is obvious. The TV news bulletins consist of just one sequence of Kim Jong-il after another, visiting new factories or attending inaugurations, accompanied by lyrical praise of the greatness of father and son.
Dozens of journalists "revolutionized"
A high price can be paid for a typing error or misspeaking in North Korea. A state radio journalist was punished at the start of 2004 for mistakenly referring to a North Korean deputy minister as minister. He reportedly spent several months in a "revolutionization" camp. A TV journalist, Kim Kwan Hee, spent a year in one of these reeducation camps in 1986 for erroneously describing Park Chung-he, who headed an authoritarian regime in South Korea from 1961 to 1979, as a "democratic leader."
"Revolutionization" camps are state factories or farms where functionaries, including journalists, are sent to work if they make mistakes. Jang Hae-sung, who was a TV journalist for 20 years, told Reporters Without Borders he was aware of at least 40 cases of journalists who were "revolutionized," including himself. Reporters Without Borders also learned in 2004 that journalists are held in concentration camps. They include state television journalist Song Keum-chul, who was arrested at the end of 1995 for organising a small group of critical journalists. There has been no word of him since then.
Radio sets - the "new enemies of the regime"
In the absence of the Internet (e-mail is banned) and satellite dishes, the only way for many North Koreans to sidestep the official propaganda is to tune into the Korean-language broadcasts of foreign radio stations.
"You can buy radio sets in North Korea that are pre-set to the government radio frequency and sealed, but some people take the risk of opening them up in order to be able to tune into other frequencies," a refugee explained. Today, more and more radio sets are getting into the country, especially to Pyongyang, from the People’s Republic of China.
"I think many refugees decided to leave after listening to international radio stations, especially Voice of America et Radio Free Asia, and South Korean stations, as that opens people’s eyes," said the manager of FreeNK, a dissident radio station based in South Korea.
The party launched a campaign to check radio sets at the end of 2003. The head of each party cell in neighbourhoods and villages received instructions to verify the seals on all radio sets. The North Korean authorities designated radio sets as "new enemies of the regime" on 13 June 2004.
There are almost certainly no clandestine publications in North Korea. It is just known that Kim Jong-il gave orders in 1999 for closer monitoring of type-writers and photocopiers for fear they could be used against the regime. Still, leaflets criticising the dictatorship and the juche ideology were found in Chinese border areas in November 2004. Was this beginning of a domestic dissident movement?
Some North Korean officials do not hide their hostility toward the international press, which is allowed into the country in very limited numbers. "Journalists are all liars," responded foreign minister Paek Nam-sun in September 2004 when questioned by a British foreign office minister about reports that a large explosion had been detected by the United States and South Korea