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N. Korea Tightens Ideological Control



On June 29, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried an editorial with the title of “Ideology is the strongest weapon in the construction of socialism.” The paper defined the current state as “the worst-ever difficult situation” and called for the public to wage an ideological war. In an effort to further tighten ideological discipline among the public, North Korean media agencies have stressed the need to be cautious about the inflow of capitalistic culture.  

Here is Hong Min, researcher from the North Korean Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, with more. 

North Korea has long been under international sanctions. Worse yet, prolonged lockdown measures have caused many locals to feel pandemic fatigue. In this situation, discipline in people’s social life may loosen. North Korea may seek to jolt the people and pick up the slack. 

In the North, people in their mid-teens, 20s and 30s include those who were born after the creation of the private market in the communist state and people have experienced the market since the mid-and late-1990s. These age groups make up a significant portion of the nation’s population and are more socially active than any other group. If leader Kim Jong-un wants to rule his country for the rest of his life, he must go with them. He may feel the need to secure his grip over them from the beginning. For these reasons, North Korea stresses the need to establish ideological discipline among the public. 

North Korea has tightened its grip on ideology since Kim Jong-un came to power, in order to prevent young people from harboring feelings of admiration for the outside world and from distrusting the regime. The local media have underlined this part, as seen in the title of an article, “A new generation that has not experienced the ordeal of revolution has emerged as the main force.” 

Teenagers in North Korea, like many others all around the world, are fond of South Korean culture content such as music, films and TV shows, which have been passed around on tiny storage devices like USB drives. The young North Koreans are quite shocked to see furniture and interior decoration in houses appearing in South Korean films and dramas, as it is completely different from what they’ve learned or been told. 

In North Korea, the trade of South Korean goods is banned, obviously. But local people can buy them unofficially at inflated prices. They have trust in high-quality products from South Korea. Trust in the quality of goods means trust in the country it came from. If North Koreans feel that way, leader Kim Jong-un must be nervous about a possible crack in his regime. 

In December last year, a plenary meeting of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly in North Korea adopted a bill calling for the enactment of four new laws, including a law against what the regime calls reactionary ideology and culture. It seems to be aimed at coming down on outside culture, including that of South Korea, as well as capitalistic culture spreading in the country, while strengthening internal unity. 

North Korea did not reveal the details of the new law. But it is assumed that the law has the purpose of blocking locals from being exposed to outside culture. Leader Kim Jong-un has put great emphasis on this part since he began to rule the country in 2012. North Korea has intensified its border control and severely punished violators of relevant rules. It is said that the new law mandates the death penalty for people caught distributing South Korean cultural content. 

In early March, North Korea held the first short course for chief secretaries of the city, county and party committees at the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. It was a sort of workshop designed to teach the decisions made at previous party meetings to the secretaries. Notably, leader Kim Jong-un attended the session himself. 

It is very unusual for North Korea to convene what it describes as a short course presided by the leader. There were very few, if any, such workshops during the years of former leader Kim Jong-il. 

In the Kim Il-sung era, similar meetings were only held occasionally. 

In the North, city and county chief secretaries are appointed by the top leader himself. They are the most powerful officials in their regions, so their role in ideology education is very important. That’s why the leader attended the session and gave a lecture. It reflects a sense of crisis that any failure to educate the younger generation properly may cause a structural crack in society. 

Kim Jong-un also attended a conference of cell secretaries of the party in April. A party cell is the most elementary unit of the party. During the meeting, the leader said that he could no longer sit idle and watch the ideological condition of young people, adding that they needed to be converted. On April 27, North Korea convened a congress of a youth association for the first time in five years and urged young people to arm themselves with socialist ideology. Clearly, North Korea’s ideological control is aimed at the younger generation. 

Young North Koreans think they owe nothing to the state and they don’t really feel the need to depend on it. They grew up watching their parents earn money at the private market or jangmadang, and they are more interested in how they can make more money. The young people might wonder if they have to continue living in a regime like this. How to deal with the younger generation is a big headache for the authorities, because outdated material or methods for ideology education will not work for them. Kim Jong-un has recently instructed officials to make the most of the media when carrying out propaganda activities to appeal more to youngsters. The deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party is Hyon Song-wol, a celebrity beloved by the young generation. North Korea is making hard attempts to create more effective propaganda that can win over the hearts of young people.

Amid the extreme economic difficulties in North Korea, controlling the so-called jangmadang generation has emerged as an important element of regime maintenance. But it is questionable how long the ideological control over young people can remain effective, with outside information and culture reaching North Korean society, though in a limited way. 

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