Why North Korean news media don’t report news

A Rodong Sinmun newspaper displaying an image of Kim Jong-un is seen on the platform at Puhung Metro station in Pyongyang on April 10, 2019. (James Davies, Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.)

One day in Pyongyang, in the summer of 1993, I was walking along Tongil Street in the city’s Rangrang district, heading for a bus stop, when I saw a 20-story apartment block collapse before my eyes. 

All of a sudden, the building, which was under construction, became a pile of cement and bricks and dust. Police quickly arrived and cordoned the site off. Ambulances ferried the dead and injured away. I heard later from hospital officials that more than 200 soldiers died. In the immediate aftermath, hundreds of workers using heavy equipment rebuilt the block in a month.

You would think everyone in the country would have learned of this tragedy. The news might even have been picked up overseas.

But no, this was in North Korea. There were no media reports. I didn’t expect any. It didn’t occur to me that what I had witnessed might be on the TV news that night or in the paper the next morning. 

It’s not that these media don’t report the news. It’s that our concept of news is different.

The regime controls all media and tells the people what it considers to be newsworthy. That is usually about how uniquely great our leader is and how well everything is going. A building collapse just doesn’t fit. It represents failure by the authorities and ultimately by the leader himself. 

To give a sense of how deep this runs, North Korean media did not even report the famine of the mid-1990s. Estimates ranged from 240,000 and 3,500,000 dead from starvation or hunger-related illnesses. But it was not news.

What do North Korean media report? I can’t remember what was in the papers that day. But it would have not been that different from a piece on page six of the Rodong Sinmun on March 14 this year. The headline was, “The worst reactionary society where the law of the jungle is absolute.” It informed readers that capitalist societies are the “most inhumane, anti-people, and worst reactionary societies in human history.”

The story quoted a letter from an American to a European media that said, “‘In the United States, nobody can survive without money. The concept of democracy doesn’t exist because Americans are so hypocritical that voting is almost pointless, even though they have the right to vote.”

It’s possible some American wrote this. Or, as I suspect, someone at the Rodong Sinmun made it up. Either way, the question is why is this news? Because the mission of North Korean media is to maintain unwavering loyalty to Kim Jong-un and keep citizens compliant and obedient to the Workers’ Party and the regime.

The mission of North Korean media is to maintain unwavering loyalty to Kim Jong-un and keep citizens compliant and obedient to the Workers’ Party and the regime.

The role, in other words, is not to accurately report relevant news and information so that citizens at all levels, official and private, may make informed decisions, but to educate and control. For this reason, media are not competitive. They are published by a particular party, government or military body that doesn’t see the point in having two media.

The main newspaper is Rodong Sinmun, the official daily of the ruling Workers’ Party. Coming under the party’s Propaganda & Agitation Department, it directly transmits Kim Jong-un’s directives and party policies. 

Others include: Joson Inmingun, published by the Korean People’s Army; Minju Chosun, the main newspaper of the government and the Supreme People’s Assembly; Rodongja Sinmun of the government-controlled Federation of Trades Unions of Korea; Pyongyang Sinmun, the paper of the Party’s Pyongyang Municipal Committee, and its English version, The Pyongyang Times; and Chongnyon Jonwi, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Socialist Patriotic Youth League. 

There are four broadcasting channels: Korean Central Television, Ryongnamsan Television, Kaesong Television which targets South Korea, and Sport Television. 

Generally, these media are not popular. This is because they do not provide readers with the information they want to know quickly and accurately. It’s also because the lack of competition gives them no reason to actually be interesting and report compelling news.

Sometimes, however, something interesting does appear. For example, on May 18, 2014, an unusual event occurred. The Rodong Sinmun published a rare article about authorities apologizing to the people

Five days earlier, a 23-story apartment building under construction in Ansan 1-dong in the Pyongchon district of Pyongyang collapsed. Casualty figures were not disclosed. But Choe Pu-il from the Ministry of People’s Security, Kim Su-gil, the party secretary of Pyongyang City, General Sunwoo Hyung-chul from the Ministry of Social Security, Cha Hui-rim, chairman of the Pyongyang City People’s Committee, and Ri Yeong-sik, the party secretary of Pyongchon District, publicly apologized to residents and bereaved families. 

The reason for this report was not to fulfill the citizens’ right to know or to improve public sentiment. Rather it was that, as survivors had used their mobile phones in the collapsed building to summon rescuers and contact their families, the news spread rapidly. Everyone in Pyongyang knew. As far as I understand, senior party officials typically only read the first two pages of Rodong Sinmun so they don’t miss news about Kim Jong-un or the editorials. They can do without the rest.

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