International tension created by the first North Korean nuclear test in October was accompanied within the country by new propaganda campaigns against foreign imperialism. The totalitarian regime in Pyongyang did its utmost to prevent North Koreans from obtaining any independent information on the subject.
The day after the first North Korean nuclear test on 30 October 2006, state-run media broadcasted footage of popular celebration. Commentators, zealous officials of the regime, boasted of the glory of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and, of course, of the key role of Kim Jong-il.
All radio stations broadcasting to the country in Korean are jammed. In May, the Japanese government confirmed that a station recently set up by an organisation campaigning for the return of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea had experienced interference coming from the Korean peninsula. In October, the Pyonyang media condemned the activities of radio FreeNK broadcast online and on shortwave radio from Seoul. North Korean officials took advantage of the occasion to condemn the “clumsy charade” perpetrated by US authorities which support the station and called on its South Korean counterparts to get the broadcasts stopped.
Despite police campaigns to check individual radios (every radio is sealed so it can only pick up official radio frequencies), a growing number of radios are smuggled across the border from China. They allow people to hear South Korean radio programmes, stations set up by exiles and the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Few foreign media can work in North Korea. Delegations of South Korean journalists do indeed make regular visits to their neighbouring country, but many obstacles are put in their way. In March, for example, a crew from SBS television was held for several days by North Korean police who threatened the journalists that they would be tried under laws in the North for “lying”. In protest, all the reporters who had entered the country to cover family reunions between North and South left the country. In May, North Korean officials at the last moment blocked the arrival of 200 journalists from the South at the Gaeseong special economic zone after the South Korean press criticised North Korea’s decision to cancel a project to build a railway line connecting the two countries.
Elsewhere, very few international TVs, including the US channel ABC News, have been allowed to broadcast from North Korea, but only after lengthy negotiations. “This permission was obtained only after a large number of meetings and a lot of work and effort,” an ABC News executive said. Foreign reporters are closely watched by local journalists or North Korean police, who have orders to limit their contact with local people as much as possible.
Kim Jong-il directly controls the North Korean press, particularly the Rodong Shinmun (The Workers’ Newspaper), the Korean Central News Agency and national television JoongAng Bang Song. In February, to mark his birthday, all the media vaunted the “immortal exploits” of “the dear leader”. Every journalist is indoctrinated so as to be able to bear witness, without any mistakes, to the grandeur of the late president Kim Il-sung and his son. The press also has the responsibility of demonstrating the superiority of North Korean socialism over “bourgeois and imperialist corruption”. A typing error can prove expensive: several North Korean journalists have been sent to “revolutionisation camps” for a single spelling mistake. Song Keum-chul, of state television, was sent to a concentration camp at the end of 1995, for having set up a small group of critical journalists. Nothing has been heard of him since.