Can North Korea learn from Coca-Cola?

Photo released by the KCNA news agency on April 1 shows that Kim Jong-un, leader of Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), speaks during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the DPRK in Pyongyang, capital of the DPRK, on March 31, 2013. <Xinhua/KCNA>

*Editor’s note: As North Korea’s ‘bellicose rhetoric’ against the U.S. and S. Korea became a daily ritual, a Beijing-based American columnist Evan Osnos pointed out that the discrepancy between North Korea’s threats and action has been caused by its failure in communication. For that reason, he argues, N. Korea is losing its audience. Following is Osnos’ article featured on The New Yorker on Apr. 3.

North Korea announced plans to restart a nuclear reactor. In case anyone didn’t catch that, it added that it would soon begin to “readjust and restart all the nuclear facilities” at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Just to recap, for those coming in late, it said the work of restarting the nuclear facilities will “be put into practice without delay.”

The threat, however vague, of a nuclear blunder makes it poor form to snicker at North Korea’s statements, but in the weeks since Kim Jong-un began escalating his nation’s threats against the United States and South Korea, he has begun to lose his audience—and that may pose a danger of a different kind. In recent days, the Obama Administration has made it clear that, for all of Kim’s threats and exhortations, the United States sees no evidence that the North is mobilizing troops or other forces. “What that disconnect between rhetoric and action means, I’ll leave to the analysts to judge,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said.

One of the world’s greatest pitchers of propaganda is losing its fastball. For decades, members of the Communist bloc relied on the Soviet approach to fulmination, projecting bulging-vein threats to ensure that its enemies pay attention. “We will bury you!” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told Western guests at a reception in Moscow in 1956.

But over time, North Korea’s fellow nations saw the need to adapt their mode of communication abroad and at home. In China, the uprising at Tiananmen Square convinced some members of the Party that the old method of indoctrinating people—which relied on the kind of threats and denunciations we hear from North Korea today—was no longer working in the modern age. Since Soviet-style P.R. had failed them, the Chinese turned to the holy land of public relations—America—and found a new, if unlikely, role model: the late Walter Lippmann, columnist, editor, and advisor to Woodrow Wilson.

They were willing to overlook his early anti-Communism in order to embrace his efforts to sway U.S. public opinion to enter the First World War. The Chinese comrades took to quoting Lippmann’s belief in the power of pictures, which, in his words, “magnify emotion while undermining critical thought.”

While the late Kim Jong-il was still threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” Chinese propagandists were becoming admiring students of Coca-Cola’s strategy, observing, as one Party textbook put it, that Coke proved that “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.” To learn the art of modern spin, the Chinese Communist Party studied the masters: a five-day seminar for top propaganda officials made case studies out of Tony Blair’s response to mad-cow disease, and the Bush Administration’s handling of the U.S. media after 9/11.

North Korea’s problem is that its approach has depended, in part, on inaccessibility; the Soviet Union was only a credible threat as long as we did not know its industries were rusting. Andrei Lankov, the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia,” was an exchange student in North Korea in the eighties, and he sees breathtakingly little change in its communications strategy. “North Korea keeps the Stalin-era Soviet approach to propaganda,” he told me this week. “The resulting product has lost its ability to persuade, but no major change has been undertaken.”

This is where the rising risk comes in. B. R. Myers, a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University, who studied propaganda for his book “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters,” told me, “The military-first regime derives support from the public perception that it is feared and respected around the world. So international ridicule may well put the regime under more pressure to carry through on at least some of its rhetoric.” North Korea’s failure to communicate, then, may have the curious effect of actually encouraging it to take more aggressive action.

One Response to Can North Korea learn from Coca-Cola?

  1. Pingback: Getting Ready for a Second Quarter of Tensions | N.E.A.T. (동북아경)

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