The Propaganda Officers’ Latest Coup: South Koreans Mourn the Death of Kim Jong-il

An ex-North Korean Propaganda Officer comments on the reactions of South Koreans at the death of Kim Jong-il.

Soon after Kim Jong-il’s death, university students in South Korea initiated a nationwide campaign to set up campus shrines in memory of the deceased North Korean leader. For me, this brings back memories from my time as a Propaganda Officer in the Unification Ministry.

During induction training, I read a case study filed under the category of ‘Psychological Warfare’, regarding the way in which various government departments were mobilized at the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. For 100 days after the death of Kim, every Ministry, department and faction inside North Korea vied to outdo each other in a show of loyalty. One of the first groups to showcase their efforts was the military.

It was planned that on a certain day, every soldier in the People’s Army would send each other a gift. Contained in each package would be a message of condolence for Kim Jong-il and a few words cherishing the memory of Kim Il-sung. This movement was so successful that some of the gifts ended up on display in the Revolutionary Museum of the Korea People’s Army.

The Foreign Ministry tried to lure in messages of condolence from representatives of foreign countries. Not least because of their bad track-record in Public Relations, this plan was doomed from the start; immediately, they took a U-turn and announced that North Korea would not receive condolences. The Unification (Propaganda) Ministry did their bit by having the poet Kim Man-young write an epic poem on Kim’s memory. For this, the Ministry received the highest accolades from Kim Jong-il.

However, the Unification Ministry had more urgent matters to deal with than scoring points with the new leader. This dilemma stemmed from its decades-long maxim: that Kim Il-sung was the divine personage without whom the unification of the Korean peninsula could not take place.

Under the auspices of the Unification Ministry, the Department of Pyschological Warfare Against South Korea actually conduct psychological warfare against its own citizens, the North Koreans. If one reads the Worker’s Party Paper, which is the primary source of news reading for most North Koreans, there are frequently columns in which South Korean intellectuals, poets, journalists and politicians are seen to praise the Leader.

To manipulate that complex puppetry, which had until then consistently had Kim Il-sung as the protagonist, time and plausible evidence was required.

The Unification Ministry sprang into action by ordering for letters of condolence, poems on the memory of Kim Il-sung, columns and essays to be rapidly produced by ‘South Koreans’ and sent to Pyongyang. In addition, a message was sent to pro-North Korean groups that campaigns to set up shrines in the memory of Kim Il-sung should take place in the major South Korean cities and in university campuses throughout the country.

When these campaigns took off – with the aid of mass student protests against South Korea’s then authoritarian government – the issue of establishing shrines to Kim Il-sung soon became a hotly debated topic in South Korea’s public discourse.

Taking advantage of this coverage, the Unification Ministry collected cuttings from the South Korean press picturing Kim on its front pages, and published them in the Workers’ Party Paper.

Meanwhile, the South Korean government had been issuing criticism at supporters of the movement to set up shrines in Kim Il-sung’s memory. In response, a petition in protest of curtailing the freedom to do so was instigated by the organisation named ‘Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula’. This suited the Unification Ministry perfectly and this petition, with all its names, was duly published in the Workers’ Party Paper.

To an ordinary North Korean who could not at all grasp that a diversity of views was naturally inherent in a democracy, the protests and petitions against the South Korean government confirmed their belief that Kim Il-sung was a great figure even in the eyes of South Koreans.

But this was not enough to satisfy my predecessors in the Unification Ministry.

Communication Centre No. 26 ‘Bookgeuk-sung’ (formerly ‘Chilbo-san’) had a studio that used broadcasts to infiltrate South Korean airwaves since the 1970s. In its role as a long arm of Psychological Warfare, they successfully amplified many anti-government protests through pro-democracy activists during the time of authoritarian rule in South Korea.

As this was at a time when North Korea was relatively prosperous, Kim Il-sung had ambitions to unite the Korean peninsula under his rule by manipulating the popular uprisings against the dictatorship in South Korea. This ‘cultural’ wing of the Unification Ministry was also responsible for the popular show ‘The Voice of Korea’. Their programming was so popular in South Korea that when ex-Student Union representatives from the South made a clandestine visit to the North, they pleaded to see the show’s host.

At the death of Kim Il-sung, this studio had North Korean actors’ hair dyed and filmed them mourning Kim in front of his photo, as is the Korean funerary custom. This was made to look as if it were South Korean university students mourning: the dyed hair would give them away as ‘trendy South Koreans’. In addition, in the name of NGOs actually present in South Korea, the 310 Centre -  in charge of creating disturbance in South Korea – rained down pamphlets mourning Kim Il-sung and supporting Kim Jong-il. These were purported to have been written by South Koreans and then dissipated North of the 38th parallel for propaganda purposes.

The slogan was ‘South Korea’s mourning fills the skies’. This bolstered the self-confidence of North Koreans after Kim Il-sung’s death, in preparation for their faith in Kim Jong-il’s leadership.

I am certain that after Kim Jong-il’s death, the Unification Ministry has used similar methods of psychological warfare both in South and North Korea. I smile ruefully when Labour Party members in South Korea wail loudly at the death of Kim Jong-il. They did not know Kim Jong-il personally, as those in 1994 would have remembered Kim Il-sung from before the 38th parallel split the country in two.

28th December, 2011

Jang Jin-sung

Sign up for our newsletter!

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required