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Tea Leaves and Turtle Shells: Reading North Korea

By
25 January 2010


An electronic copy of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper dated Dec. 16 is seen at a computer monitor at a library in the northern Jagang province, north of North Korean capital Pyongyang in this undated picture released by KCNA December 16, 2008. North Korea stepped up its campaign to prove leader Kim Jong Il is well and in control by showing him looking at an electronic copy of a newspaper in a series of photos released through its official media. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA).

Serious study (and its close cousin, informed analysis) of North Korean media is not impossible but requires a rigorous approach that most people are not prepared to entertain. Contrary to common wisdom, there is not a lack of good evidence on North Korea. Rather, there is a lack of mining tools…and miners.

At a minimum, it is essential for anyone who wants to understand the North to have at least a passing familiarity with media analysis. This so-called “open source” analysis is not black magic. It is simply a combination of careful reading, analytical thinking and writing, and a solid knowledge of cultural variables as well as cross-cultural bureaucratic realities (i.e., the fact that bureaucracies operate much the same no matter where they are).

At its heart, media analysis is an exercise in reverse engineering. Done correctly, it becomes the study of decision making in Pyongyang – that is, what decisions are made, when, and why.

There are no passwords, decoder rings, or occult membership rites to endure for entry into the not so charmed circle of serious media analysts. Nor is it a case of tweaking a computer program so that the only thing remaining is to feed information in and wait for the results.

To be sure, there are numerous caveats that apply when using North Korean media as an analytical tool. Fluff, spin, propaganda, myth, policy—some or all of these are often in play, and the analysis needs to be flexible enough to take these into account. Moreover, it is simply not the case that everything appearing in the media is of equal value, nor is it intended to be. Some—even most—of what appears on any given day is boilerplate propaganda, which for purposes of policy analysis, is of little utility and worse, might actually be misleading if parsed too minutely.

When getting at North Korean policy through the media and official statements—that is, statements from the government—the key is not in word-counts or focusing on particular formulations in isolation. “Content analysis” (an effort to make judgments on the basis of statistical findings about the use of specific words or phrases), as commonly practiced, is exactly the wrong way to proceed.

The real focus should be context. Why? Because it is in a specific context that decisions are made in Pyongyang and that policymaker’s perceptions are shaped. Absent an understanding of the context, reflections in the media of these decisions make little sense. Those interested should read Richard Wich’s Sino-Soviet Crisis Politics: A Study of Political Change and Communication to get a taste of the analytical methodology in action. Or dig into the declassified “Trends in Communist Media” put out on a weekly basis years ago by the gone-but-not-forgotten Foreign Broadcast Information Service

As a regular feature, the pages of 38 North will include analysis of policy-relevant or otherwise revealing official North Korean statements and important articles in the media. Be advised ahead of time: this analysis will not be for dabblers or dilettantes. It will not be dumbed down. With luck, however, neither will be it unduly Talmudic. The methodology is not really so arcane once you get the hang of it. The application of this methodology will be as transparent as the English language permits.

No matter what the North Korean statement/commentary being scrutinized, the methodology will be central to our analysis. This methodology has been well-tested and refined under fire over many decades with good results as applied not only to North Korea, but also to the controlled media of the former Soviet Union, its allies, and—still today—to the People’s Republic of China. There can always be differences in interpretation and nuance when using the methodology, and we will be pleased to entertain such differences from readers.

One reason the methodology works so well is because it is not our rules imposed on the North’s media, but rather an effort to get as close as possible to the rules by which their media operates. It is also of considerable help that the North Koreans are actually engaged in a game of signaling much of the time. They need to communicate their intentions to their domestic audience, to their allies (the few that are left) and to their enemies. Although sometimes they want to confuse and mislead, more often than not they are trying to send a signal and they want it to be read. The fact that these signals are frequently embedded in noise and obscured by propaganda smoke simply makes the methodology all the more important as a way to screen out what is irrelevant, isolate significant trends or patterns in comment, and focus the analysis on real policy decisions.

One way to grasp the methodology—not overly simplified, one hopes—might be called the “LATTE” gambit: “L” for level, “A” for audience, “T’ for timing, the second “T” for tone, and “E” for everything else. As we employ each element in future analyses, there will opportunities to examine them in greater detail. For now, the quick explanations are these:

Level. The North Koreans utilize a consistent and well established hierarchy of comment. The highest level and thus most authoritative pieces are generally the most important. The North Koreans do us the favor of conveniently flagging them as such. All authoritative (i.e., those issued in the name of the government or any of its entities) statements are worth studying, but some are meant by Pyongyang to be considered more important than others. In this case, thou shalt judge the book by its cover. Something labeled a “Government Statement,” for example, is meant to be considered with utmost seriousness. It does not simply communicate the policy. In some sense, it is the policy. What does this mean? We’ll get into that as we look at various authoritative pieces over the next few months.

However, focusing on authoritative comment does not free us to ignore lower level comment (i.e., commentaries in the newspapers, reports of low level officials, etc), but we cannot overemphasize that looking at these in isolation can lead the analysis into blind alleys. Up pops a caveat: Curiously, in some situations (context!), the least authoritative items may actually represent highly authoritative reactions from Pyongyang. If the situation is evolving rapidly and Pyongyang has not decided on a policy—or does not want to declare its policy at an authoritative level—it may simply pick up a report by a third party (e.g. a foreign government, a report by a foreign press service)—and let the position espoused there act as a place holder on its position.

Audience. At whom is the comment or statement primarily targeted, and why? Are there differences in the versions released for foreign audiences and those for domestic consumption? Are any such differences analytically significant; are they consistent with treatment of similar items in the past (e.g., are remarks of the Foreign Ministry spokesman  on the nuclear issue routinely transmitted in full for the international audiences but rarely, if ever, disseminated for the domestic audience)? If an official statement is critical of “nearby countries,” precedent teaches it is a good bet that the audience is in Beijing (or less likely, Moscow) and thus the first place to explore for any analysis is recent developments in North Korean relations with either of those countries.

Timing. Because Pyongyang tends to be reactive rather than proactive, the speed at which it responds (either to events or to statements by foreign governments) can be an important variable. Fast-normal-slow response time is the spectrum, and sometimes even a lack of any response at all can be telling. Significant silences are hard to spot because there is no way to judge when a silence is normal and when it is important without knowing historic patterns of the timing of comment.

Tone. Tone gets slightly more subjective. It is difficult to measure (you can’t stick a thermometer in an official statement) and the concept is tricky to master. Discovering and plotting the norm in the North’s use of language is not easy. This tends not to be the language you were taught at home or school. It requires good files and the ability to research months if not years of DPRK comment. Without this longer term look, there is no way to judge whether what might appear on the surface to be threatening language is really very tough or is actually toned down and thus less dire than in the past.

Everything else. This is where context, history, culture, personalities, etc., comes to bear. You could write a book on this “E” (again, look at Wich). Just for example, the specific—and very particular—history of events in inter-Korean relations may shed light on a North Korean formulation which, read out of context or simply taken literally, may mean nothing. Even the time of day might bring meaning to a phrase. Many years ago, not long after the two Koreas first opened a telephone hot line, South Korean ships fired on a North Korean fishing boat. Pyongyang radio carried a statement from the North Korean Red Cross saying “the time for direct contacts has passed” and that it was broadcasting its protest. The implication, so it seemed, was that Pyongyang thought the incident was so serious that using the hot line was insufficient to register its displeasure.

Months and months later, we happened to read a report giving the “hours for operation” of the hotline. Hours for operation? Sure enough, the hot line did not operate twenty-four hours daily, but only for a few hours every day. And going back to check, it became clear that the Red Cross complaint was broadcast after the hot line had closed for the day. Hence, the phrase “the time for direct contacts has passed” was simply a statement of fact, not one of policy. The need to pay attention to the “everything else” should militate against the temptation for instant analysis of North Korean statements.

As a final thought, there is sometimes an interplay between public and private North Korean statements that makes it difficult for those of us outside (most of us) government to fully understand the back and forth. We are, in effect, privy only to part of the conversation. Curiously, it may sometimes be equally difficult for those in government to see this dynamic at work. All too often, the North’s public comments are dismissed by those in official positions in Washington as “propaganda.” The results of which may be comical, or dangerous. Or both.


Recommended citation: “Tea Leaves and Turtle Shells: Reading North Korea,” 38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, January 25, 2010. Online at: www.38north.org/?p=169.

Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.