Challenging Pyongyang’s Propaganda Discourse

Synopsis: Pyongyang claims that Washington is impeding North Korean progress and is a prime threat, but that does not mean bombastic claims by the Kim regime need to go unanswered.


On January 9, 2021, it was reported by North Korean state media that in a speech delivered during the 8th Congress of the Korean Workers Party, Chairman Kim Jong-un stated that Pyongyang “should focus and be developed on subverting the US, the biggest obstacle for our revolution and our biggest enemy.” [1] Inasmuch as such a declaration was meant to rally the party faithful and stoke nationalistic sentiment amongst the general population by focusing attention on a powerful external enemy, the fallacious and flawed nature of the second part of the statement needs to be explored.


“The biggest obstacle for our revolution” – Impediments of the North’s own Making


While the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly suppressed the North Korean economy, with the DPRK-PRC border being mostly sealed since January 2020, China-North Korea trade shrinking by 80%, [2] and region wide lockdowns and the absence of tourism revenue; [3] it would be false and argumentatively incorrect to blame the rest of the North’s economic stagnation on malicious American sabotage. With the fair assumption that the “revolution” mentioned by Kim refers, at least in part, to the betterment of the North Korean economy and the improved economic welfare for all DPRK citizens, the “revolution” appears lackluster, as Kim himself has admitted, stating that his 5-year economic plan, conceived in 2016, has failed to meet its targets in “almost every sector.” [4]


While it is true that international economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from 2016 onwards are steadily strangling the North’s economy, causing annual shrinkage, asserting that the US is actively hindering the economic front of the North Korean “revolution” is misleading and an exercise in political scapegoating. It can be fairly inferred that Kim Jong-un is using America as a convenient target for his citizens to direct their economic frustrations at, since the US is a permanent member of the UNSC; but the sanctions choking the DPRK’s economy could not be passed and implemented without the approval of North Korea’s sole remaining ally, China. Thus, the North’s popular outrage is selectively directed.


Moreover, the crippling sanctions are the direct result of Pyongyang violating previous UN resolutions banning nuclear and missile tests. Due to nuclear tests authorized by the Kim regime in 2016 and 2017, along with a series of long range and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile tests in 2017, the UNSC was left with no choice but to impose comprehensive export bans on lucrative mineral and seafood exports from North Korea, together with other painful restrictions, such as prohibiting DPRK citizens from working abroad. Consequently, the “biggest obstacle” for the North’s economic “revolution” is not the US, but the nuclear and missile aggrandizement of the Kim regime under Kim Jong-un.


“Our Biggest Enemy” – Does Concrete US Action or Lack thereof Justify this Label?


To be sure, apart from outgoing President Trump, the executive and legislative branches of Washington’s leadership is not friendly to Pyongyang and would celebrate if the Kim regime were to collapse. However, when addressing the issue of America being North Korea’s “biggest enemy”, it can be strongly argued that it is the concrete actions of the Kim regime, from the era of Kim Il-sung through to his grandson Kim Jong-un that has cemented US distaste, distrust, and even loathing of the Kim dynasty.


Unequivocal examples of hostile actions taken by the North Korean military against US military and even civilian personnel are easy to cite. From Kim Il-sung’s time, we have the seizure of the USS Pueblo from international waters in 1968, including the killing of one crew member, along with the de facto kidnapping and torture of the remaining 82 crew. Additionally, there was the heinous Panmunjom Axe Murders in 1976, where two US Army officers were butchered by North Korean border guards.


If northern hostility towards South Korea is also considered, as attacks on a key US ally like the ROK will definitely worsen US institutional discontent against Pyongyang, the examples are even more glaring. These range from the 1968 assassination attempt on then President Park where both South Koreans and Americans were killed, to the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in 2010.


Lastly, under Kim Jong-un vacationing American college student Otto Warmbier was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 on a ludicrously minor offense, stealing a propaganda poster, in order to serve the Kim regime’s political interests. His custody was botched to such an extent that he fell into a coma. Otto later died in the US in 2017, as a result of his medical deterioration under North Korean detention, after the terms of his extradition were negotiated.


Based on the examples given and many others not mentioned, the Kim regime has, though its orders and policies, killed, hurt, and abducted many Americans and South Koreans, while the US and ROK have not pre-emptively attacked North Korea or its people since the armistice of 1953. Kim can rail all he wants about the DPRK’s supposed “biggest enemy”, but it is clear that the US policy towards North Korea does not exist in a vacuum. The tough stance adopted by Washington is notably due to Pyongyang’s enduring belligerence- hence, American enmity is in large part, a creature of the Kim family’s own making.


In closing, Kim Jong-un can engage in as much gratuitous political regime aggrandizement as he wants, but the international community should be able to see Pyongyang’s pronouncements for what they really are: misleading, self-righteous propaganda. Similarly, the sooner North Koreans can see the hubris of their government, the better.

Liang Tuang Nah, PhD is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


[1] Kim Jong Un says US is North Korea’s ‘biggest enemy’: KCNA, AFP, 9 January 20201, sourced from http://sg.yahoo.com/news/kim-jong-un-says-us-231343135.html.

[2] Coronavirus appears to be hurting North Korea harder than trade sanctions: report, Bloomberg, 28 November 2020, sourced from https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/3111752/coronavirus-appears-be-hurting-north-korea-harder-trade.

[3] Sophia Ankel, Kim Jong-Un is reportedly displaying 'excessive anger' over the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, ordering the execution of two people, Business Insider, 29 November 2020, sourced from https://www.businessinsider.com/north-korea-kim-jong-un-raging-covid-19-orders-executions-2020-11.

[4] Kim Jong-un says North Korea's economic plan failed, BBC News, 7 January 2021, sourced from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55563598.


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