They don’t believe…

UPDATE: Follow up by Dr. Petrov in the comments

One of the big question marks for policy makers (both inside the DPRK and internationally) is the state of knowledge and public opinion inside North Korea.  How much do North Koreans know about the outside world?  How much of the propaganda do they believe?

Being able to answer these questions scientifically is not possible.  Political expression has never been encouraged in the DPRK except through state-sponsored solidarity events.  Additionally, the role of the media in North Korea is to broadcast information from the top down, not to let it percolate from the bottom up.

Numerous scientific efforts at extrapolating North Korean public opinion have been made by journalists and scholars conducting surveys in northern China along the North Korean border (most recent examples here and here).  However, these surveys are subject to various sample biases: the interviewees have already decided to leave the DPRK, most of them come from the provinces along the Chinese border, and most of them are not mid- upper- level cadres.  So extrapolating the opinion of the median ri-level party secretary in a small village near the DMZ is not possible. 

In the absence of a scientific survey, we are forced to resort to anecdotes and ethnographic data (usually with a very small “n”).  A single anecdote is not so valuable, but multiple anecdotes taken together help us paint a more comprehensive picture. The opinions of most “North Korea watchers” on this topic are formed by this kind of ethnographic analysis. 

I rely on personal anecdotes collected from North Koreans, visitors to North Korea, and former residents of North Korea, supplemented by stories in the media such as the popularity of South Korean films in the DPRK.  These lead me to conclude that though North Koreans are generally not internationally savvy, they do not believe the official propaganda and do not pay attention to political speeches (if they can help it) for many of the same reasons that Americans do not pay attention to political speeches: namely that they have little to do with one’s day-to-day needs, and they get very old very fast.

This story in the Daily NK is one more anecdote:

A source from Yangkang Province told DailyNK in a phone interview on May 1st, “At the Union of Democratic Women (UDW) conference, commemorating the founding of the Chosun People’s Army on April 25th, a speaker humiliated herself when she blamed South Korean President Lee Myung Bak [for the crisis].”

The source told our reports that “during the conference, a speaker explained the international and domestic state of affairs, saying that ‘the U.S. and the puppet regime (the Lee administration) have overridden the peaceful agreements between the North and South (referring to the June 15th Joint Declaration and the October 4th Agreement) in order to create a serious food crisis in our Republic (North Korea)’.”

The source described an awkward atmosphere at the conference: When a chairperson of the People’s Unit of Hyehwa-dong in Hyesan asked outright, “We can understand that fact that Americans and Lee’s puppet factions are not aiding us with rice, but, why won’t China help us, as our closest ally?” The speaker’s face turned pale at the question and a sudden silence and tension filled the hall.

“At that moment, the lady next to the chairperson started chuckling, putting her head down, people began to chuckle here and there, and eventually, the entire hall was engulfed in laughter,” the source told DailyNK.

The speaker reportedly responded through his own laughter, “’You know the lecture material always reads like this. You can well understand the situation and know what I am saying, right?’” The source said that “his comment sent people rolling in the aisles,” and pointed out, “The situation showed how absurd the propaganda released by the authorities is.”

Read the full story here:
Government Lectures are Losing Effect
Daily NK
Lee Sung Jin


One Response to “They don’t believe…”

  1. Exactly right! Despite all efforts to make robots out of them the North Koreans are still as humane as we are and most of them do not trust the rubbish they receive in the form of official news or propaganda. Normally, they simply accept it but don’t question its validity.

    Do we trust every commercial which TV, radio and newspapers precipitate on us? When you hear another advertisement or see a billboard you simply turn away and pretend it does not exist (unless something is really wrong or funny about it). Similarly, people in the USSR, PRC, Cuba and other communist states did not care much about propaganda which was simply a boring nuisance, which people accepted with only because “somebody wants us to know it”.

    From my own experience, I can tell you that Russians, like North Koreans, were exposed to the most pervasive propaganda and required to study Marxism-Leninism day and night. But very few really cared or understood it properly. It’s like memorizing a religious text and then using quotes from it only when you are supposed to demonstrate loyalty to or endorsement of the Party line.

    People’s brains have certain capacity to absorb and process advertisement (political or commercial). When this capacity has reached its limit the brain stops relating to this type of information until the circumstances change. For instance, you have to compel a member of your community to fulfill a difficult task, or you argue with a foreigner about the advantages of socialism over capitalism. But in most cases the learned dogmas had nothing to do with the realities of everyday life.

    That’s why Saturdays in North Korea are designated “study days” when people master their ability to find answers to difficult questions. Self-criticism sessions (where people have to confess their real or potential deviations) are also widespread. All this is designed to numb and hypnotize the population in order to keep it docile while the grand social experiment — the revolution — is being conducted by the leadership. The DPRK is still a revolutionary state but nobody seems to be able to answer the two questions: when it started and when it will be completed.