How does North Korea make its announcements?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 9 2006 6:13 PM

Kim Jong-il Says the Darnedest Things

The extra-large propaganda machine of the DPRK.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

In a statement that purports to "flay" U.S. and South Korean combined naval maneuvers, North Korea's state-run news service announced Tuesday that other nations "would be well advised to properly understand the will and mettle of the DPRK to wipe out the enemy and stop going reckless." The service further noted the involvement of a " super-large nuclear carrier" in these maneuvers, and advised the United States to " drop its wrong military calculation and stop the adventurous war exercises." In a Slate column first published in 2006 and reprinted below, Daniel Engber explains the bizarre wording of North Korean statements.

Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il

North Korea's state-run news service announced the successful detonation of a nuclear weapon on Sunday. "The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent," said the Korean Central News Agency. Last week, the KCNA delivered another oddly worded statement, criticizing Japan for its "extra-large crimes of human rights abuses." Where'd they get that quirky diction?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

It's homegrown. For the most part, North Korean government officials learn English without ever leaving the country. The political elite study at the language program of Kim Il-Sung University, while most working-level diplomats train at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. The teachers at these programs tend to be North Koreans who use video and audio recordings as classroom aides. There are very few English-language books around, and students are often forced to study from volumes of sayings by Kim Il-Sung that have been translated into English. (A few top students get to travel abroad or watch Hollywood movies like Jaws and Titanic.) Most students specialize in English, but the universities also offer Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and many other languages for study.

Advertisement

Kim Il-Sung founded the central news agency as a political-party mouthpiece in 1946, before the official creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Most news comes from a main office in Pyongyang, but there are local branches inside the country and some informal offices abroad. The KCNA Web site, which has been live since the beginning of the Internet boom, operates out of Tokyo.

A former diplomat told the Newhouse News Service that in the 1970s, the agency would run fake news stories as ads in American newspapers like the Washington Post and then run excerpts from those papers as if they were quoting real American articles. In the last 10 years, the copyrighted statements from the agency's Web site have made frequent use of strange and extravagant rhetoric. "The U.S. imperialist robbers have stretched their crooked tentacle of crime-woven aggression with wild ambition," said one release from 1998, which went on to promise that the Americans will "meet the fate of forlorn wandering spirits." Foes of the state are often described as "human scum"; one defector who received that designation was further described as "ugly-looking" and a "dirty and silly guy." A few years ago, an American graphic designer named Geoff Davis was inspired to set up a search engine for the entire KCNA Web archive. Among his suggested searches: "resolutely smash," "brigandish," and "peerlessly great man."

Despite its peculiarity, the agency provides the West with an important source of information on Kim Jong-il's regime. American and South Korean analysts read the KCNA releases every day, looking for subtle shifts in rhetorical strategy or other clues as to what might be going on inside the country. As a rule of thumb, it's more likely that the North Koreans mean business when they tone down the name-calling.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Han Park of the University of Georgia.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Alabama’s Insane New Abortion Law Gives Fetuses Lawyers and Puts Teenage Girls on Trial

Tattoo Parlors Have Become a Great Investment

Natasha Lyonne Is Coming to the Live Culture Gabfest. Are You?

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The Secret Service’s Big Problems Were Reported Last Year. Nobody Cared.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 2 2014 11:01 AM It Wasn’t a Secret A 2013 inspector general report detailed all of the Secret Service’s problems. Nobody cared.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 12:10 PM Women of America, Here Are the Cities Where You Can Find Marriageable Men
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 2 2014 11:07 AM Mapping 1890 Manhattan's Crazy-Quilt of Immigrant Neighborhoods
  Double X
Doublex
Oct. 2 2014 11:34 AM Alabama’s Insane New Abortion Law Putting teenage girls on trial may finally be too much for the Supreme Court.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 12:04 PM The Audio Book Club Debates Gone Girl, the Novel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 2 2014 11:41 AM Dropbox Recruiting Video Features Puppets and Data Privacy
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 2 2014 9:49 AM In Medicine We Trust Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?