North Korea’s state media, Rodong Sinmun, recently reported on “a serious accident in the construction site in Phyongchon District, Pyongyang on May 13,” and on subsequent rescue operations. Senior public officials were cited by name and took responsibility for the accident. This article (or “Phyongchon-gate”) is unusual in that North Korea media rarely reports publicly on errors attributed to the government. Even more rarely has it publicly attributed these errors to specific government officials.
Some commentators link this to an attempt by North Korea to contrast its efforts against South Korea’s Sewol Ferry Disaster, while others claimed that North Korea couldn’t hide the accident from foreigners, and needed to seize the media initiative. Of course, the fact that the accident happened on May 13 (5 days earlier), and is only known to global media through North Korea’s announcement, calls into question the latter claim.
Instead, people are missing out on broad shifts in North Korean propaganda over the last 3 years. The propaganda narrative, and this specific Phyongchon-gate article, captures fairly dramatic shifts in the context of State-Grassroots relations in the country. Accidents and mistakes do happen in North Korea, as in any other country, but have traditionally been glossed over in domestic media. In the past, problems highlighted in public media were attributed to foreign causes (e.g. saboteurs, spies and sanctions) or natural disasters (e.g. droughts). Phyongchon-gate reflects a new propaganda style, where the government acknowledges a mistake, have senior-level officials or party cadres assume responsibility, and highlight corrective measures.
This shift started in 2012, when North Korea publicly admitted that its attempted rocket launch in April did not succeed. North Korea mentioned at that time that its scientists were assessing what caused the failure. Kim Jong Un followed up on this narrative when he castigated officials for failing to properly maintain Mangyongdae funfair in May that year, pointing to the funfair’s dilapidated state, even pulling weeds from the ground himself. Last month, Kim Jong Un during a military exercise, “severely criticized the [artillery] sub-unit for failing to make good combat preparations.” It is the public nature of such criticism and the blame attributed to government officials that should draw our attention.
Phyongchon-gate and similar stories reflect a government trying to portray itself as accountable and responsive to its grassroots. The top leadership acknowledges public concerns, and shows that it is standing with the grassroots by holding middle- or senior-level management responsible. This message is not just reactive. It is also proactive. Economic development is an area where the leadership is assuming responsibility for progress, by saying it is possible despite sanctions. In the past, sanctions were blamed for a stalled economy. This style also appears to have filtered down to the grassroots. Younger participants in Choson Exchange's workshops ask us to be more blunt with our advice on economic or business issues, even though they might reject or argue with our criticisms.
Skeptics might argue that this propaganda shift is a belated acknowledgment of a richer information environment in which the government has to defuse potential public dissatisfaction by taking the initiative, and that the shift is focused more on optics than action. A more hopeful assessment includes rising government accountability, tied to a shift in the basis of political legitimacy to government performance. We highlighted the shifting basis of legitimacy back in 2011 in the Harvard International Review, focusing on economic performance.
North Korea is changing its public image, domestically, and this approach is a defining trait of the new leadership team under Kim Jong Un.