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Turtle Shells Redux

14 January 2015

Turtle shell divinationI recognize a fool’s errand when I see one, but in this case, I cannot resist.

Looking through this website’s recent articles, it is hard to escape the conclusion that media analysis is not well understood and thus rarely practiced. Media analysis, as opposed to simply using the media to make a case, is a craft, not voodoo. It takes time, and files, and, well, let us say intellectual depth.

We tackled this same subject when we were all a lot younger, almost five years ago, in one of the very first items on 38 North (Tea Leaves and Turtle Shells: Reading North Korea). That article still says most of what needs to be said about media analysis, but it never hurts to refresh memories.

Media analysis has been used for over 70 years with considerable success against regimes in which the media are carefully controlled. The US government for a long time had a small group of experts in what was once the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) whose job it was to analyze the media of the Soviet bloc, China, Vietnam and North Korea. The file room for storing the necessary historical documents on which the analysis was based was large, and the job of feeding the binders containing the speeches, editorials and statements was endless. An endless but not empty exercise. It was critical, and it still is.

Did these regimes send signals through their controlled media? Of course they did. The media were not extraneous or separate, but were part of the decision-making and implementing process at the heart of these regimes. Often the media were where debates were fought out and the evolution of policies could be traced. Was the signaling arcane to those outsiders who did not understand how controlled media operated, and, especially, did not know how to separate routine propaganda from policy-relevant material? Yes, it was, and it obviously still is.

The analysis of controlled media has always necessarily been multifaceted. That’s where the files come in. Let’s take a hypothetical North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman’s statement. The questions that need to be answered even before beginning analysis of the content itself are many. To list a few:

What weight does Pyongyang put on statements at this level? How many are issued in a year? On what subjects? What is the clearance process within Pyongyang for such statements? How does the content of this specific spokesman’s statement compare with others on similar topics in the past? What “routine” formulations have been omitted; which have been altered? (Yes, silence, or omission, is often an important signal.) How does this statement fit with the broader line espoused across the breadth of DPRK media? Is there a specific diplomatic context in which this statement was issued? Was the statement issued in response to a specific event or statement by another government? How soon after that was it issued?

Media analysis often has to stand alone, but is almost always stronger when put in a specific context. During negotiations with the North Koreans in the 1990s, there was a strong correlation between authoritative level pronouncements or commentaries in the media and negotiations. Knowing what was going on in the negotiations provided the right lens for reading the media, and systematic analysis of the media provided a guide for understanding where the negotiations were moving, or were about to move.

There are several dangers that anyone using controlled media as a basis for analysis would do well to avoid. The first is cherry picking. Finding juicy and seemingly “relevant” quotes over time to create the appearance of a cohesive argument often turns out to be misleading because it ignores the fact that each statement has a specific context in which it was meant to be read. It is true that some themes may allow a consistent interpretation over time, but for others, the meaning differs depending on what else is going on. How does an analyst know which is which? How does a skilled cabinetmaker know which piece of wood to use? Practice.

Making a negative case from a basketful of media articles is usually easier than making a positive one, because it takes much less work. Remove consideration of the context, the specifics, and the comparisons over time that add meaning to North Korean statements and the analysis becomes as easy as dropping a penny down a well.

A job of the media analyst (any analyst, in fact) is not only to warn of impending threats but also to look for possible openings that can be explored and possibly exploited. For example, few analysts that I know ever thought Kim Jong Il was a reformer in the Deng Xiaoping sense of the term. (Actually, when he started the long and contentious process of economic reform in China, even Deng was not the reformer he eventually became.) Rather, the preliminary thinking at the time (and remember Kim Jong Il wasn’t an unknown when he took over in 1994, we’d been watching him since he became a public figure in 1980) was that Kim seemed prepared to entertain new ideas and new approaches on the economic and diplomatic fronts. An early indication of where things might be heading came in 1997 in a Kim Jong Il work, which asserted that the DPRK and the US did not have to remain eternal enemies. That was an idea that DPRK diplomats cited at key junctures in subsequent years as a way to signal that while their tactics might be annoying and seem obstructive, their basic marching orders from on high were to move relations with the US forward.

Hints of Kim’s approach on the economic front appeared even before the country had fully emerged from the disastrous famine of 1995-1998. By 1999, possibly linked to what Kim saw as improvements in the prospects for US-DPRK relations, things accelerated, and by the turn of the century, Kim was supporting what appeared to be a coordinated policy designed to create a security environment that would free him up to take chances in implementing his new economic ideas. In a paper published in July 2006 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (North Korean Reform: Politics, economics and security), Joel Wit and I took a long, detailed look at evidence for North Korean economic reform, based largely on a close study of DPRK media.

Presumably it isn’t plagiarism to use one’s own words to make a point years later. Thus, much of what is contained in the next several paragraphs borrows heavily—and quite literally—from our 2006 paper.

When looking for evidence of internal policy discussions about economic reforms in the media in the early 2000s, there were more than the normal analytical difficulties because little in the available commentary addressed directly the particular reforms that we knew were being implemented. There were some references in the North Korean media to wages and a few to prices, but discussions of markets and inflation were wrapped in critical analysis about capitalist practices. For the most part, reformers and conservatives alike were forced to cloak their differences in the guise of convoluted discussions about the relative significance of defense, heavy and light industries. When they wanted to roll out the big guns, they cast the battle in older but well understood terminology pitting “accumulation” against “consumption.” Interpreting the meaning of these various formulations and shadings in emphasis will always be tricky but not impossible. Sometimes, let it be repeated here, what is not said is as important as what appears in print. Also, on occasion, the revival of an old theme is significant, not because the theme itself is crucial but because it points back to previous circumstances and prior decisions.

The debates reflected in the North Korean media commentary were real, but the commentaries themselves are usually only snippets, not the conversation itself, and certainly not the conversation in its entirety. For example, the sudden appearance beginning in January 2003 of a spate of articles in the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun seeking to justify priority spending for defense industry on economic rather than military grounds suggests another conversation going on somewhere else within the policy arena, one in which someone in the leadership was strongly—and effectively—pressing the case that defense spending was no longer a sacred cow and must explain its utility in economic terms.

This type of exegesis often provokes protest from those who find close reading of the North Korean media tedious. But the goal is to understand this public commentary in the proper context—that is, the context in which it was written. Discussions appearing in controlled media are valuable precisely because they are controlled. That the discussions take place within a carefully constrained environment does not diminish their utility. It just requires the right lens to see clearly what is going on.

There were signs of serious thinking in the North about economic reform as early as the late 1990s, but it was not until February 2000 that Pyongyang sent an exceptionally strong signal that economic considerations had risen in importance in the regime’s menu of immediate policy concerns. Using a highly unusual vehicle—reporting remarks attributed to one of the cabinet’s vice premiers supposedly in response to a KCNA reporter’s questions—the North publicly asserted that the “political, ideological, and military might can be considered as having already reached that of a powerful state.”

This formulation—later attributed to Kim Jong Il himself—became perhaps the single most important banner under which the reformers could gather. Implicit, but perfectly clear, in it was the assessment that sufficient emphasis had already been placed on the standard three concerns—politics, ideology and the military. Now, it was time to devote more attention to the economy—and not just in the form of ideological exhortations, either. “We can also become a strong economic power within a few years,” the vice premier was quoted as saying, “if we concentrate our efforts on economic construction.”

The formulation presaged what was to become a major fault line in the leadership, if indeed it was not one already. This was the question of finding the proper place for defense spending within overall efforts to renovate the economy by “improving” its foundations in conformity with the “new situation.” The claim that the country was “already” powerful militarily became a rallying point for those advocating a break with the past practice of giving absolute priority in resource allocation to the military. This one word, “already,” particularly stands out against constant arguments to the contrary by conservatives that development of military power and defense industry—or to use the terminology employed in these public discussions, “bullets” must come before “candies.” (It is worth noting that Kim Jong Un waded back into this debate with his remarks in April 2012 that it was the party’s “resolute determination” not to make the people “tighten their belts again,” an unmistakable reference to previous exhortations over the years that the population had to accept economic sacrifice to strengthen the military.)

The vice premier’s public pronouncement was followed by a series of high-level diplomatic moves designed to transform North Korea’s security environment and to push reform forward. In late May 2000, Kim Jong Il made his first public trip to China in almost two decades. The inter-Korean summit with ROK President Kim Dae-jung occurred one month later. In October, North Korea and the United States issued a joint communiqué after a visit to Washington by a senior military leader that seemed to place their relations on a new footing. Later that month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and had several long meetings with Kim Jong Il. In North Korean eyes, the visit was important because it seemed to increase the likelihood that the DPRK’s external security environment would improve, opening the way for new economic policies that were finally promulgated in July 2002.

Pretty obviously, at least to some of us, the signs of twin movement by Pyongyang on the economic and security fronts had implications for US policy at the time, and they were worth probing. In fact, these developments were in line with what many Chinese officials had repeated over the years: that Deng wouldn’t have been able to go ahead with his economic reforms unless he had the external situation stabilized, and that Kim probably wouldn’t either. The new policies Kim promulgated at that time (and it’s worth noting that he sent his brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek to South Korea in October 2002 to explore ideas and garner support for these efforts) suffered the fate of many economic policies in many places in the world—they ran into problems and domestic opposition, and they were shelved. As noted above, the range of arguments in DPRK media at the time reflected the policy options under consideration, as well as the strength of the opposition to the new ideas.

The same methodology for examining North Korean signals applies (and suffers the same sort of skepticism and misunderstanding) when it comes to inter-Korean relations. For example, in January 2014, beginning with Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, Pyongyang signaled its intention to look for ways to reopen dialogue with South Korea. In the South, there was widespread skepticism, and Kim’s remarks (along with all the follow up commentary and pronouncements) were at first dismissed either as a “charm offensive” or worse, a trick by the North. Critics have suggested that the proof that Kim’s remarks were misleading or interpreted too charitably is the fact that nothing came of them and that a few months later the North again took a familiar tack of confrontation.

That interpretation would seem to ignore what I would point to as a rather bright thread of continuity that helped define the North’s approach in 2014, particularly Pyongyang’s proposals for using the Asian Games hosted by the ROK in Incheon as an occasion for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. DPRK media reporting of Kim Jong Un’s remarks in July that “the participation of the DPRK’s players in the 17th Asian Games offers an important occasion in improving the relations between the north and the south and removing distrust between them” could not have sent a clearer signal, and if that were not clear enough, pictures in Rodong Sinmun showed the party official in charge of inter-Korean affairs seated next to Kim at that event.

In this year’s New Year’s address, Kim hit the same basic notes of willingness to engage, but he enhanced the chord structure by adding the idea of summit talks. What is different now is not so much the North Korean signals but rather the more positive South Korean response—and that is a function of Blue House priorities. The current round of probes and counter probes between Seoul and Pyongyang, reflected in ROK President Park Geun-hye’s carefully positive posture on the notion of a summit, is still in early stages, and there will probably be more—and more concrete—proposals and comment from each side as things move toward the looming cliff of the US-ROK joint military exercises beginning next month.

The DPRK’s January 9, 2015 proposal to the US for a suspension of the joint exercises in return for a suspension of the North’s nuclear tests remains in play—just barely—at the moment, despite the quick US rejection. Pyongyang has chosen not to respond directly to the State Department press spokesman’s remarks but (yes, it’s a signal) put its early reaction in the voice of Choson Sinbo, the pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, arguing that the logic of the US response was “nonsense” and that Washington should convey its answer not in public, but, as the North had done, through the “relevant channel.”

Several years ago I taught a class at Stanford University on how to read North Korean media for insights about DPRK policy. The students quickly mastered the methodology, and more importantly, the rationale behind it. They understood that reading DPRK signals has nothing to do with moral judgments. They came to realize that based on close and systematic reading of authoritative signals, an analytical conclusion that the North Koreans are “serious” about wanting to engage with, for example, South Korea, says nothing by itself about motivation or ultimate intention but is a critically important starting point for more complete analysis. Curiously, there are a lot of people in Washington who still don’t get that.

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