DPRK Office 101: Orwellian fantasy or North Korean reality?

Friday 22nd February, 2013

Two anti-American video clips, which appear to praise North Korea’s militaristic ideology, were uploaded in the period leading up to, and following, North Korea’s third nuclear test. Not only do the two clips have in common an awkward production quality; both employ content that has been stolen from US video games. Despite what this latter point may suggest, it is almost certain that the clips were produced by Office 101, Section 3 of the United Front Department in the DPRK, which is responsible for psychological warfare.

Office 101, despite its Orwellian resonance, is so-called because it was ratified on October 1st, 1970 by Kim Il-sung. It is situated in Block 1 of Ryeonhwa in the Central District of Pyongyang. Towards the end of the 60s, when the North Korean economy was superior to that of South Korea, Kim Il-sung had hopes for the divided Korean peninsula to be joined according to a strategy of federal unification. In this context, Office 101 was charged with conducting psychological warfare operations against South Korean citizens. This included the creation and dissipation of pro-North Korean works among South Koreans, ostensibly written under the names of South Korean intellectuals.

In case these works might be suspected of having been created by North Korean officials, materials and equipment were imported from Japan in order to emulate South Korean typefaces and fonts. Office 813 is a publisher that specializes in printing books intended for a South Korean readership, and is in the same compound as Office 101. Until the 80s, a sizeable number of books that voiced dissent towards the South Korean dictatorship, and were read by South Koreans, were created and published in this compound.

After the Seoul Olympics of 1988 and with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the South Korean economy began to overtake that of the North, and the North Korean leadership quickly lost faith in the efficacy of conducting psychological warfare against South Korean citizens. From this time onwards, the resources and experience of Office 101 personnel were turned against the North Korean people. The primary objective of the department was transformed, with the goal being to convince North Koreans that Kim was both the revolutionary leader of the world, and the personage under whose leadership the unification of the peninsula would take place. Office 101 came to operate under five sections: newspapers, magazines, film, music and literature.

Around 2000, the United Front Department expanded its remit to include the Internet. The materials produced by the five sections of Office 101 deviate in one significant way from the materials produced by the Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. While the Party’s propagandists draw from the ideology of ‘Military-First Policy’ in order to maintain the systematic loyalty of North Korean people, the Party’s psychological warfare officers draw on the contents of foreign cultural products when producing their materials.

This is why all the propaganda materials produced by the United Front Department share the following characteristics: in order to emphasize the international character of North Korea’s dominance, they draw on foreign soundtracks and scenes; in terms of presentation, the works attempt to stress a foreign provenance; and the works strive to bear the authorship of Koreans living abroad or of South Koreans.

The fact that this latest video takes content from an American video game; that the clip does not ostensibly originate from a North Korean state institution; that the author is suggested to be a Korean-American; that the clip was publicised through YouTube: these all point to Office 101 as being the source of the video.

Materials produced by Office 101 in this way are sometimes broadcast through North Korean media outlets. For example, on April 15th 1999, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun published a work allegedly written by a British intellectual. The RMS Titanic sank on April 15th 1912, the very day that Kim Il-sung – the founder of North Korea – was born. The piece stated, “As the sun set in the West, it rose in the East.”

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