SEOUL (Bloomberg): When the going gets tough for Kim Jong-un, his regime likes to turn its TV cameras on the military, with glossy productions showcasing the missiles and manpower that North Korea tells the masses are protecting the nation.
Since taking power a decade ago, Kim has brought new looks to state television, including drone footage, computer graphics, music video-style cuts and made-for-TV moments.
This has helped him rally support for the state as it battles chronic food shortages and an anemic economy made even weaker by international sanctions imposed as punishment for testing nuclear bombs and missiles, some potentially capable of striking America and its allies.
In his most recent state TV spectacle, for a weapons test on March 24, Kim is seen in dark sunglasses and a black leather jacket apparently ordering his army - in slow motion - to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile. This was released eight days after a failed ballistic missile launch near Pyongyang’s international airport. South Korea said the North doctored the video to blend these two launches into one seemingly successful test for propaganda purposes.
Kim’s propaganda machine is likely gearing up for more headline events later this month, including a possible military parade for the anniversary of the founding of its army on April 25.
Military parades have previously been occasions to show off hardware to attack America’s allies in Asia and the US mainland. Experts also warn that the state could conduct its first nuclear-bomb test since 2017.
"Slick videos like the ICBM test footage translate into the credibility of the information it portrays,” said Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector who runs a company in South Korea that tracks the economy of her former home.
"The video made North Koreans believe in the country’s ICBM capability, which further solidified Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy to rule,” she said, adding that almost no one in the isolated North is aware of Seoul’s efforts to point out suspected fabrications in Kim’s propaganda.
North Korea knows the videos will be watched abroad by governments, private sector analysts and those curious about its latest weapons and how it places Kim Jong Un front and center as the face of the state.
Here are examples of how North Korea is borrowing from Hollywood’s playbook to burnish its image for its citizens and the world:
Kim Jong-un’s first successful major missile test came in December 2012, about a year after he took power. It gave hints of his state’s propaganda style by showing the launch of an Unha-3 from various angles, including from a camera placed on the rocket as it set off.
It was a far cry from the style seen under his father, Kim Jong-Il, a lover of cinema who reportedly owned thousands of movie tapes and who wrote treatises about filmmaking. The elder Kim liked to record events on heavy movie cameras that could often be heard clicking in the background during his biggest moments.
Previous weapons tests yielded snapshots of Kim Jong-un, clad in baggy suits or puffy coats, watching with binoculars from afar. The missile-test video on March 24 was a departure from that style, putting the North Korean leader in the center of the apparent action. Hangar doors slowly open to reveal a missile on a mobile launcher, while Kim - dressed more casually - walks in slow motion with two soldiers as suspenseful music plays.
It was North Korea’s most elaborate production for a launch and featured filming techniques, such as overhead drone shots, used in recent years by state TV.
"North Korea had never put together a program like that, especially regarding a Kim leader. That was so progressive - so un-North Korean,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, a non-resident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center, said of the footage for the ICBM launch.
In September, North Korea unveiled a new missile-launch system that could be fired from a train car. Drones flying overhead and cameras positioned around the train were used to capture the missile from multiple angles, from the moment it is unsheathed from a train carriage’s roof flap to the moment it’s shot into the sky, leaving behind a trail of flame and smoke.
That marked the first time it gave a ballistic missile test the Hollywood treatment. The test came just hours after South Korea fired a new weapon of its own: a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Some of the biggest spectacles on state TV have been military parades, including Kim’s biggest by far in October 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of his ruling party. Kim appeared to cry while expressing regret for the country’s struggles under sanctions and natural disasters. The affair held at night was complete with fighter jet fly-overs, fireworks and the biggest display of new weaponry since Kim took power.
North Korea about three years ago began transition to high definition and that lead to an increase in production values. This could be seen in the introduction computer graphics into its reports on economic production, giving a new look to what had typically been staid stories about workers at factories. Sets took on a more modern look and younger reporters in the field and newscaster in fashionable clothing made their way onto screens.