‘A lot like cable news’ — new film pulls back the curtain on North Korean propaganda

The Sideshow

A new documentary seeks to challenge some of the world’s entrenched beliefs about North Korea’s hereditary dictatorship.

In “Juche Strong,” filmmaker Rob Montz says the reality about North Korea’s warped ideology is much more complex than most people want to admit and that it’s not entirely different from the political methods used in the U.S. and around the world.

“My takeaway from the country is different from the standard narrative you’d hear,” Montz told Yahoo News in a phone interview. “The standard narrative of the country is that it’s crazy and crumbling. There's a need to frame it as a hopelessly exotic and alien foreign land.”

Montz was in Santa Monica, Calif., where “Juche Strong” is being shown at a public screening on Saturday. The documentary is also available for download.

When Montz traveled to North Korea, he said it was with a set of expectations based on how the secretive country is typically portrayed in the news media and film and in commentaries from international experts.

“It repeatedly came up and became obvious that the regime has done a really good job of designing an ideology that taps into parts of Korean culture,” he said. “I was dead wrong about a lot of my conceptions.”

For example, he said, the roots of propaganda in the country were based in notions of racial superiority and cultural dominance, stemming from the Korean War in the 1950s.

And while he said reports of the country’s dire economic conditions and brutal policies are quite accurate, he also said the root of the country’s rigid ideology reflects some cultural concepts (nationalism, xenophobia, exceptionalism) that are far more common than most people might want to admit.

“What they’ve done is tapped into the deep structures of the human brain that aren’t just found in North Korea but in all of us,” Montz said. “The way we’re taught to think about North Korea misses one of the central elements of control, which is ideology.”

And as conditions in North Korea have shifted, so has the government's approach to propaganda. Specifically, the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un has been forced to adapt to the crippling economic conditions in his country — and the far better situation just across the border in the country’s bitter enemy, South Korea.

So, in essence, the North has changed its standard line from "we're the best" to "at least we're not a puppet of the U.S."

“Over the past 10 years, it’s become impossible for them to deny that South Korea is richer,” Montz said. “The propaganda has shifted from outright superiority to an argument that while the South might have these ethereal treasures, they live in daily shame under the Western yoke.”

Interestingly, Montz said that when he returned to the U.S. he was struck by the similarities he saw between North Korea’s propaganda apparatus and the way the U.S. political debate is carried out across cable news.

“Obviously it’s much more innocuous,” Montz said. “But it’s a lot like cable news. It appeals to tribalism and exceptionalism in the same basic ways. It’s immediately obvious to you how stupid this stuff is, how bland it is.”

Montz said the experience made him think of how easy it is for outsiders to dismiss North Korean propaganda as ineffective when it is viewed from outside the repressive context of those living inside the country.

And while Internet access is still extremely limited, going forward, the Jong Un regime will likely be forced to grapple with technological forces eventually loosening the government's grip on the flow of information within the country.

“My handler was very aware of a lot of external events,” Montz said. “He knew who Mitt Romney was. He learned English by watching some of the most famous movies in American history but only ones that have zero political overtones. My sense is that outside cultural products have been leaking into that country for over a decade now.