Creating the perfect North Korean leader

Recent rumors about North Korea make us muse on just how weird North Korea is.

When it comes to lionized feats of North Korean leaders, there are two kinds of tales. The first are the “real’ legends, i.e. those actually propagated by North Korea, usually quite incredible, but not unbelievable. We’re told that the dynasty’s founder, Kim Il Sung, wrote patriotic slogans in beautiful calligraphy at age three and founded a proto-political party at age 13. Kim Jong Il was born on the sacred slopes of Mt Baekdu and as a middle school student repaired trucks while also organizing ideological study sessions. These kinds of stories are primarily meant for the domestic audience to convince them of the merits of their uniquely qualified leaders. Education on Kim Jong Un’s exploits will certainly be growing.

The second kind of myth exists almost exclusively in international media and often consist of truly unbelievable tales. The best example is, of course, the “Kim Jong Il got 18 holes-in-one the first time he golfed” story. Or Kim Jong Il scoring a perfect 300 the first time he bowled is another such tale. North Koreans have never, ever heard of these stories, unless they’ve been told them by a foreigner. They exist purely in a fantasy version of North Korea we too often indulge in. We let this version take hold for several reasons.

First, the bar is exceptionally low for journalism on North Korea. It is a difficult place to cover, no doubt, but to all too many journalists this seems to mean a free pass. There is no punishment for getting it wrong.

Second, South Korean journalism on North Korea is problematic — we should remember the two countries are locked in a 70-year propaganda war. South Korean journalistic culture allows for stories to be built around a single anonymous source. Meanwhile, many Western news outlets are quite happy to quote South Korean articles as authoritative.

Finally, they do have customs and rhetoric that are often extreme or do not conform to our standards. Kids in the DPRK do sing songs for “their father Kim Jong Un,” for example.

More broadly, there are over 24 million people in the DPRK. There are trusting people, cynical people, simple people and smart people. In what way they interact with the information environment they face very much depends on who they are as individuals. Generally, however, it is fair to say most people accept the stories of their leaders’ heroics as truth. But we should remember that the stories they hear are usually not as weird as the ones we hear.

[Read full Reuters blog post]

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