How Pyongyang's propaganda backfired By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - In the summer of 1989, Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, hosted a
lavish international event - the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students.
Such occasions were essentially gatherings of young left-leaning intellectuals
and artists, heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union and the communist bloc.
The Pyongyang festival was meant to be a symbolic reaction to the Summer
Olympic Games, which had been successfully hosted by the South in 1988 - in
those days North Korea still tried hard to compete with the South.
That summer, North Koreans were exposed to a great number of happenings and
personalities, but none left as much an impression as a young girl called Im
Su-gyong. She was a
student at Seoul's Hankook University of Foreign Studies and an activist from
the national council of student representatives, a left-leaning, nationalistic
and generally pro-Northern students' organization in the South's capital.
In those days, North Korean sympathizers played an important, even decisive
role in the South Korean students' movement, so it was no surprise that the
powerful students' association dispatched a delegation to Pyongyang.
The South Korean government, then still dominated by hardline anti-communists
from the recently overthrown military regime, banned the trip. But Im Su-gyong
and some other activists ignored the ban and went to Pyongyang (they had to go
via third countries, since then as now there was no direct way to go to the
In North Korea, Im Su-gyong was met with the greatest pomp imaginable. North
Korean propagandists saw the girl as a gift from heaven: she was beautiful,
charming, charismatic and full of enthusiastic belief in the glories of
Stalinism with North Korean characteristics.
They did their best to present her as a representative of South Korean youth,
who if the North Korean official media were to be believed spent their days and
nights secretly studying the works of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and planning
demonstrations in front of United States army bases in the South.
There is no doubt that North Koreans, at that stage at least, sincerely
believed that North Korea was a viable alternative to the capitalist South that
was seen by progressive intellectuals as an "underdeveloped victim of US
So the Seoul student did not say anything to embarrass her handlers and duly
delivered the politically correct statements the authorities wanted to hear.
However, more than 20 years later, we can say that visit was a major blunder by
the North Korean authorities. Regardless of the subjective beliefs of Im
herself and calculations of her handlers, her trip to Pyongyang inflicted a
major blow to the then officially approved image of South Korea - and this
image had been carefully constructed through North Korean propaganda and
Back then, North Koreans were told that the South was a living hell, a place of
destitution and poverty. If the official media were to be believed, South
Korean workers were starving while their kids made a miserable living by
working in sweatshops, begging or polishing the shoes of sadistic American
It would have been difficult not to believe these stories, since the North
Korean public was cut off from the outside world to an extent that would have
been unbelievable in any other communist country, including the Soviet Union of
the Joseph Stalin era.
All foreign media, including periodicals from other communist countries, were
strictly off-limits for normal North Koreans and could only be accessed by
those with proper security clearance. It was a serious crime to have a tunable
radio set at home and foreign trips (always on official business) were
Only a tiny number of foreigners were allowed to reside in Pyongyang, and these
people were kept under constant surveillance, so no sane North Korean would
interact them since such an encounter would lead to an investigation, if not
worse. No wonder that North Koreans were quite credulous and generally accepted
official propaganda wholesale.
But the message was deadly wrong. In those decades, North Korea stagnated while
South Korea went through an economic miracle, transforming into a developed
industrial society. Nonetheless, North Koreans knew none of what was happening
just a few hundred kilometers from their villages, towns and cities.
The first cracks in the visage appeared in the early 1980s and were an
unintentional result of official propaganda. When, in 1980 a massive
pro-democracy movement erupted in South Korea, North Korean media began to
broadcast footage of South Korean students engaged in anti-government rallies.
The Kwangju uprising of May 1980 understandably attracted much attention in
North Korean propaganda, which presented it as proof of the great revolutionary
zeal of the downtrodden South Korean masses.
Footage of "Revolutionary Kwangju" was widely shown on North Korean TV - and
this led to completely unintended consequences.
The North Korean public suddenly discovered that students engaged in
revolutionary struggle were dressed well and showed no signs of severe
malnourishment. They certainly didn't look like people who had spent their
youth in slums.
The backdrop also attracted much attention: in Kwangju, a provincial South
Korean city, there were a great number of high-rise buildings, which looked
superior to the structures found in Pyongyang, the revolutionary capital. It
began to dawn on many North Koreans that South Korea was not a victim of US
imperialism. And then Im Su-gyong came.
We would probably describe what happened as "Im Su-gyong mania". The girl was
known in official propaganda as "the flower of unification" - the epithet is
still remembered by virtually all North Koreans.
North Koreans noticed that the girl looked healthy and optimistic and was very
well dressed. For a while, she became a trend-setter in the world of North
Korean fashion - North Korean women wanted to wear "Im Su-gyong style trousers"
(even though North Korean women at the time were discouraged from wearing
trousers outside the workplace), and imitate her short, straight hair-cut.
People were also surprised by her willingness to deliver unscripted speeches -
something which was quite unusual for North Koreans who took it for granted
that all political statements had to be carefully prepared. Even though she did
not say anything to contradict North Korean slogans, her sincerity and the ease
with which she spoke were striking and was so very different from what the
North Korean public was used to.
After one-and-a-half months spent in North Korea, Im Su-gyong and Mun Ik-hwan,
another South Korean leftist/nationalist dissident, were ready to return to the
South. As a way to protest the division of Korea, on August 15, 1989, on the
anniversary of Korea's liberation from the Japanese colonial regime, they chose
to cross the demilitarized line at Panmunjom, even though such a move was
against South Korean law.
In front of numerous TV crews and journalists of print media, the duo crossed
the border, whereupon they were immediately arrested. The North Korean public
assumed that Im Su-gyong made a great sacrifice. It was widely believed that
she would spend the rest of her life in the terrible dungeons of the South
Im Su-gyong indeed stood trial in the South. The anachronistic and
non-democratic National Security Law, still in operation in South Korea,
criminalizes any kind of unauthorized visit to the North. So Im Su-gyong was
sentenced to five years of prison (she was released after three-and-a-half
Needless to say, this was a shameful decision, but this is not a part of our
And then North Korean propaganda miscalculated again. Trying to capitalize on
Im Su-gyong's tremendous popularity, they aired an interview with her parents
who lived in Seoul. This is vividly remembered by North Koreans since it had an
explosive impact on their thinking about the South.
North Koreans were surprised to discover that the family of a political
criminal was allowed to stay in their home in the capital city and kept their
jobs (Im Su-gyong's father worked for the South Korean state railway company).
It was even more surprising that they were allowed to talk freely to visiting
North Korean journalists.
Having seen the interview, North Koreans began to suspect that South Korea was
not only far more affluent than they were told: they also came to the
conclusion that the "ruling fascist clique" in Seoul was unusually soft when
dealing with the internal opposition.
This was the beginning of major changes. A few years later in the late 1990s,
unauthorized information about the outside world began to filter into North
Korea - largely thanks to the spread of video tapes and later VCDs and DVDs as
well as because of the effective collapse of immigration controls on the border
However, the first breaches in the information blockade were inflicted by North
Korean authorities themselves. They wanted to show how popular their regime was
in the South, but they ended up in unwittingly providing proof of South Korean
economic success and political freedom.
This is the reason why the present author is highly supportive of exchanges
with the North, including exchanges that are seemingly conducted on conditions
dictated by Pyongyang.
Whether or not the officially approved, South Korean visitors follow the script
dictated by North Korean propagandists, yet their interaction with the North
Korean public is bound to produce consequences that are clearly not to the
liking of the Pyongyang elite.
Their dress, their looks, their relaxed behavior, will speak volumes about
South Korean society, thus increasing the allure of the Seoul legend - and this
legend is gaining strength in North Korea nowadays.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.
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