NORTH KOREANS did not hear about Kim Jong Un’s first known visit to China, only a year ago, until their dictator was safely back home. Even then, Rodong Sinmun, a government mouthpiece, tersely informed readers that the “supreme leader” had “unofficially” called on his Chinese counterpart. Yet last month, when Mr Kim travelled to Vietnam for his second meeting with Donald Trump, America’s president, the coverage was breathless. State television broadcast daily updates about Mr Kim’s journey. Rodong splashed on the red-carpet welcome Mr Kim received, interspersed with stories about how much he was missed at home. It was the closest the North’s slow-moving propaganda outlets come to rolling coverage.
Just as remarkable is how the North’s media have begun talking about America. Histrionic tirades about “evil imperialists” used to be their bread and butter. Just over a year ago Rodong Sinmun called Mr Trump a “crazy old bastard”. Over the past few months such abuse has all but disappeared. Apart from a rebuke of “gangster-like” Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, the portrayal of America has softened beyond recognition. Even after Mr Trump walked out of the summit in Vietnam, the North’s media were emollient.
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The propaganda machine’s new tone is not a sign that the North is changing its policies in any profound sense, alas. But in a place where precious little has changed for decades, the shift in public-relations strategy is nonetheless remarkable. At the very least, it shows that Mr Kim is willing to modernise. And it suggests a modest degree of commitment to talks, even as North Korean officials send contrary signals.
The role of North Korean state media is to glorify Mr Kim. The message—that he works tirelessly and brilliantly for the betterment of his people—does not vary much, regardless of whether Mr Kim is meeting a foreign leader or giving “on-the-spot guidance” at state-owned firms, where he opines on everything from desirable shoe colours to potato-farming.
But the media are beginning to depict Mr Kim in a less formal and archaic way, says Jieun Baek of Oxford University. “It’s less stiff, less patriarchal—you occasionally see him with his wife, or wearing a T-shirt.” During his New Year address, Mr Kim sported a Western-style suit and tie and delivered his speech from a room that bore a certain likeness to a Victorian college library, complete with armchairs and imposing bookshelves.
The change in the North’s PR tactics has been most visible in the portrayal of Mr Kim’s trips abroad. Both of his big summits with Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, were heavily covered by state media. Rodong Sinmun carried lots of pictures of the two leaders’ handshake across the dividing line separating their two countries in the heavily fortified “demilitarised zone” in April and their ascent of Mount Paektu in northern North Korea in September. Mr Kim’s first meeting with Mr Trump in Singapore in June received similarly prominent treatment. One Rodong spread emphasised Mr Kim’s playfulness, showing him smiling and laughing against Singapore’s skyline and waving to bystanders taking snaps with their mobiles. Others focused on foreign leaders’ reverence for Mr Kim: Mr Trump looks almost servile in some pictures the paper has printed.
Kim Il-gi, an expert on North Korea at INSS, a think-tank funded by the South Korean government, says the displays are supposed to showcase confidence, marking a departure from the North’s customary paranoia about assassination attempts abroad or revolt at home. He says Mr Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who heads the North’s propaganda department, has played a key role in the change. “She controls his schedule—and decides how best to idolise him,” says the INSS’s Mr Kim. The saturation coverage of the dictator’s nuclear negotiations, he argues, “suggests they really need the sanctions relief from America and are keen to continue the diplomatic process”.
But Ms Baek cautions against over-interpreting the changes. “Kim and his advisers are more attuned to Western media aesthetics than their predecessors, but the message they peddle is very similar.” The aim is still to inspire adulation. As more and more North Koreans gain illicit access to foreign media, the overhaul of Mr Kim’s image may merely be an attempt to sell the same ideology to a more worldly audience.
Both the extent and the limits of the new approach were on display in mid-March, when Choe Son Hui, one of the North’s nuclear negotiators, gave a briefing to foreign diplomats and journalists about the talks with America. That she would bother to brief them was surprising. But she used the occasion to resort to the sort of threats and brinkmanship that North Korea has deployed for years, floating the possibility that it may soon resume testing missiles and nuclear weapons if America does not make more concessions.