A recent vituperative insult on President Obama reported by the North Korean Central News Agency reveals how little North Korean leaders know or care about the serious consequences to their own interest such distasteful and deplorable propaganda of name-calling can cause.
Propaganda has long been used as an effective tool of rule by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in world history. At times of war, even democratic nations use propaganda in psychological warfare to discredit the leadership of foreign target audiences.
The negative connotation of propaganda originates from its deliberate use of selective or false information to help or injure a political leader, a cause, or a political system. "Communist propaganda" during the cold war period and "Nazi propaganda" during WWII are some of the examples of how it was used by dictators.
North Korea of today is not exactly a Communist state, but an authoritarian monarchy with a mix of nationalism and Confucian influences that has an ineffective socialist, command economy, but with nuclear teeth. Information manipulation by way of propaganda has been an integral part of the North Korean political system.
The domestic propaganda of glorifying their leadership or justifying their system may belong to a realm of internal affairs except for the cases of human rights violations. The North Korean propagandists frequently describe a South Korean or an American president in such vulgar terms that people outside the North would blush to hear them.
Recently, they called President Park Geun-hye "an indecent philistine and a vile prostitute serving the U.S." Two weeks ago, they called the president of the United States "a clown, a dirty guy, a crossbreed with unclear blood with the features of a monkey." The last label that the North needs is that of a racist state to add to a long list of bad names it has been given over the years.
Although the KCNA quoted ordinary people on the street in Pyongyang making rude references to President Obama, they would have never been reported without the approval of the propagandists, who have long practiced abusive language to attack the South or the United States whenever things get sour with their relations.
South Koreans have become accustomed to such violent rhetoric by the North that it does not even make news any more. In Washington, a spokesperson of the White House National Security Council reacted to those comments as "particularly ugly and disrespectful." Through this latest episode, North Korea gained nothing and only showed another embarrassing aspect of its international behavior.
In propaganda warfare, sometimes it is best to ignore hostile propaganda claims, simply to prevent further spread of the same propaganda, for repetition is effective in propaganda as well as in public relations. If a response is required, it has to be done in a massive counter-propaganda with full evidence to discredit the hostile claims.
However, in the cases of personal attacks on President Obama and President Park, the people and the country that elected them as their president know better about them. In other words, the slanderous propaganda only makes the people in Washington and Seoul resentful toward North Korea and turned against a negotiated resolution for North Korean survival and economic recovery.
In reaction to a recent harsh report by the U.N. commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in North Korea, which condemned "unspeakable atrocities of an unparallel state in the contemporary world," and perhaps to Obama's mention of the North Korean human rights issue during his April visit to Seoul, Pyongyang's foreign ministry compiled a list of U.S. human rights abuses.
The list of alleged cases mentioned the racial issue in America, economic problems causing hardships to people below the middle class, government surveillance of private citizens, gun control and crime, and the high number of prison inmates. Americans do not claim that their system is perfect or their society is problem free. At the same time, no Americans or South Koreans would choose North Korea to live in.
If based on facts or on some truth for credibility, international propaganda could be a legitimate instrument of statecraft. States carry out propaganda in the name of public diplomacy or public affairs. Yet, democratic states including the United States do not carry out planned information programs to manipulate public views. People depend more on the press and the internet for information they need to form their own views than on the government.
It should be pertinent to remind the North Korean leadership of its own proposal of January that the North and the South cease mutual slander and form an atmosphere fitting to improvement of inter-Korean relations and the fact that both sides agreed to do so in their subsequent talks at the high-level government contacts.
A propaganda campaign of slander or verbal provocation does not help the interest of any party; it does not help relax tensions, prevent a fourth North Korean nuclear test, or bring about an eventual resolution of the nuclear weapons issue. It does not help precipitate the unification process. It only backfires.
Even if the North does not follow through its threat of conducting a fourth nuclear test, the psychological impact or propaganda value of a test seems to have already been achieved. The North has drawn so much attention to another possible test and its alleged technological capabilities, which should serve as a sufficient deterrent to attack by the South or the United States.
Regardless of dire or empty warnings from the international community, North Korea does not need another nuclear test for self-protection. What's your take?
The author is a visiting scholar at the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University, a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies and an ICAS fellow in the United States.