The former president of South Korea is a “rat,” Hillary Clinton is a “funny lady” who is “by no means intelligent” and the U.S. mainland is “similar to a boiled pumpkin.”
That’s on a good day in North Korea.
If the U.S. starts a nuclear war, the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency said in an April 8 statement, North Korea “will set fire to the dens of crimes and bases of aggression with its powerful and sophisticated nuclear strike means and completely wipe them out on the earth.”
While the current barrage of threats from the isolated regime is unusually thunderous, official mouthpieces have bombarded North Koreans with denunciations of their enemies and paeans to their leaders since the nation’s founding in 1948.
The latest propaganda outburst, U.S. officials and scholars say, is intended not only to rally North Koreans behind their young new leader, Kim Jong-Un, but also to arouse the international news media and undermine the South Korean economy.
While the North’s threats may lack credibility, and some of its photos have been exposed as crude fakes, its Stalin-era propaganda techniques are proving to be surprisingly effective in this age of instant news, according to Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu.
“If your objective is to reassure the domestic population of your bravery and steadfastness, it’s probably effective,” Cossa said in a telephone interview. “If your objective is to get on page one of the New York Times or Bloomberg News, it’s probably effective. This sort of guarantees them attention. They believe it puts pressure on South Korea to negotiate on their terms.”
The threats increased expectations for the first interest-rate cut in South Korea since October. Eleven of 20 economists forecast the Bank of Korea would reduce borrowing costs to 2.5 percent from 2.75 percent, according to a Bloomberg News survey. The bank kept the rate unchanged.
It’s easy to explain why the media are so quick to amplify every blast, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul who studies North Korea.
“The vitriolic statements are so quotable, if not laughable,” he said. For North Koreans, they’re part of everyday life.
“This is a natural part of their language,” Delury said in a telephone interview. “It’s kind of in their DNA. It’s deeply rooted in their history. They still feel they’re fighting off the whole world to survive.”
Analysts such as Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the U.K., say they’ve noticed an increase in vitriol since Kim Jong-Un took power a year ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il.
While North Korea has for years threatened to turn Seoul, which is within range of its artillery, into a “sea of fire,” it more recently has taken aim at the distant U.S.
“The U.S. mainland is similar to a boiled pumpkin,” the state news agency said, quoting an official of Kim Il-Sung Military University. “This vast territory will inevitably turn into a living hell of appalling disasters by the annihilating strikes to be dealt by the Korean People’s Army.”
No nuclear-armed North Korean missile, though, can reach Anchorage or Honolulu, never mind Seattle, San Francisco or Austin, Texas, which found its way onto Kim’s hit list for reasons that aren’t clear.
“Claiming now that they can destroy Washington is new,” said Cossa. “It’s not credible, but it’s new.”
Credibility has never been a major concern of North Korea’s propaganda machine, he said.
“They really don’t care how it’s being seen in the rest of the world,” he said. “My best guess is the people who are writing it aren’t writing it for us. They’re writing it to show their allegiance to the dear leader or the dear general.”
The North Korean rhetoric and posters of North Korean soldiers destroying imperialist powers resemble the propaganda and tone of the former Soviet Union, said David Satter, a longtime Russia scholar now with the Hudson Institute in Washington.
Just as Nikita Khrushchev vowed to “bury” the U.S. in 1956, Kim is trying to prove his mettle as a dictator by issuing bellicose threats, Satter said in a telephone interview from Russia.
“Like with any group of gangsters, the new guy is very determined to show how reckless and tough he is,” Satter said. “It’s consistent with the way Communist leaders of the old Soviet Union behaved.”
While the Soviet Union stuck to print and television, North Korea has gone multimedia.
A video uploaded by North Korea’s official website, Uriminzokkiri, and available on Google Inc.’s YouTube made headlines in February for suggesting a possible attack on the U.S.
The piece, shot as a music video, features a young North Korean man dreaming of flying in a rocket and witnessing the destruction of what is presumed to be a major American city, as an instrumental version of the 1980’s pop hit “We Are the World” serves as a soundtrack.
“In America, I can see black smoke,” the man dreams, according to a translation of the captions by NK News, a website that covers North Korea. “It seems like the devil’s nest that habitually caused wars of invasion and persistence are finally burning under the flames it itself has ignited.”
The Korean Central News Agency also has resorted to doctoring photos to exaggerate the regime’s military prowess.
A photo released by the state agency last month shows hovercraft storming a beach during a training exercise. The picture had been altered to paste additional vessels into the scene, with two of them kicking up an identical fierce spray in otherwise calm waters. Agence France-Presse later killed the photo’s distribution, saying an analysis showed unmistakable signs of manipulation.
Another set of photos that appeared in the official newspaper of the Korean Workers’ Party show a seated Kim, surrounded by military advisers, reviewing his “U.S. mainland strike plan.” A map on the wall behind him shows targets that include Hawaii, San Diego, Washington and a Texas city that may be Austin.
Texas Governor Rick Perry used the occasion to promote Austin. “The individuals in North Korea understand that Austin, Texas, is now a very important city in America, as do corporate CEOs and other people who are moving here in record numbers,” the Republican governor told CBS News.
North Korean propaganda often takes an especially dismissive view of women who oppose the regime, as in a March 13 attack on the new president of South Korea, Park Geun-Hye, saying her “swish of skirt” was to blame for rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, got her share of insults in 2009, after she criticized North Korean missile launches.
“We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community,” the state news agency said in a July 23, 2009, statement. “Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.”
While North Korea’s fashion credentials are open to question, some of its harshest criticism has been saved for former South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak, whom it frequently compares to a rat.
North Korea’s dictators, particularly its founder, Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of the current leader, on the other hand, receive treatment that might make Stalin or Mao Zedong blush.
“Kim Il Sung was an incarnation of internationalism, possessed of noble personality, great magnanimity and warm humanity,” according to an April 8 statement.
The news service seemed less certain how to describe the February visit of former basketball star Dennis Rodman, who sat with Kim Jong-Un to watch a game. The seven-time National Basketball Association rebounding champion is known for his tattoos, piercings and outlandish behavior, such as wearing a wedding dress to promote his 1996 autobiography.
Offering neither praise nor criticism of Rodman, the agency said in a statement Feb. 28 that Rodman and his entourage “paid high tribute to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il before their statues” and “made an entry in the visitor’s book.”