Learning from Pyongyang TV

Philip J. Cunningham

[B]rent Choi, a researcher at the Institute for Unification Studies at JoongAng Ilbo in Seoul, invites me to watch a few hours of North Korean television which he views daily as part of his job. We arrange to meet in one of the few places in Seoul where the North Korean television signal can be picked up live, since it is technically illegal to watch “propaganda” from the North.

We pull ourselves away from the diverse offerings of South Korean TV, which at the moment is showing exciting footage of the Sydney Olympic games, and tune into a special set that allows us to peer behind the great wall dividing Korea north and south.

At five o’clock, a red flag appears on the screen, followed by a likeness of the father of the country, Kim Il-sung. A soldiers’ chorus belts out patriotic hymns against a backdrop of a red sun over rugged mountains. It’s not unlike nationalistic programming in China, especially the second number which sounds like a variation of the Internationale. The camera zooms in for a close-up on flowers, apparently a typical transition shot.

“The thing I like best about Pyongyang TV is no commercials,” explains Mr. Choi. “Unless, of course, you understand the programming for what it really is, one long political commercial!”

All of a sudden, a stunningly attractive newsreader, dressed in conservative pastel blouse buttoned up to the top, is looking me right in the eye. “How do you like her?” asks Choi with a wide grin. “See? She’s looking straight into the camera as she talks. She’s not reading the news, she’s telling the news. They don’t have teleprompters. She’s not looking at the script on the desk, she’s memorized it.”

And mesmerized me. Her warm, intelligent eyes, capped by lovely unplucked brows, shift downwards only at the beginning of each new story.

The scene switches to a taped report showing a phalanx of men, party members apparently, walking around in suits and rubber boots on an inspection tour of a flooded area.

“Political news comes first, then economics,” says Choi. “It used to be mostly political, but recently we’ve seen less of that and more economic news.”

What’s it like watching North Korean TV day in and day out?

“We are learning a lot, because the pictures inadvertently reveal things, even though the coverage is quite controlled. For example, we have found that one-quarter of the people we see on TV wear no watches, about half are not wearing socks. Workers in factories often have no gloves or safety equipment.”

We turn our eyes back to the announcer as she segues into a story that might be summed up as “Dear Leader says raise more poultry!”

The camera work is steady and the production values are surprisingly good. “They use Japanese cameras, of course,” says Choi. “Now here the shop lady is saying that following the advice of her Dear Leader is the secret of her success.”

The next news item shows a group of elderly European men. Foreign news? Tourists? “No, that’s a delegation of British communists arriving in Pyongyang. I have to make note of that, it’s rare to see foreign visitors on TV!”

The news is so conventional and polite up until this point that the next story takes me by surprise. Pyongyong Rose gives Japan some lip, saying “They, who know no repentance — they have the nerve to bid for a seat on the UN Security Council?”

The gentle blast against Japan is followed by a side-swipe at Israel in a solidly pro-Palestinian report. Finally a wrap-up of domestic developments in North Korea. “Every corner of our country is filled with flame of revolution to construct a strong and prosperous fatherland.”

Some North Koreans of course, are more equal than others, and the most equal comrade, Kim Jong Il, has long enjoyed the privilege of foreign goods, foreign movies and not-so-foreign TV. Kim recently told Southern visitors he’s been watching South Korean TV for 20 years.

“I like KBS the best,” Kim allegedly quipped, “because it’s state-run TV!”

Mr. Choi takes a lively, curious interest in his estranged compatriots and the more I hear him talk, the more I realize that despite fifty years of hatred and misunderstanding, ultimately no one has warmer, deeper feelings towards the people on the other side of the DMZ than Koreans themselves.

When I compare President Kim Dae-jung’s historic visit to Pyongyang for a handshake with Kim Jong-il to Nixon’s visit to China, I am quickly reminded that Nixon was visiting a foreign country. In the Pyongyang summit photos and videos we view, there is an essential element missing, something so obvious that I don’t notice it at first. There are no interpreters. The leaders just talk to one another in their native tongue.

A former Arabic specialist, Choi acknowledges the irony of becoming an expert on the other half of his own country. He relates an encounter with some North Korean “journalists” at a border meeting where he was surprised to learn they knew who he was. This he modestly attributed to his distinctive bald head and round face, noting he had often been photographed by North Korean guards at the border.

So it came as something of a surprise that northerners had not only read his articles but could offer lengthy quotes from them. It was then he realized that he had counterparts in the North, southern specialists, if you like, who read the Seoul press. A casual chat revealed they were up-to-date in their information, even dropping words like “NASDAQ.”

“I asked them why they didn’t make the TV programs more interesting. ‘We can’t change what we get,’ they explained. ‘All the news comes from the Worker’s Party.’”

While I mention this is a complaint not unfamiliar to Chinese journalists working with Xinhua, we are interrupted by gleeful shouts of South Korean baseball fans nearby watching their team slug its way to victory.

We turn our attention back to Pyongyang, watching a series of artful, but out-of-season video shots of snow-laden trees on craggy peaks. Then the camera pulls back to reveal a three-word inscription carved on the rockface. It’s “Jong Il Pong” or Jong-Il Peak. The stirring classical music then shifts to a mellow karaoke-style anthem, setting the mood for a zoom-in on a log cabin, lit blue on the outside, orange on the inside. The only obvious anachronism in the “humble” birthplace of Kim Jong-Il, snuggled deep in the snowy mountains, (aside from the lounge music and disco lighting) is the photograph of the little revolutionary boy as the grownup Dear Leader.

As is sometimes the practice in Japan and China, close-up shots of newspapers offer cash-starved Pyongyang a cheap way of doing the news, tomorrow’s headlines today. Choi translates as an unseen narrator ticks off items that will appear in the next day’s Rodong Shimmun, mostly the standard good news about progress and development under the Dear Leader’s guidance.

This is followed by a children’s show, a tasteful adventure involving little bunnies, squirrels and other friendly creatures with cute high-pitched voices, rendered in clay animation. The kiddy fare, according to Choi, is wholesome programming, almost completely free of politics. “It’s not all propaganda as we used to think.”

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Philip J. Cunningham

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Artwork by Rimi Yang