It is possible to argue that North Korea has the world’s strictest media censorship system. North Korean media outlets are, essentially, a branch of the government propaganda bureaucracy. Their goal is not to inform, but to indoctrinate and control common people, to explain to them what they should think about the world. In a sense, North Korean media exists to distort the picture of the world in accordance with the ever-changing demands of the ruling elite.
North Korean leaders believe that this system is necessary to keep people obedient and controllable, to prevent the rise of criticism about the government. This might be the case, indeed: Being unaware of the alternatives to their lifestyles, people are less likely to dream about a change.
However, this system of total control also leads to serious side effects which touch not only common people but also the decision-makers and top elite. To put it simply, the hyper-censored media does not merely blind common people, but distorts the vision of the elite as well.
One can say that there are two major tasks a free media usually has. On one hand, it exists to provide the public with a reasonably truthful picture of life, its challenges and problems. On the other hand, it serves as a channel through which the elite can receive critical and independent estimates of the country’s external and internal situation. The absence of such a channel is dangerous.
A distorted picture
If you are a dictator with more or less absolute power like Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” how can you possibly know about what is going on inside your country? Of course, normally dictators rely on classified official reports, but there is one serious problem with these papers: they are written by officials who have a vested interest in presenting situations in the most favorable light. This is understandable: most officials report about the state of affairs in the regions or fields they are responsible for. Thus, the supreme leader always gets a distorted picture.
For example, if there is a region which is just about to be struck by a famine, we should not normally expect that a region’s governor (or, in the case of North Korea, party secretary) is going to compile an honest report about the problems. At the end of the day, the party secretary is likely to be held responsible for the food shortages, so he has every reason to play the problems down on the assumption that the crisis will somehow solve itself.
Of course, the party secretary can also be punished for submitting false reports, but if he frankly admits the chaos in agriculture within his jurisdiction, the punishment is nearly certain.
Thus, North Korean officials have every reason to exaggerate their successes while hiding their lack of performance. As a result, North Korea's "Supreme Leader" has no means to find out what is actually going on in his country and unavoidably lives in a world of illusions. His tough approach to the officials does not help either: being terrified, they are even less likely to tell bad news to the ruler.
If North Korea had a free or at least less controlled press, things would be very different. An independent media would find out the problems immediately, so the top leaders would soon learn about possible difficulties. And local Party secretaries and other officials, being unable to cover things up, would also be more inclined to compile honest reports.
Political problems might pose an even bigger challenge. Officials will sometimes report economic problems, but they are almost certain to remain silent about sensitive but important political issues like, say, a decline in the government’s popularity. They are bound to assure the dictator that he and his entourage are widely popular, even when the country is actually on the brink of a revolution.
It is not surprising that a majority of overthrown dictators sincerely believed themselves to be popular and admired virtually until the moment when rebels began to ram the gates of their palaces. If the dictators had a less controlled press, they would be much more likely to see coming trouble and readjust their policies or, alternatively, look for escape before it was too late.
So dictators use strict media control to blind the people, but they also end up blinding themselves. And North Korea, the country with the world’s toughest censorship, iseems to be a place where this dangerous trend is especially pronounced.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.