by James McGirk
The Moranbong Band is best imagined as a North Korean version of Celtic Woman: an all-female ensemble band swaddled in fetching formalwear, blasting highly produced, energetic nationalist kitsch. Of course, no matter how much vigorous fiddling Chloe, Lisa, Susan and Mairead can manage, Celtic Woman is unlikely to attract as much scrutiny from intelligence agencies as the Moranbong Band’s cover of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now”, which is perhaps better known as the theme from Rocky, and was performed – complete with a video backdrop featuring cuts of Sylvester Stallone working out – for none other than Kim Jong-un, the number one of the sinister and secretive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Peculiar things have been crossing North Korea watchers’ desks lately. Witness The Sun’s revelation that Kim Jong-un’s father liked to nosh on hippo meat, spider and snake sushi. Or how in March, Kim Jong-un took time away from playing nuclear chicken to host flamboyant former NBA player Dennis Rodman. (Rodman says he’s been invited back for another visit in August.)
Decadent as this behavior might seem for the rulers of one of the world’s poorest countries, Kim Jong-un’s oddball behavior suggests a media-savvy spin on a classic diplomatic game. George Freidman, leading analyst and CEO of the geopolitical analysis firm STRATFOR, describes North Korea’s decades-old strategy of prying subsidies from its neighbors as “fearsome, weak and crazy.”
Fearsome is easy to understand. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within howitzer-range of the DPRK’s enormous Cold War-vintage army. A sneak attack could kill hundreds of thousands of people and rip apart one of the world’s most important manufacturing centers. And that’s assuming the DPRK confines itself to conventional munitions: North Korea tested an atomic weapon in 2009 and probably has cheap, nasty weapons of mass destruction (germs and gas) stockpiled and ready to go. North Korea’s population is even scarier. They’re kept on the brink of starvation and forbidden from any contact with the outside world. Children are raised ready for war and taught to adore their leaders and obey without question. This is a frightful enemy, but it’s also a weak one.
Despite its formidable arsenal, North Korea is exceedingly vulnerable. If it weren’t for an historic alliance with China, the country would have been invaded and its leaders tossed out long ago. The North doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a war. It hasn’t the petrol to sustain a prolonged engagement and might even run out of ammunition. South Korea has better airplanes, better tanks, better radar, and tens of thousands of American troops backstopping it. “Kinetic” action would inflict massive casualties on the South but it would be suicidal for the North. And that goes double for a nuclear exchange. But North Korea can’t just ignore its neighbors. The country is so economically backward it needs foreign aid to survive, and that is where the crazy comes in.
If North Korea’s leadership seemed sane, no one would ever believe they might provoke an unwinnable war, and their fearsome reputation would dissipate. That’s half of it. The other is a strategy that every rich ne’er-do well knows: by provoking mini-crises, the North Koreans are creating opportunities to ask for money. After all, even a rogue state needs a compelling reason why it needs more money.
For decades, the strategy worked. China wanted a buffer between South Korea and its American bases, and was willing to underwrite the North Korean threat and ignore whatever atrocities were occurring with in its borders. Unfortunately for Kim Jong-un, however, the volume of trade between China and its former enemies—the United States, Japan and South Korea—is growing rapidly, and the more it does, the more the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea becomes a nuisance to China. Not to mention, there is always a chance that North Korea’s brinksmanship might inadvertently trigger a nuclear war.
Kim Jong-un is a young man. He’s thought to be around thirty. His grip on the country is slipping. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea turned a blind eye to the low-level black market that popped up after the mass starvation in early 1990s, which meant it conceded one of its most powerful methods of controlling the population. History hasn’t been kind to weak autocrats. Kim Jong-un needs to refresh his strategy for shaking down his neighbors or else he will have to open up his economy up for reform, and let even more power slip away.
Jang Jin-Sung, a former poet laureate and psychological warfare officer who defected from North Korea in 2004, describes her duties in an opinion column in The New York Times: “All of us at the United Front Department — also known as “the window into and out of North Korea” — learned three tenets of diplomacy by heart: 1. Pay no attention to South Korea. 2. Exploit Japan’s emotions. 3. Ply the United States with lies, but make sure they are logical ones.”
Perhaps a variation on the third tenet might explain the presence of Dennis Rodman and the Moranbong Band. The North Koreans have long been fighting a war of nerves against the U.S. using a mixture of public relations and propaganda in an attempt to bewilder governments, and sway the Western public in their favor. Celebrity basketball players and viral videos may well be a new way of waging it. They have had success in the past. As unlikely as it may seem there is now a growing “support North Korea” movement in Europe and the United States.
In 2000, after years of petitioning the North Korean government, a Spanish IT professional named Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez was appointed into office as “special delegate of the People’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.” He started an organization, called the Korean Friendship Association, which is now 15,000-strong (or so they claim) that pickets embassies and occasionally tours the North Korea.
Cao de Benós works for free (although The Independent reports that he “clips the ticket” of any deal he arranges between a foreign corporation and North Korea). He has no formal training in public relations and seems to work mostly on his own. Attendance at his events has been embarrassingly lackluster, but that doesn’t mean reaching out to the Western public directly couldn’t work. In fact, it might be Kim Jong-un’s best chance at staying in control of his country.
Wikistrat, which bills itself as the “world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy” (disclosure: the author contributes work as an analyst there) recently concluded a simulation exploring scenarios for “distinct crisis pathways in the Korean peninsula.” Among the scenarios considered was what would happen if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched a massive public relations campaign to tilt the international community in their favor and deflect attention away from their flagrant human rights violations.
They imagined the DPRK launching a “smart, subtle, sophisticated and ubiquitous campaign” that “wasn’t focused on hagiographies of North Korea’s leaders—[but instead] focused on the hard-working, clean-living people of North Korea. ” At the very climax of this fictitious campaign they release a major motion picture, a “ Zhivago-esque love story, played out against a backdrop of the hardships of post-WWII North Korea, framing the North Korean people as being real, human, and deserving of sympathy and support. This softens attitudes toward the DPRK and its leadership and begins a dialogue at many different levels.”
The public is easily distracted. With Syria using weapons of mass destruction in its civil war and the possibility that the United States could get drawn into another conflict, the real issue for American policymakers—North Korea’s weapons proliferation—is fading from view. Already Kim Jong-un has quietly moved two missiles from their launch pads and is likely letting this most recent quarrel dissipate. At this point, being perceived as a reformer could be relatively easy to achieve: allowing a few families to reconcile with their South Korean cousins, inviting in a few multinational corporations, a couple of media victories, and within a generation diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States could be normalized.
It’s been done before. Vietnam remains a socialist country and, like the North Koreans, depended on Soviet subsidies in the 1970s and 1980s. Recognizing subsidies were coming to an end, the Vietnamese responded to American efforts to reach out to them. Vietnam let families search for Missing-in-Action (MIAs) soldiers and accepted U.S. aid. These few concessions were enough to normalize relations. By 1994, the U.S. economic embargo on Vietnam was lifted and in 1997 an ambassador was posted there. Vietnam’s economy is thriving today, yet its leaders have never faced much scrutiny for their murky record on human rights.
North Korea watchers like to draw parallels between Kim Jong-un and Psy, the South Korean mega-star who is roughly the same age as Kim and seems to simmer with contempt for the United States (although he’s since recanted). Psy’s music radiates irony, while in comparison the Moranbong Band seems cartoonishly sincere. Same with Kim Jong-un’s professed affection for American basketball players. Yet the theme from Rocky is so laced with ’80s Cold War nostalgia, and Dennis Rodman is such a confoundingly self-aware embodiment of the worst of post-industrial culture—how can these brilliant, multi-layered appropriations not be intentional?
No one knows how much control Kim Jong-un wields over his government, nor if his recent experiments with pop culture are tactical or merely decadent. Perhaps if Kim Jong-un were to choose James Franco as the star of his major motion picture we would know for sure. Or would we? When it comes to diplomatic relations with North Korea, the “human factor” has always been a mystery.