In recent months, the international section of the Rodong Sinmun — the official newspaper of North Korea — has undergone dramatic and even amusing changes.
THE NEWSPAPER OF THE PAST
Historically, the Rodong Sinmun had two separate sections dealing with both South Korean news and international news. Until about 15 years ago, the paper usually dedicated between half a page to one full page to news from South Korea, with another half-page for news covering other countries.
But the South Korean news section disappeared around 2010. It probably reflected a general change of attitude towards the South — by that time, the majority of North Koreans no longer believed the old myth of South Korea as an impoverished and destitute, capitalist hell.
Meanwhile, the Rodong Sinmun’s international news section faithfully followed a structure borrowed from the official Soviet newspapers of Joseph Stalin’s period.
These stories were, of course, terribly biased: Some related the immeasurable suffering of capitalist countries and the tribulations of its toiling masses. Others described the hideous crimes of American imperialists and their running dogs. There was also some news about the admiration the rest of the world had for North Korea and it’s wise leaders — but even with the heavy dose of propaganda, things were not that bad.
In all truths, the Rodong Sinmun sometimes reflected on the major trends of international relations. Occasionally, the newspaper even ran analytical articles dealing with international political issues, or engaging travelogues about trips to DPRK-friendly countries.
But that Rodong Sinmun is now gone. Starting at some point in the beginning of this year, the newspaper underwent a major transformation.
THE NEWSPAPER OF THE PRESENT
The international news section of the present Rodong Sinmun shrank significantly.
These days, only half of a single page at most is given to international news coverage. Meanwhile, the lengthier, more robust texts have disappeared — most of the pieces are now very short.
But the biggest change was to the editorial agenda and what’s worth covering. Upon first look, today’s international news section is even rather comical.
Throughout the recent few months, the section has run news that deals with only three major topics: natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, and human-made or technological disasters
The natural disasters are seemingly chosen at random — sometimes, even a small earthquake in Papua New Guinea or a flood in a remote part of Nigeria would qualify. Meanwhile, the global COVID-19 pandemic remains the most prominent issue.
There are also reports about man-made disasters of all kinds, with traffic accidents ruling this category. These three topics alone likely constitute some 70% of all news coverage in the international section.
These disasters are visually represented, too, with the last page of virtually every Rodong Sinmun printing photos of broken bridges, flooded cities and destroyed houses — or, alternatively, images of people in spacesuit-like attire taking COVID-19 diagnostic tests in some distant land.
The remaining 30% of the international section is made of short reports which also seem to exist within a limited array of approved topics. One such topic is the wave of crime in the bad, imperialist countries of Japan or the United States. For more DPRK-friendly countries, they report not only crime, but the herculean efforts made by local police to fight it.
Another approved topic is the worldwide admiration for North Korea, its policy, its ideology and its leaders.
The Rodong Sinmun occasionally writes about NGOS across the world condemning the United States’ imperialist and aggressive policies. Tellingly, the newspaper seldom criticizes the United States directly and its own voice – the approach obviously reflects that Pyongyang has not completely lost hope over a potential deal with Washington.
Finally and rather infrequently, one can see short pieces about the achievements of friendly governments — for instance, a piece about the flourishing Xinjiang autonomous region in China, which was published on July 10.
BREAKDOWN OF A SINGLE DAY
To illustrate what a modern Rodong Sinmun international news section looks like, here’s a breakdown of everything that ran on a single day: July 18, 2020.
In total, there were nine short pieces. The longest piece briefed readers about the latest statistics on the global COVID-19 pandemic, while another piece discussed the unraveling COVID-19 situation in the U.S. Another spoke of “dramatic growth” in the number of cases plaguing Japan.
A fire on a U.S. warship in San Diego was reported, as well. Another piece discussed the population decline in Germany where “the number of deaths has been exceeding the number of births since 1972.” Finally, it was reported that Tanzania is fighting an epidemic hurting farm animals.
Visually, the newspaper covered floods in China and Nigeria, and one picture showed a mansion being washed away.
It’s clear that the editors of the Rodong Sinmun are now striving to create an impression that the entire world outside North Korean borders is, literally, nothing but a hell.
Such a tendency is not new, but it has now been taken to an extreme: Any foreign news that can be interpreted as mildly positive has little chances of making it to the pages of North Korea’s major daily.
Of course, this type of editorial agenda helps justify North Korea’s current economic difficulties. After all, why should one complain about the worsening food situation if, as everyone knows from the newspapers, the entire world has been plunged into unprecedented chaos?
It’s no doubt helpful to create a contrast between peace and tranquility within the DPRK and violence or ruin in the outside world.
But why would the Rodong Sinmun editors abandon a policy they have followed for decades? Obviously, it was a decision made on a very high level, since the Rodong Sinmun is not just a broadsheet, but the voice of power and supreme authority.
Most likely, the change has been approved by Kim Jong Un himself or at least someone very close to him.
Painting the rest of the world as an unadulterated hell reflects a new attitude demonstrated in the KWP Central Committee plenary meeting in Dec. 2019.
During the meeting, Kim Jong Un made it clear that North Korea is likely to undergo a lengthy period of sanctions and sanctions-induced deprivation for years to come.
This means that the North Korean government has reasons to create the most unfavorable impression of what is going on outside the walls of the North Korean fortress.
Edited by Kelly Kasulis and James Fretwell