SEOUL, South Korea
The outside world focuses on the messages of doom and gloom from North Korea: bombastic threats of nuclear war, fantasy videos of U.S. cities in flames, digitally altered photos of leader Kim Jong Un guiding military drills. But back home, North Koreans get a decidedly softer dose of propaganda: Kim portrayed as a young, energetic leader, a people person and family man.
Mixed in with the images showing Kim aboard a speeding boat on a tour of front-line islands, or handing out commemorative rifles to smartly saluting soldiers, are those of Kim and his wife clapping at a dolphin show or linking arms with weeping North Korean children.
The pictures can look odd or obviously staged to outsiders. But they’re carefully crafted propaganda meant to give North Koreans an image of a country governed by a leader who is as comfortable overseeing a powerful military as he is mingling with the people.
Analysts say the images also hint at something that often gets lost amid the threatening rhetoric: North Korea’s supreme commander isn’t an all-powerful, isolated monarch who can govern without considering his people’s approval. Kim still is busy building his reputation at home.
“Even dictatorships respond to public opinion and public pressure,” said John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “He’s expected to pay attention to and make improvements in the common people’s standard of living. They’ve put that promise out in their domestic propaganda.”
It’s a tall order. Living standards in Pyongyang, the capital, are relatively high, with new shops and restaurants catering to a growing middle class. But U.N. officials’ reports detail harsh conditions elsewhere in North Korea: up to 200,000 people estimated to be languishing in political prison camps, and two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people facing regular food shortages.
As with any propaganda or PR, the images are staged carefully. And many make foreign news headlines only when experts and photo editors discover that North Korea is digitally altering them. For instance, in a picture distributed recently by state media, troops and hovercraft land on a barren beach. Experts say some of the multiple hovercraft have been copied and pasted into the image.