In the worst rhetoric perhaps ever used in the history of state-run media across the world, the North Korean news agency, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), called its senior leader Jang Song Thaek a “despicable human scum” and a “dog” soon after he was executed on charges of treachery and betrayal.
Thaek, 67, was an uncle of North Korean leader and dictator Kim Jong Un. He was married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il. Last week, North Korea had accused Jang of “corruption, womanising, gambling and taking drugs”, before “eliminating” him from all his posts, including as vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Before being dismissed from services, Jang was regarded as the nation’s second-most powerful figure, the de facto No. 2 leader in North Korea. The senior leader had often been pictured beside 30-year-old leader Kim Jong Un, who has ruled North Korea since the death in 2011 of his father, Kim Jong Il.
The execution or even the thought of it would have seemed impossible till a few months ago, for Jang stood by Kim’s side ever since he took charge of the reclusive and nuclear-strong country. He was presumed to be Kim’s mentor until it was revealed by the state media that he was planning a military coup to overthrow Kim’s dictatorship. This disclosure followed the first publicly announced execution of a member of the ruling family in North Korea, even as it is believed that many others have met the same fate.
The state media has been surprisingly open about Jang and his crimes. Kim accused Jang and his allies of double-dealing behind the scenes, “dreaming different dreams” and selling the country’s resources at cheap prices, thereby threatening North Korea’s economic development. The state media issued a statement using words that had been saved until then for propaganda against leaders of rival South Korea. The KCNA carried a long list of instances of Jang’s disobedience and challenges to the regime of Kim, in what it summed up as attempts to “overthrow the regime”.
The following passages will reveal how strongly the media is influenced by the iron-hands of the dictatorship:
“The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system... However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.” It goes on to describe him as nurturing “dirty political ambition”, being “imprudent”, “flatterer” and “abusing authority”. He was also accused of taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country.
Jang’s alleged crimes ranged from large and very small, from “counter-revolutionary factional acts” to “half-heartedly clapping”. It finally said that Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed Thursday. This was followed with the release a photo of Jang standing at the military court, with his hands bound. Though it wasn’t said how Jang was executed, the North usually executes criminals by a firing squad.
The December 13 Internet edition of the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party of Korea, also carried a photo of Jang being taken to a special military tribunal, where he was handed the death sentence. In a front page commentary, the Rodong Sinmun said, “A crushing blow of revolution had been struck” against Jang. The commentary made clear the execution was meant as a signal to anyone thinking about challenging Kim Jong Un’s authority. “The resolve and decisiveness of the party centered on First Secretary Kim Jong Un has planted a major fear in the enemies of revolution and has given our military and people a conviction of victory,” it said. It also called Kim a “great parent” as it encouraged North Koreans to swear loyalty to him.
As per reports, this report of KCNA was read out by one of Korean Central Television’s news anchors in an 18-minute address to camera, shown three times during the day’s programming. It pulled no punches on the trial and the execution, almost challenging the public to show loyalty to the ruling party.
This only goes on to reveal how the state media is being used for propaganda of the Communist ideology. The state and the people are viewed as the ultimate embodiment of good in the world, constantly under the danger of forces of evil from within and without. Statements such as those issued above only mean to enlist every citizen to unify them against the supposed common enemy and imbue in them a sense of purpose that only demands absolute loyalty to the dictatorship. Threat and insult are also common in such rhetoric.
What this does is to inculcate a sense of victimhood and grievance; this was observed by BR Myers, author of “The Cleanest Race”, a groundbreaking 2010 study of the North Korea’s propaganda. Beneath the flowery language, Myers has argued, is a state ideology so simple it can be summarized in a single sentence: “The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”
Meanwhile, the world reacted sharply to the execution. The White House said that “if confirmed, this is another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime”. China has been cautious in reaction, saying “it is not a welcome development as far as China is concerned”. South Korea, however, said it would get fully prepared for “all possibilities in the future” while working closely with its allies in coping with the situation.
Executing a person who is seen as a threat to the state power and authority has been common practice in totalitarian regimes. Such countries create the most media repressive environments. In North Korea, the state owns all domestic news outlets, and strictly limits access to outside information. The internet is for all purposes banned. All journalists must be members of the ruling Workers Party of Korea. The penal code makes listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts and possession of dissenting publications a crime against the state. Media becomes a pawn in the hands of such regimes for producing propagandist pieces, mainly to give the leader an image of the god, the supreme authority and people’s liberator. The rest, are enemies.
Strong-worded statements such as one issued after Jang’s execution are also part of this propaganda. Interestingly, North Korea never makes news of execution or even the removal of senior leaders public. It seems to have been done this time to give the world a signal of Kim’s growing authority. It is no surprise, therefore, that North Korea has institutionalised a prosaically propagandistic media style.