Shortly after U.S. president George W. Bush arrived in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, in February 2002 for a state visit, the North Korean state news agency, KCNA, reported a miracle: that a cloud in the shape of a Kimjongilia, the flower named after the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, had appeared over North Korea. “Even the sky above the Mount Paektu area seemed to be decorated with beautiful flowers,” KCNA said. The piece was a whimsical effort to trump news of Bush’s visit to the other side of the divided Korean peninsula, according to The New York Times.
North Korean propaganda has its lighter side, but the effects of the government’s absolute control over news and information are extremely serious. This had become obvious by the end of 2002, when a tense standoff developed between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s alleged admission to maintaining a secret nuclear weapons program. With so little information available about the exact status of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, diplomats and analysts around the world were left parsing the bellicose rhetoric of state media accounts for signs of Pyongyang’s intentions. A single phrase broadcast by Pyongyang Radio on November 17 initially seemed to make the stunning revalation that North Korea already has nuclear weapons, though translators said the line may have indicated only that the country is “entitled to have weapons.” The difference lay in one syllable.
One of the last totalitarian states in the world, North Korea uses the media to foster a cult of personality around Kim Jong Il and his deceased father, Kim Il Sung, the country’s “eternal leader.” The local media tend to ignore the country’s gravest problems–such as the devastating famine that began in the mid-1990s and has cost as many as 2 million lives. State media instead demonize Pyongyang’s enemies, especially the United States, which has been called “the empire of the devil.” President Bush returned the favor in 2002, casting North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
North Korea has opened up to a degree, experimenting with market reforms, tourism promotion schemes, and diplomatic overtures after decades of Stalinist rule and isolationism that strengthened the country’s reputation as the “Hermit Kingdom.” Foreign journalists visited the country in 2002, mostly as part of the press corps accompanying visiting dignitaries, who included Russian president Vladimir Putin and Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Foreign correspondents also received visas to North Korea during the highly touted Arirang festival, a celebration marking the birthday of Kim Il Sung, which began on April 29 and lasted more than two months. Arirang, the centerpiece of the government’s bid to promote tourism, featured performances six days a week by thousands of dancers, gymnasts, soldiers, and other performers. “For the … months of Arirang, the Hermit Nation is inviting the world in,” wrote Jonathan Watts in the British newspaper The Guardian. “Even journalists are being welcomed into the country and allowed a freedom of movement that was hardly imaginable a year ago.” However, correspondents still complained of being closely watched and restricted by government minders.
And not all journalists were welcome. In September, during the Koizumi visit, North Korea refused to grant a visa to a reporter from the conservative, staunchly anti-communist South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo. The reporter had been chosen by lottery to join the 120-person press corps accompanying Koizumi, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap. Chosun, one of the South’s leading dailies, has repeatedly angered the North Korean leadership with its denunciations of Pyongyang, and North Korea routinely denies access to Chosun reporters.