How Kim Jong Un is using TV dramas to change North Korea

Key Points
  • North Korea's Kim Jong Un is using TV content to promote family life and technology, says Jean H. Lee from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • That's a sharp departure from the state's older propaganda

North Korea's 33-year-old dictator Kim Jong Un loves television.

Under his rule, state-produced TV content has become one of Pyongyang's primary tools for propaganda, replacing the feature-length films preferred by his father Kim Jong Il, according to Jean H. Lee, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters

In new research, Lee described how Kim Jong Un's administration is creating made-for-TV dramas concentrated on youth and technology to appeal to the next generation of North Koreans. That's in stark contrast to previous Kim dynasties that deployed films featuring military life and the loyalty of soldiers to influence citizens.

"With each change of leadership, there has been a shift in policy — movies and TV are employed as part of the media campaign to help disseminate the new leader's priorities to his power base," said Lee.

Since the reign of North Korean founding father Kim Il Sung, entertainment has long been a vital component of government policy in the pariah state. Kim Jong Il, a known cinema buff who kidnapped a South Korean director and actress in 1978 to produce North Korean movies, spent millions on a national film industry and initiated the Pyongyang International Film Festival in 1987.

But once his son took charge in 2011, films began declining and TV production ramped up instead, according to Lee.

New values

Under the current Kim's watch, North Korean entertainment has evolved from being a mere conveyor of ideology to a tool used to shape society, Lee described. For example, recent TV content promotes the idea of family, community and the use of technology for patriotism — concepts unexplored in older movies.

North Korea advances its ICBM capabilities
North Korea advances its ICBM capabilities

"Our Neighbors," North Korea's version of a prime-time sitcom that was released in 2013, depicts a highly fictionalized version of family life — a bold departure from films during the Kim Jong Il era that emphasized putting the state before family, Lee explained.

Notably, the two-part series depicts weapons testing — the catalyst behind sanctions that have brought economic hardships to civilians. In one scene, characters cheer and dance after iconic news presenter Ri Chun Hui, the same newsreader who announced details of the state's latest intercontinental ballistic missile launch, describes the successful launch of a long-range rocket.

Another drama, "Value Others," also reinforces strong bonds between family members.

This emphasis on family ties is "a possible allusion to the issue of defection," Lee noted. Emphasizing filial piety may be a strategy for preventing defections, which have been rising in recent years, she said.

"Value Others" is about a naval officer, but rather than focus on his military career, the short drama concentrates on his life after graduating from the naval academy. Lee notes that the protagonist is mostly seen in civilian clothes instead of military uniform, which relates to one of Kim Jong Un's key policy priorities: homegrown production of consumer goods, including fashion.

Meanwhile, the 50-minute long "Young Researchers" is a message on using science and technology for patriotic causes, Lee said.

North Korea swiftness makes interception harder, analyst says
North Korea swiftness makes interception harder, analyst says

It centers on middle-school students using computers and other gadgets that many North Koreans have never seen in a competition. The top prize is a rocket launcher, which is "a direct correlation between the science experiments of youth and nuclear technology of the future," Lee notes.

Even when a student pulls a prank on classmates, he does so using a remote-controlled drone. "The message here: If you're going to be mischievous, at least practice your skills in a technology with potential military use," Lee said.