This week, news organizations selected by the North Korean government were permitted to report inside the country on the launch of a supposed weather satellite by the autocratic regime. The launch, which was more about military power than meteorology, was a spectacular failure. Bob speaks with B.R. Myers, who says that despite that failure, the mere presence of international media is useful to North Korean domestic propaganda.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
The world press convened this week in, of all out-of-the-way places, North Korea. The leadership of the ordinarily locked-down police state took the unusual step of inviting selected news agencies into the country, ostensibly to witness the launch of a weather satellite.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the world watched and North Korea failed. Today –
MARTHA RADDATZ/GOOD MORNING AMERICA: A total dud. It was all over so quickly. George. That rocket was only airborne for 81 seconds!
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A long range missile launch, ending with the rocket splintering into pieces over the ocean.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so it didn’t go so well. Quite the loss of face for the brand-spanking new Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, adding to the deep curiosity about recent events. Why take such a risk? Why flout an agreement for food aide in exchange for a missile test moratorium practically before the ink was dry? And, perhaps most of all, why suddenly open the gates to the prying eyes of the international press?
Earlier in the week, the U.S. government had expressed its concern that reporters might be playing into North Korea’s hands. A spokesperson from the National Security Council told Politico that, quote, “Reporters have to be careful not to get co-opted. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this is a propaganda exercise.
Of course, as events unfolded, it became apparent that even rocket scientists are fallible. Speaking hours before Friday’s launch, North Korea analyst B.R. Myers speculated that the point wasn’t what the foreign media would see, but that they had converged on North Korea’s capitol to see it.
B.R. MYERS: They are pawned; they are being co-opted in the sense of being used as extras in North Korean propaganda broadcasts. One of the big myths of the official culture is the notion that North Korea is at the center of the world’s attention. And there’s no better way to illustrate that than to have a bunch of foreign journalists jockeying for a better look at the missile. And I’ve already seen the North Korean TV broadcast. They’ve already reported proudly on the presence of these foreign reporters. So that sense, I think these correspondents are being exploited, regardless of what they write for the folks back home.
Having said that though, I think North Korea always exploits the American press, not so much through correspondents as through Op Ed contributors. North Korea has a strategy of inviting say the same six or ten American academics or experts to the country, treating them to very exclusive conversations and meetings. And those travelers then go back to the States and then write a sympathetic Op Ed piece. That’s really where the danger lies.
BOB GARFIELD: Once all of this western press is actually situated in the country, isn’t there a picture that the picture that comes out of North Korea will not serve the regime’s interests?
B.R. MYERS: I would say it’s more than a risk. It’s almost a certainty. It is so ultra-nationalist and so wrapped up in itself that it really is not able to present itself to the outside world as skillfully as the Soviets were doing in the last decades of the USSR. I think the average report from Pyongyang by a correspondent who’s been let in for the first time really dwells on the bizarreness and the kookiness of the place and on all the limitations under which he was placed while trying to do his job.
But the North Koreans might well be thinking that the domestic propaganda benefits of having foreign journalists there in front of North Korean cameras would outweigh those risks.
BOB GARFIELD: This gets to the oddity of the situation. It’s hard for me to understand how this totalitarian regime so craves the sense of legitimacy from its public that it will take that risk just to show North Koreans how it is at – at the center of the world’s attention. It doesn’t strike me as being a particularly good bet.
B.R. MYERS: I suppose what you’re really asking is why don’t they just put the country under lockdown and just rule the way they want to rule, instead of trying to curry favor with the public. And I think the answer is that trying to rule by pure coercion requires a level of economic resources that the North Koreans simply don’t have. They’re in the position, for example, to seal off their northern border to keep people from escaping.
So the only way that they can remain in power is by inspiring the people. And the best way to inspire people is through displays of military strength.
BOB GARFIELD: So the conventional wisdom, of course, is that missile launches are used as bargaining chips with the United States and with China, but if you’re right, it’s more political theater aiming to guarantee the continuation of the regime.
B.R. MYERS: It’s basically foreign policy as an adjunct of domestic propaganda. They signed that agreement on February 29th, and mere weeks later they announced that they were going to carry out this missile launch. That is not the behavior of a state that is primarily interested in securing aide deals from the outside world. If it were about money, obviously, they would not be launching a missile, the cost of which would keep its people fed for almost a year.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it’s been estimated at about a half a billion dollars. This is not something that North Korea can shake out of the sofa cushions.
B.R. MYERS: Exactly. And yet, you still find Americans who, who think that they’re launching the missile in order to get a better aide deal at the negotiating table. It’s just absurd. I think it stems from our refusal to consider the fact that North Korea has an ideology of its own. We Americans have always inclined to think that foreign countries simply react to our foreign policy. And I don’t think that’s the case this time.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian, thank you so much.
B.R. MYERS: Sure, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: B.R. Myers is a scholar and North Korea analyst. He spoke to us from Busan, South Korea.