N. Korea news: one source tells all

The outside world doesn't exist in a state that offered headlines this week about rice yields and glass jewelry.

North Korean rhetoric now regularly includes casual mention of a nuclear-weapons program. Only two years ago, the North talked about scrapping nukes in the six-party talks. Now, Kim Jong Il's intent, China's role in curbing Mr. Kim, and the future of the talks are under deep study.

Kim has "a decision to make" about his nuclear ambitions, says Christopher Hill, the US point man on East Asia. Meanwhile, President Bush sent a peace message to Kim, via South Korean envoys, that may arrive Friday.

Yet in Pyongyang, little is known of global debates or policy about "rogue states." No discussion or window to the outside world exists in what is called "a propaganda state."

Sources in Pyongyang say foreign events are unknown, and public opinion doesn't exist. Weekly air-raid alarms continue, as they have for 50-plus years. Today, more mobile vans with loudspeakers are blaring messages for citizens to "be alert." Elites can read a June 14 Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) saying the spirit of the Korean summit would bring a "radical turn in the standoff with the US."

Otherwise, the place is closed, with prison sentences for those caught listening to shortwave broadcasts like the BBC.

This week, the focus of what passes for news in Pyongyang was the rice harvest; much ink was also spilled on a finger ring made of glass that reflects the sun's rays, and is talked about as a potential hot Korean export.

In fact, if it is true that Kim Jong Il must make a nuclear decision soon (and some experts feel he is quite happy to stall and delay), only a tiny elite knows this. Foreign news appears on only one page of the national daily, Rodong Sinmun, and this paper is not sold on the street. It is offered by subscription, and only to a circle of approved recipients; foreign news is removed from papers distributed outside a few large cities.

"There's been no change in internal propaganda in the past month," says a diplomatic source in Pyongyang. "No change in the usual war propaganda, or messages about the US. There's no 'nuclear crisis' spoken of here."

To a nearly inconceivable degree, North Korea operates on propaganda. The control of expression in Kim's regime is so tight that neighboring China, which has 42 journalists in jail and constantly polices and deletes political speech, seems dizzyingly free by comparison.

In the Kim Jong Il state, propaganda is more important than military or economic factors, experts and former residents say, involving cradle-to-grave demands for personal loyalty to the Kim family, and an elaborate cult ideology of Kim worship.

Only when the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung, put his son Kim Jong Il in charge of propaganda in the 1980s was it clear that the young Kim was being groomed to rule.

"The Kim family has spent 60 years constructing the propaganda machinery. Kim Jong Il more than anyone is responsible for making this semireligious thought monopoly continue," says Jasper Becker, author of "Rogue Regime." "That's why its hard to imagine change there; that would mean allowing North Koreans to come face to face with reality."

Political messages center on the United States as an enemy state whose military presence in Korea is entirely aimed at preventing the reunification of Koreans, according to Stephen Bradner, a US military adviser in Seoul.

Rhetoric gets rough at times. A June 8 KCNA release refers to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who criticized the North last week in Singapore, as "ignorant of diplomacy.... He seems to know nothing but war. So he'd better go to Iraq with a rifle in hand if he has nothing to do."

"Editorials like the Rumsfeld bit are aimed just as much at a domestic audience as an international one," says Krzysztof Darewicz, a Polish journalist who reported from Pyongyang for five years during the 1990s.

"It is designed to tell the people: 'We are powerful, we can talk like this to the US, we are ready to win a fight, and most important, we are not afraid because we have a bomb,' " he adds.

Kim probably signs off on or edits the most sensitive propaganda, sources say. His portrait commands the cover of a small book issued in the 1980s called "The Great Teacher of Journalists."

Typical is this sentence: "The Great Leader, the Dear Comrade Kim Jong Il, is always among journalists and teaches them [of] every detailed problem ... and kindly leads them to write ... excellent articles that arouse the sentiment of the masses...."

The work ranges from tips on how to count a grove of pepper trees accurately to more universal subjects like "making political integrity immortal" in editorials.

Those raised in Western democracies can't easily understand the kind of nation the Kim family created, says Mr. Darewicz. The state is not created for individuals to live in; it is not a "society" in the Western sense of the term.

Rather, North Korea operates as a combination of Confucianism, communism, and a cult of the divinity of the Kim family.

"The state was not made for people as we understand it in the Western sense; it is made to be ruled," says Darewicz, noting that the people live for the country and serve the ruler.

"By using war as a code word, the regime propaganda keeps control," he says.

"If you are hungry, or have no clothes, or there's no electricity, it doesn't matter," Darewicz adds. "What you say is that you are preparing for war. Anything can be excused as part of the war effort."

Mr. Becker says that propaganda is far less persuasive than before, and that the famine and death of 3 million people in the late 1990s broke the hold of the Kim family ideology.

He argues that the propaganda state has been replaced by a terror state.

"Does it matter if Koreans believe or don't believe in propaganda if they are controlled by a system of terror and executions?" he asks.

One other new development, Mr. Bradner points out, is the new cash culture on the street. It is yet to be determined how that will change what is still an isolated nation that listens to one message and one messenger.

Tips for disposing of 'Our Dear Leader's' photo

BEIJING - In Pyongyang, the rules are very specific about how physically to handle the Kim image.

No one is permitted to point casually at a portrait of Kim Jong Il or his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. If you find yourself holding a book with a picture of a Kim on the cover, you'd best carry it with two hands, face up, in a dignified manner. And no thumb or fingers are ever allowed to touch or cover Kim's face.

The image and name of the Kims are deeply ingrained as the sacred goods of North Korea, and a special etiquette has evolved in dealing with them. Rules exist for handling, carrying, hanging, and even disposing of Kim faces and portraits. There are also rituals for their printed names.

It is all part of a culture of propaganda designed to ensure permanent collective devotion among the North Korean people. No portrait of Dear Leader or Great Leader is to be folded. No newspaper issued on the birthday of Kim Jong Il or his father, when the photo is likely to be a full page, should be covered or used to wrap anything. Once a newspaper with a major photo of Kim is old or worn out, it may not be tossed out, but must be brought to a special collection point where the image is properly discarded.

A few years ago, prior to a special festival attended by many foreigners, a special 100-note currency was issued, using the Kim Il Sung face.

But it was quickly withdrawn from circulation after it was discovered that foreigners were casually folding the bills and putting them in wallets placed next to the derrière.

In writing about Kim, the name or character may not be casually deleted. In fact, the editing of journals and books mostly still takes place on paper. Journalists and writers must not remove Kim's name from a sentence by crossing it out. Instead, The name must be circled, and only then removed.

And in published material, direct quotes by Kim or his father should always appear in a manner similar to how many Bible publishers treat the words of New Testament figures - in bold or illuminated type.

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