Pyongyang propaganda concedes hardship

In new tack, North Korean books and TV allude to food shortages and hard times.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A North Korean literary genre, called "leadership series," has for years employed a device whereby the "Great Leader" of the nation steals out, unrecognized, to mingle with the people. In these novellas and short stories, peasants and rustics hold unwitting conversations with Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il about the glories of living in a "paradise on earth" - a device designed to flood the tear ducts of the reverent reader.

Yet there is a new honesty - possibly a risky one, some experts say - in the media arts of one of the last Stalinist nations. Consider an excerpt from "Change," a short story by Pak Il Myeong, and certainly approved by Kim Jong Il. The dialogue begins when an incognito Kim meets an elderly woman on the roadside. She is undernourished, described as "gaunt," and that elicits a response from the troubled ruler:

"Comrade Kim Jong Il spoke in a grave voice. 'In recent years we have not farmed well ... we have suffered from floods and droughts. So the problem of food is causing the people difficulties. But no one complains. Even while eating gruel they steadfastly overcome these difficulties!"

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North Korean propaganda, in the classic communist mode, has long reinforced a perfect picture of life and leadership. In "socialist realist" art theory, masses must only be shown a future utopia, things as they should be, come the revolution. Even today no depiction of living standards outside the North are allowed. Kim himself is a "peerlessly great man," as the North's official media put it this week, as six-party talks began in Beijing.

Now, that propaganda is undergoing a subtle adjustment. In dialogue, camera work, and story lines, mentions now crop up of mass hunger and hard times since Kim Jong Il took over from his father, Kim Il Sung - a period when five percent of the population died of starvation. There are even subtle hints that Kim is not the same "Great Leader" his father was.

The new frankness does not include mention of starvation, says B.R. Myers, author of "Han Sorya and North Korean Literature." But it depicts hunger, and magnifies events like a World War II "hardship march campaign," which can also be read as an implicit symbol of current woes.

Still, "the very acknowledgment of a food shortage is remarkable when compared to the propaganda under Kim Il Sung," argues Mr. Myers, a visiting professor of North Korea studies at Korea University in Seoul. "It is also more honest than what was written under Stalin and Mao."

In new fiction, TV shows, and in films like last year's "People of Chagang Province," Kim Jong Il is shown as keenly aware of chronic food shortages, and even as eating the same "gruel" as ordinary Koreans. He is often depicted as too busy conducting a "military first" policy, defending the nation from its enemies, to have the time to be fully engaged in agricultural oversight. There's even a strain of guilt injected in the message - that people don't work hard enough to feed the "Dear Leader."

For example, the elderly woman in the short story says to the incognito Kim, "Does not our General [Kim] go up and down steep mountain paths without a moment's rest in order to visit the People's Army troops? He's trying to keep watch over the homeland and over the fate of all of us. And he always insists on eating just what the people are eating, rice and gruel. Is this taking care of our General? Is it enough just to talk about taking care of him? We've got to dig a lot of coal, coal I tell you."

DVDs and arts materials trickle steadily out of the North; a healthy market in books, magazines, and film exists among North Koreans in Japan, and make their way to the South.

Available are made-for-TV movies like one where two men in their 30s are leaving the Army, and looking for wives. They complain there's not enough to eat, but say that Kim is also suffering. In "People of Chagang Province" poor mountain folk, despite being hungry, build a hydroelectric plant.

Experts say that greater honesty may be designed as a safety valve for anger at conditions. Refugees from the North do report more unhappy whispering inside the closed regime. Frankness in art and film may help bind North Koreans more closely to their leader, by placing him in their imaginations, even as he dominates the overt propaganda of daily life.

"Without a new [propaganda] strategy, the leadership knows they can't sustain the system," says Haksoon Paik, a North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute in Seoul. "They have come to the point where they must adjust to the environment, and new realities."

Yet after 50 years of socialist realism, and with a national ideology that demands radical devotion to Kim, there may be unintended consequences.

This is "a risky strategy," says Myers. "For all their claims to omniscience, dictators through history have benefited from the perception of ignorance about their country's problems. Many die-hard communists in Russia and China still believe Stalin and Mao were kept in the dark about devastating famines ... Kim Jong Il can no longer benefit from that kind of mind-set. This strategy has made the North Korean personality cult vulnerable as it has never been before."

To be sure, the US, often described as "strangling" Korea, gets the main propaganda blame for hunger (the US is actually the North's largest food donor). Also blamed are drought and floods, which have not caused famine in food-rich South Korea.

But the propaganda guns are also turning inward - on sleazy apparatchiks, or a general slackness and lack of revolutionary zeal. In this way, Kim is removed from responsibility for economic troubles. Yet as Myers points out, it also implies that the current Kim is not the all-knowing leader his father was.

"By claiming that military affairs leave Kim Jong Il little time to worry about the economy, that he himself frets at the country's inability to implement his father's legacy, North Korea's official media and culture are indirectly acknowledging that Kim Jong Il is not of his father's stature," Myers says.

"As a close North Korea watcher, I feel that it is Kim Jong Il and his core group who best understand the North," says Mr. Paik. "They are politicians, and they make political decisions within a rigid and unfavorable structure."

Circumstantial evidence suggests many North Koreans don't believe the propaganda. The idea that Kim eats gruel, apart from being discounted by a Russian diplomat who told of live seafood delivered to Kim's Moscow-bound train, seems hard for ordinary Koreans to believe when they see photos of the leader and his Panda-like paunch.

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