Foreign Policy

North Korea: Between Propaganda and Threats

The North Korean military forces are combat ready on the highest alert to launch an attack against the U.S mainland, Hawaii, kimyongunGuam and other bases in the Pacific, according to a press release issued on Tuesday morning. What used to be considered part of the ordinary dynamic of provocations against the United States has taken an escalating tone that is starting to raise concerns in the international community. Today, Pyongyang expresses its full intentions to attack the United States through declarations and harsh propaganda, among which videos that show the US Capitol, the White House and Manhattan targeted by modern missiles stand out. But is this just an escalation level of North Korea’s traditional bluffing or should the U.S consider Pyongyang’s aggressive rhetoric a serious threat?

A defiant tone against the West is nothing new from Pyongyang. The threats are not either. However, since Kim Jong-Un came to power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, these confrontations seem to have taken a different pitch. North Korea’s regional isolation, the constant international pressure and the unstoppable forces of globalization have pushed the Jong-Un regime to reinforce the use of propaganda to consolidate his and the nation’s power. The soft-power tool of propaganda that gave birth and control to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been rekindled by Jong-Un in a desperate attempt to legitimize its rule and keep the nation under his authoritarian command.

This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked North Korea in 178th place out of 179 countries in its World Press Freedom Index. With total control over every media outlet and information source in the country, the DPRK’s government has been able to create an idealistic nation on two different levels.  In the domestic sphere, national propaganda has served the purpose of breeding a cult of personality towards the figure of  “The Great Leader” and promoting the Juche ideology, based on the power of the masses and the principles of independence and self-reliance. Domestic propaganda has created an alternate reality in which the worshiped leader is portrayed as almost divine by myths and legends, and the outside world is seen as evil, corrupted and threatening, while the perspective of the nation’s own situation remains hazy.

On the international level, the North Korean government has launched a campaign of demonstrations and propaganda intended to show the world the greatness, the strength, and the capabilities of the nation and its leader. In this sense, North Korea’s military capacity has been highlighted in several declarations, videos and provocative nuclear tests that have led to stiff U.N sanctions in recent moths. An aggressive rhetoric, a strong speech and a series of punctual declarations have become one of Kim Jong-Un’s most resourceful tools. An artificial reality has been meticulously crafted with the purpose of marginalizing the international pressure on humanitarian issues such as the alarming poverty, the famine, and the every-day human rights violation across the nation.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the propaganda project is the “Peace Village”, a small territory near the border with South Korea that portrays a perfectly developed city supposed to be home to 2,000 North Koreans. However, it has been recently discovered that the village is, in fact, inhabited. The toy village meant for the international media actually hosts a set of bunkers for DPRK soldiers, intelligence stations and enormous speakers that voice propaganda messages to South Korea. In this context the latest threats and demonstrations of willingness to attack the United States could easily fit into a systematic model of survival in the hostile international environment that has turned its back on the DRPK to support its counterpart in the south. The demonstrations of power and willingness of North Korea might be part of a strategy to make a regional statement rather than starting World War III. However, Kim Jong-Un might be making a strategic mistake in taking this approach in the bargaining game and putting North Korea’s credibility at stake while raising the confrontational level.

This week’s aggressive rhetoric could therefore be considered more an element of the campaign of international propaganda that responds to a series of external pressures, regional projects and national issues, rather than a first step towards an international conflict. However, the U.S should not, by any means, take this threat lightly. The matter should be taken seriously and gain a respectable place in this administration’s foreign policy agenda.

The secretive character of North Korea has managed to maintain a hazy curtain around its factual nuclear and military capabilities. While North Korea might be bluffing about its missiles and nuclear strength, it might as well be showing off its true capacities, and- unfortunately, that will only be revealed the day these threats turn into actions.