“The proud news [of the upcoming satellite launch] makes us miss Generalissimo Kim Jong Il more ardently than ever as he made the DPRK rank itself with dignity among nuclear weapons states, and led it to manufacture and launch satellites, while leading the nation’s on-ward march toward 2012.” – KCNA, 22 March 2012.
Contrary to how it may look from the outside, the recent rocket launch was not designed to irritate North Korea’s neighbours. It was aimed (not literally…) at the domestic audience. Given the lead time needed for such a rocket launch, it must have been planned and set in motion while Kim Jong-il was still calling the shots, set to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth. Presumably he expected to be around to admire the fireworks with his third son Kim Jong-un, thereby providing a suitable tribute to Kim Il-sung and also increasing public support around the succession. Of course, this was not to be.
After Kim Jong-il’s death no-one had either the political capital nor the motivation to call the rocket launch off, so regardless of the US-DPRK negotiations leading to the Leap Day Deal, it was inevitable. For the new leadership, the rocket could still provide a suitable focal point for Kim Il-sung’s centenary celebrations while also honouring the legacy of Kim Jong-il. Further, it could instill nationalistic pride among the people, thereby increasing support for the new Kim Jong-un leadership.
North Korea would be better off if the regime changed its priorities and focused on improving the lives of the people instead of spending scarce resources on showy projects. But an important question that is often left unaddressed is how effective rocket propaganda (and its twin, nuclear tests) actually is at instilling a sense of national pride among ordinary North Koreans. The answer is not what you might expect.
It is true that despite the regime’s efforts over decades of propaganda and extreme measures to maintain its position as the single source of information and ideas to the North Korean people, overall anti-regime sentiment is on the rise and people are less inclined to believe or even pay attention to what the Party says. This is particularly true since the 2009 currency reform (more on this in future posts). But not all propaganda themes are created equal, and some such as ‘rocket propaganda’ retain more resonance with many North Koreans even in the current day.
North Korean refugees have told me that, in fact, the rocket launches and nuclear tests can be effective in gaining genuine support from the North Korean people. (North Korean refugees are not a perfect sample of the broader North Korean population, but they can provide rare insights into the range of opinions and thoughts that ordinary North Koreans have.)
A woman who escaped North Korea last year described to me feeling real pride in her nation and her people after the launch of Unha-2 in 2009, the last “satellite” launch by North Korea. It was even a “joyous” event, and there was a real satisfaction in showing the world what the Korean people can acheive (despite disintegrating shortly after launch, the regime told the people that it had been a success). She explained that even if people don’t have enough to eat, if the country can launch a rocket, it can be a source of pride. Similarly, another refugee that I spoke with three months after she left the country described feeling pride in North Korea’s nuclear tests. She even believed propaganda saying that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent was “even more powerful than the US’s”. The same woman lamented the regime’s awful economic policies and human rights abuses inflicted on her family, but she was more prone to take the Party line on nuclear tests and rocket launches.
The North Korean regime has purposefully kept the country on a war footing throughout its history, constantly prodding its people and reminding them of the threat of war. In this context it makes sense to many North Korean people that they need to develop nuclear weapons and military technology, even if people are going hungry at the same time. Put simply, the North Korean people themselves think that their country needs nuclear weapons. This also means there is no space for negotiating away hard-earned military might.
The development of military technology also taps into the strong attachment to the concept of reunification among the North Korean people. As one refugee told me, there is a belief that if you continually strengthen your military, other countries will be increasingly scared (particularly the U.S., shaking in their boots with each North Korean military success), and eventually reunification will be realized. “And if we reunify, then we will live well!” The idea that “Koreans can live well if they can just reunify” is prevalent among North Koreans. Also note that according to this line of reasoning, reunification must be achieved from a position of North Korean strength. North Koreans buying into this narrative then believe that they should hold on and tough it out until reunification comes.
There are of course diverse opinions among the North Korean people regarding rocket launches and the like. There are those people that take it as intended by the regime – as something that the leadership has accomplished. Such events show them that there is still some life in North Korea, something which is vibrant. But there are also those who can think more cynically and wonder if that money would be better spent on feeding the people. Such people are well aware that they have to be very careful with who they share such thoughts with. The regime’s all-pervasive systems of political control and surveillance force North Koreans to trust very few people with their true opinions, and even if they do voice those opinions with a small number of like-minded friends, they feel there is nothing they can do about it.
Perhaps we should not be too surprised that rocket propaganda is effective on many ordinary North Koreans. Even if a country is poor, such programs provide an important sense that the nation is going in the right direction. The North Korean regime desperately needs anything that can provide some semblance of progress, since most North Koreans have seen their living standards decrease over the last three decades. Poor Americans in the 1960s still supported their country’s space program and cheered when Neil Armstrong took his one small step. Today, India is the largest democracy in the world and has hundreds of millions of people living in absolute poverty, but maintains a vibrant and well-developed space program (and nuclear and missile programs). This goes to show how much genuine support these programs can have even among poor populations.
One thing which is striking is that North Korean refugees, whether they had felt pride in North Korea’s rockets and nuclear weapons or they were more cynical even while living inside the country, consistently lament that they did not have the levels of awareness while they were living inside North Korea that they were able to gain after they left. Many become angry that they were kept by the regime as “frogs in a well”, knowing so little about the outside world. They say that if they knew then what they know now about their country, the North Korean leaders and the outside world, then ‘rocket propaganda’ and the like would have been much less effective at gaining their support for the regime.
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Strategy Analyst