Pyongyang’s provocative propagandists

Pyongyang’s provocative propagandists
© Getty Images

At the start of the Winter Olympics two weeks ago, the nasty, brutish and short (and endlessly mockable) state known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea demonstrated it has the wits to boondoggle the gullible with a combination of glitz and sophisticated propaganda. By unleashing on the host nation, South Korea, his beaming young cheerleaders and, through graduated suspense-building, his own sister, Kim Yo Jong, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un effected an image makeover, turned the tables on the Trump administration, hypnotized the world into forgetting about his yearlong ballistic-bluster barrage, and likely secured a free pass on his next big provocation.

Not a bad week’s work for a man best known for his bizarre and belligerent ways.

In contrast, the U.S. delegation to the Olympic opening ceremony, headed by Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceMan who threatened to kill Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi pleads guilty to federal charges Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill MORE, came across as boorish, grumpy and insensitive. By saying things that bear repeating, that North Korea is a cruel regime that tortures and starves its people — if not necessarily at the Olympic festival where positive thinking trumps reality — and by doing things that make one look petty — staying all of five minutes at the VIP reception, lest North Koreans warm up to him and opting for a silent, sedentary show of disapproval as tens of thousands of others stood cheering at the joint entrance by athletes from both Koreas — Mr. Pence fell right into the propaganda trap that the princess from Pyongyang had laid in his path.


The unfortunate optics spun by Pyongyang’s sugary serenade and Washington’s forced errors are that the poor, paranoid North Koreans are doing their best to make peace, while the mighty, militant Americans are doing what they do best: make trouble.

Lost in this Hollywood snapshot was the unforced error on the part of Ms. Kim, the royal envoy, whose daytime job is the head of her kingdom’s Department of Propaganda and Agitation. Simply, she missed out on a golden opportunity. When the U.S. team made its entrance, instead of acting graciously as her job title might suggest, she remained seated, put her chin up, scowled ever so slightly, and offered not a single clap. Imagine the global excitement she could have stirred had she flashed that imperious smile, clapped three or four times and then stopped in mid-air, as if she caught herself in the middle of a forbidden act.

The first sister would have convinced impressionable oglers the world over that she, unlike her brother, is well-meaning — perhaps even pure of heart. “How adorable,” they would have crooned.

But Kim Yo Jong is neither an ordinary young woman nor a conventional princess. She is blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department for human rights abuses and censorship. As the royal censor, her primary job is to ensure that the North Korean people remain deprived of the basic rights of freedom of speech and information, so that her family’s unparalleled rule by crimes against humanity continues in perpetuity. 

For Pyongyang, propaganda is the essential complement to provocations. Pyongyang operates by both offensive and defensive game plan, provokes according to its own playbook, and turns on the charm when circumstances call for it. For example, in 1972, as the United States stood on the verge of a humiliating defeat in what was widely perceived as an unjust war in Vietnam, regime founder Kim Il Sung invited reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post to Pyongyang and made the case that he sought peace with the United States.

As anti-war protests in the United States gained speed, Kim diversified his propaganda campaign by taking out several expensive full-page advertisements in those newspapers and Times of London, calling for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the South. Pyongyang’s central message — that the United States was the aggressor and the North but a small, peace-seeker — resonated.

In the post-Cold War period, variations on these ploys became wildly lucrative. In June 2000, after pocketing $500 million from the South’s president for the privilege of making a pilgrimage to Pyongyang for a summit meeting, Kim Jong Il, the second hereditary ruler and father of the current despot, turned to charming the United States. That October, Kim sent his senior-most military man to Washington as a special envoy, and Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s visited Pyongyang later in the month.

If the Pyongyang princess makes a trans-Pacific journey and presents Washington in person with a message of peace and a bill of concessions sought, will the United States hold firm or fold?

Having raised hopes of rapprochement, Pyongyang closed the Olympics drama with propaganda of a different sort: psychological threat via the North’s chief delegate to the closing ceremony, the dour-looking former spymaster, Gen. Kim Yong Chol. He is the mastermind behind the North’s two deadly attacks on the South in 2010, which killed 50 South Koreans, and the massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014, which caused the company hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. By dispatching Gen. Kim, Pyongyang’s message to Seoul and Washington was clear: “We call the tune, and the tune can go from placido to molto agitato in a heartbeat.”  

The way to counter such a multi-layered propaganda ploy is not with a John Foster Dulles-esque snub, but with a steely smile and firm handshake, telling Pyongyang’s propagandists, “I’ve heard much about you. I hope to see you again — in The Hague.”

The Trump administration must raise its game. With Twitter-free, quiet resolve, bring the full weight of its sanctions power on Pyongyang. Moreover, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' On student loans, Biden doesn't have an answer yet Grill company apologizes after sending meatloaf recipe on same day of rock star's death MORE must engage the North Korean people by increasing government funding for radio broadcast into the hermit kingdom, funding that remains paltry. Should Pyongyang’s provocative princess seek his audience in Washington in the future, President Trump should instead let his daughter Ivanka play host.

Above all, President Trump must consistently convey the message that the United States stands by the North Korean people instead of its cruel dictatorship, views the people themselves as the future leaders of a free North Korea, and sees the Kim dynasty for what it is: perverse purveyors of unparalleled inhumanity.

It would, for once, be propaganda worthy of the name.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.