A few years back I bought a couple of North Korean books in Pyongyang. Strangely, I enjoy reading them every once in a while. They have those distinctly surreal and bizarrely tragic yet comedic elements to them. To the very least, they provide ideal case studies of propaganda in North Korea. Meaning they illustrate how manipulative storytelling is very different from sincere forms of narration.
When I write a post or story myself, I usually start with a set of ideas and a problem; such as the one for this post: What makes a narrative manipulative? The process of writing then becomes an exercise in critical thinking and problem-solving.
When I start a new personal story, it’s very similar. To a degree, I know what will happen in the story because it’s based on my own experiences. Though, I don’t know what it all means. Not until I’ve finished the piece. That’s true for both non-fictional and fictional texts. I might think I know where I’ll end up. But whatever hypothesis I had, it almost always changes as I’m grappling with the ideas or events.
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.Hannah Arendt
The Relationship Between Writer and Reader
Of course, narratives are more than a series of events chained together. The best-case scenario is that the writer gains new insights as he or she wrestles with new material. At the same time, the writer hopes that his or her text resonates with the reader who finds meaning in it, too.
Personally, if I’m not thrilled by what I’m writing, I can only imagine how bored my readers will be. That’s probably the reason why I’d like to think I can tell how much a writer has really grappled with an idea.
This brings us to a very special kind of narrative in terms of writer-reader-relationship: the story as a propaganda technique. When I say propaganda story, what I mean is a text that’s inherently biased to influence, mislead or manipulate the reader for political gains. But how is this manipulation achieved?
Let’s find out by reading one of the North Korean stories from my books together. I promise I have not made it up. I have not added anything or taken anything away. I have merely broken it into parts.
Propaganda in North Korea: Breaking Down a Story
The narrative is taken from an authentic North Korean collection of anecdotes. We’ll be reading from Chapter 2: Love. Sounds promising, I know. Who would say no to love? When has affection ever been used in a manipulative way? But in all seriousness, let’s approach the story as if it was the first thing we learned about North Korea and dive in.
In a Hot African Country
A Special Aircraft with Four Children
In August the officials of our embassy in a hot African country were busy preparing their children to leave for homeland. Their four children were to enter primary school in the homeland on September 1.
Their parents grew restless, failing to sending off their children, for the flight was not booked even in late August.
Now even by the regular flight it became difficult for them to arrive in time for attending the school on its opening day.
The propaganda story from North Korea opens rather concise and to the point. The setting is established, although somewhat vaguely. We’re in an unknown African country in August of an unknown year. We’re being told that the climate is hot — for whatever that’s worth.
The characters of our stories appear to be associated with the embassy of the narrator’s native country. It’s a first-person narrator with an external viewpoint as far as we can tell. He or she doesn’t seem directly involved with the events. The narrator is not one of the parents.
What’s also established right away is the narrative’s conflict: The chances that the four children can make it back home in time for their first day of school are rather slim. Not only the situation but also the characters are hopeless. It’s made clear from the beginning that this is a serious and seemingly unsolvable problem.
As readers, we probably have a thousand questions. We don’t know who messed up the flight bookings and why nobody is capable of getting it done. We may have some thoughts on how to solve this problem. But for now, we need to accept that there’s no way out.
In any case, the emotional stakes of this piece of propaganda from North Korea are set high from the beginning. Let‘s read on.
A Mysterious Message
One day the embassy received a cable to get ready to meet a special aircraft from the homeland.
They thought that a large delegation was arriving by the special plane.
It contacted the country of residence according to diplomatic procedure and was busy making preparations to meet the special aircraft.
Question of children’s entrance into school was naturally relegated to the background. The special aircraft landed at an airport in that country on the appointed day. The officials of the embassy together with the officials of that country were waiting for it.
While we’re still pondering on the conflict the propaganda story presented to us in the beginning, a whole new problem overshadows the first one. A “special aircraft” has announced itself. The hopelessness is gone for the moment and replaced by a sense of diligence of the embassy staff. As “busy” as the parents are with their children’s educational conundrum, they still know their priorities. Fair enough, we all have to balance work and private life.
At any rate, the strange vagueness persists. The embassy staff as well as the foreign officials are left somewhat in the dark as to who will arrive on the plane. They’re dutiful, but not exactly in the detail. We’d expect that at least the host country would have an idea so they can get the correct protocol in place. But in essence, everyone is merely preparing for a “special aircraft” to arrive, not for people. Moving on.
The Big Surprise
To their surprise, however, no one but the crew deplaned.
The pilot came to them and said in excitement:
“The dear leader Comrade Kim Jong Il sent the special aircraft for four children lest they be late for school on its opening day.”
They felt they were in a dream.
They never thought that such a big plane was flown over continents and oceans to bring home the four children.
We’ve just learned about the two conflicts and they’re already somewhat resolved. In fact, they turn out to be connected quite elegantly. As we learn, the mysterious plane that kept people from worrying about how to get their kids back home was sent to get their kids back home — almost in a deus ex-machina fashion.
It’s also revealed who is responsible for the resolution. It’s none other than Kim Jong Il himself, (now former) leader of North Korea. This revelation goes hand in hand with the reaction of the crowd. In line with the desperation and hopelessness conveyed at the beginning, the atmosphere is now one of emotion and disbelief.
As far as they’re concerned, something unimaginable and magical has happened. The reaction of the characters serves to convey the gravitas of the event. The distance the plane has flown puts things even more in perspective. With the arrival of the plane sent by their leader, the staffers’ diligence is rewarded, their worries are addressed. However, the story of propaganda from North Korea doesn’t end there.
A Seemingly Hopeless Situation
The pilot explained the situation.
One day the dear Comrade Kim Jong Il was checking the preparations for a new school year. When he was told that the four children of the diplomats in an African country had not yet left because of a transport problem, he was lost in deep thought.
An oppressive silence reigned in the room for some time.
How to do? The question could not be solved by an ordinary method.
The officials nearly gave up. Under the circumstances it couldn’t be helped, they thought. In fact, it would not be a serious matter if four children could not attend the school on the opening day due to unavoidable circumstances and no one would blame them for it.
This is where the anecdote takes an interesting yet almost invisible turn, detailing how the magic trick is done. Our narrator along with the pilot turn out to have remarkable insider knowledge of the decision-making processes in Pyongyang.
We learn that the leader of North Korea is in the detail. Not only does he oversee the preparations for a new primary school year, but he is also aware of the whereabouts of even the smallest groups of children. Moreover, he is a patient and masterful thinker. He is a thoughtful man who takes even minor problems seriously.
This distinguishes the leader from his subordinates, who are portrayed as dutiful but somewhat lacking in character and skill. Let’s read on.
However, the dear Comrade Kim Jong Il thought otherwise. He thought he could not bring himself to sleep if they, though not many, failed to attend the cheerful opening ceremony.
He suggested in a firm tone that a special plane should be sent for them so that they might start school at the same time as the children at home.
Then he saw to it that an immediate measure was taken. A special aircraft bearing his love and affection was flown.
The indirect characterisation of Kim Jong Il continues. Compassion and decisiveness in decisions and their implementation are added to his qualities. Mind you, these are all admirable character traits. We could say he’s a special person who knows that special problems require special solutions that involve special planes with affectual cargo. At worst, we’re dealing with a high-performing, benevolent micromanager. The narrator goes on to say:
When they heard his story, not only the people of our embassy staff but also the officials of that country were so moved that they could not utter a word for a while.
The children who were clapping their hands for joy, found their parents in tears.
“Why do you cry, Mother?”
“No, I am not crying.”
“But you are in tears.”
“No, that is not crying. I am too happy.”
At last the special aircraft with the four children aboard left that country.
Now that we heard the story behind the special aircraft, our focus shifts back to the audience on the airfield. They are literally speechless before the emotions are taken to the next level. For the first time, we hear from the children themselves. Tears of joy are wept. For the second time only, characters are quoted in direct speech. Storywise, their feelings are shown rather than told.
Granted, the embassy staff are not your worker types, but I would still count them as ordinary, common families. That makes it easier for the average reader to relate to them and their euphoria is more credible when it comes to the leader. We should also note that another, more neutral source of praise is introduced. It’s a third party, the officials of the staffers’ host country. What happens next?
The Praise Continues
On its way home it made a refuelling stop at the airport of a country. As the airport was used by aircraft from many countries, many officials of that country were out there.
A special aircraft is usually used for a high-ranking delegation.
But, to their surprise, only the children deplaned.
When the pilot explained what had happened, they nodded in admiration.
One of them said:
“In Korea children are called ‘kings’ of the country. Now I know the real meaning of it. Children of Korea are ‘kings’ of the country, indeed.”
Let’s take a look back for a moment. We heard from the diplomats, their children, and the host country’s officials. The refuelling stop provides an opportunity to gather more third-party testimony. The randomness of the country has two effects: One, we get the impression of a seemingly unbiased source. Two, there’s no chance of verifying that this is what happened.
Moreover, not only the respectability of the leader is validated. The admiration is now extended to the whole of North Korea with a focus on how the nation treats its children. Is there more? Yes, there is.
Then, without any further ado, he put the children into his car. He said that he simply could not send off the Korean “kings” without showing them hospitality.
He gave a party in honour of the children, at which he congratulated them on their going to school under the blessing of the respected Comrade Kim Jong Il. He went on to say:
“If I could ever be born again, I should like to be born in Korea. The Korean children are the happiest in the world.”
“The respected Comrade Kim Jong Il loves the children more than anyone else.”
This is the end of the anecdote. The attentive reader may notice that something is missing. In the beginning, we were wondering if the children would ever make it to school in time. In the end, we’re leaving the unaccompanied minors partying with an unknown “official” in a random third country. I think it’s fair to say, this is beyond strange and more than a bit creepy.
Back to our analysis. The joy of the children and the respectability of the nation is directly attributed to “the respected Comrade Kim Jong Il”. A single causality is implied here. Emotional superlatives are thrown around. We’re getting hints of a personality cult.
The propaganda story from North Korea ends emotionally with the official unequivocally praising North Korea, its leader and particularly his affection for children in the highest terms.
What Makes the Story Manipulative?
Now, what to make of all this in the final analysis? What does it tell us about propaganda in North Korea? Let’s start by summarising our findings:
- The story presents us with a seemingly unsolvable conflict: How to get the children back home in time? Given the circumstances, I think it’s fair to say that the conflict is blown out of proportion.
- Kim Jong Il is established as the sole person able to resolve the conflict at hand and implement the solution. He does so competently and compassionately.
- The story swiftly shifts its focus to excessive emotional praise of the leader from various sides. The high praise is proportional to the seemingly inescapable nature of the problem and the supposed genius of the solution.
- While the circumstances of events remain vague and impossible to verify, the leader’s skills and flawless character are presented unambiguously and without any room for interpretation.
- Overall, the narrative is extremely positive in that it radiates joy, love and gratitude.
We can conclude that the priorities of the story are different from what we might have expected when we read the title or the first few lines. What started as a story about children trying to make it to school in time, ended up being a display of the prowess of a strong yet humble leader.
The Manipulative Story Context
This strategy of propaganda in North Korea becomes even clearer if we indulge ourselves in the remaining anecdotes. They’re all variations of the same pattern. The final clue is in the rather straightforward title of the book: The Great Man Kim Jong Il. In other words, the title is the preconceived conclusion of each and every story. Rather than conflicts looking for resolutions, we’re dealing with a single solution (the leader) in search of problems.
Anyone who has ever heard of propaganda in North Korea probably suspects by now that books such as The Great Man Kim Jong Il are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s no escaping these kinds of stories of both Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung when you’re visiting the country. They all follow the same pattern: A big, often trivial problem comes up, everyone is helpless, but our humble leaders swiftly solve the issue making everyone happy in the process.
What we’re left with is a sense that the North Korean leaders are omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent figures. I’m a big fan of Hanlon’s Razor, assuming incompetence before suspecting malevolence. But the conclusion-driven nature of the story at hand has turned out to be a feature, not a bug. They bank
The same goes for its underlying innocent positivity. It’s a cynical feature, to say the least. Around the time the book was published in the 1990s, a famine left thousands of North Korean children undernourished. The child mortality rate skyrocketed and people died from starvation. It was the direct consequence of misguided, ideological leadership and mismanagement.
The bizarre world of propaganda in North Korea appears far away from us. If we do take notice, it’s usually to our amusement. The more the propaganda is detached from its historical and political context, the more unbelievably farcical it gets. However, if we were to live in North Korea, we’d most likely either believe the story or be appaled by it.
If we pay attention, though, we may spot those conclusion-driven stories in our own backyard. Narratives that present us with glorified solutions to inflated problems to distract from the more real and imminent ones. Narratives that attempt to diminish individual agency by effectively discouraging their readers from thinking for themselves. Perhaps, if we manage to take a step back from those narratives for a moment, we may be able to see the ridiculous futility in them, too.
As for Hannah Arendt, she was not only a philosopher but a notable political scientist. Her work included research on totalitarianism that is still taught in universities to this day. In answering the question of what makes a narrative manipulative, allow me to paraphrase her: Manipulative narratives define meaning rather than reveal it.