Sometimes when you get tired of American or other Western propaganda that you see on TV, take a look at North Korea’s propaganda machine and feel better; they make us look like the most balanced, unbiased media in the entire world.
From rumors about the supernatural powers possessed by the late prime minister (succeed by his son) to stories that glorify the advances in technology that North Korea has supposedly gained, the propaganda is truly stunning in scale and power over the people.
Since the 1990s many people have been taken prisoner by the North Korean government for offenses ranging from “acts of aggression against the state” (taking down a propaganda flag) or “crimes against the nation and people of North Korea” (serving the Korean war). Often these foreign prisoners are Americans, and in order to secure their freedom the US often has to jump through various diplomatic hoops.
Take for example the time when 21 year old University of Virginia economics student Otto Warmbier tried to steal a propaganda flag during a stopover in Pyongyang; Warmbier was arrested and charged with “a hostile act against the DPKR” and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a camp. As of now he has not be sent to those camps, but awaits the diplomatic negotiations to conclude.
Here’s a basic breakdown of how the negotiations to free an American work, as proven by several similar negotiations. First, the DPRK requires the US to send a recognized ambassador or a high-level US politician to North Korea in order to start the negotiations to free the citizen who is detained. The detained is usually charged with a very grand and traitorous-sounding crime, and sentenced to hard labor in a camp.
However, from here things get a little bit odd. The US citizen who is in prison usually does NOT get sent to the camp per se; they are often simply held in a hotel or some guest house under high military security. Some people, such as Euna Lee were interrogated by people sent by the state. These interrogations involved more threats than actual torture; Lee said that the interrogator often raised his hand to threaten her but did not actually strike.
Now comes the big propaganda part!
The next part has been the same in almost every instance of a foreign arrest in the DPRK: the part where the detained person “confesses” their “crimes against the state” in front of the media. Usually under duress, the person reads a speech that details the offenses against the state and confesses fault, usually finishing with a plea to Kim Jong-un and the people of the DPRK for forgiveness. Almost every person who has deliver such a speech has said that it was made under duress and written by the government. These speeches are laced with pro-DPRK propaganda and filled with (usually false) regret on the part of the “offender” for his or her crimes.
This usually leads to a high-level diplomat entering the country on behalf of the person who has been imprisoned. In Euna Lee’s case in the 1990s, this was President Bill Clinton. In other cases, this has been anyone from high profile US senators to Swiss ambassadors, since the US has no official diplomatic ties to North Korea.
Why does North Korea have this habit of capturing American citizens on charges that are trumped-up and dubious at best and outrightly false at worst? What are they trying to get?
There are a few things that they are after, really. First, North Korea wants to be on the news, and holding a normal American prisoner does a great job of making sure that they get their spot on the news just like they want.
Next, they want to be taken seriously. More than just getting on the news, they want to make sure that the US knows that they will take steps to “protect” their nation from “threats.” By capturing people who seem to have done bad things, they are attempting to send a message that they will take offenses against the state seriously.
However, this tactic seems more like the police officer who will give out endless tickets for jaywalking but will never step into a gunfight to save anyone; just because the DPRK has the courage to arrest an unarmed citizen for a petty offense does not mean they are the toughest kid on the block.
Lastly, they want to know that they can make the US do things. Here’s what that means: when they want us to send a diplomat, they are able to make us send one. They even got our president to come to the country once. It looks AMAZING on North Korea propaganda channels to be able to say that they got the president of the US to come over. Soon, there will be a massive Worker’s Party Congress in North Korea. More than likely the government wants a foreign dignitary present during this congress in order to add more flair and pomp and media attention.
North Korea goes to great lengths in order to make sure that their country stays in a media spotlight that they control completely. Any additional attention that they can come up with is welcome, and if that means arresting more foreigners they will! Attention is their goal, and will be as long as the media keeps paying attention.