Mass Persuasion, North Korea Style

February 28, 2013 3:50 pm Last Updated: October 1, 2015 11:01 am
Rob Montz, a documentary filmmaker, in 2012 stands in front of a propaganda portrait of Kim Jong-Il, the son of the founder of the North Korean regime Kim Il-sung. (Courtesy of Rob Montz)

WASHINGTON—Rob Montz, by day a copywriter for a public relations firm in Washington, and by night a nonfiction filmmaker, recently completed a short documentary about the North Korean propaganda apparatus, titled Juche Strong. Without being too cerebral, it seeks to explain the “juche” ideology that animates the North Korean regime. The word translates to something like “self-reliance.” In the course of his research, Montz found that implicit in the propaganda of the Kim dynasty are lessons for the rest of us. The film will premier in Washington in March and New York in April.

The following is a part of an interview with Rob Montz.

Epoch Times: Why the fascination with North Korea?
Rob Montz: Part of the reason I was initially fascinated is because I had fallen victim to gross media distortion. I fell in love with the idea of it being a caricature. I thought they were a bunch of violently oppressed robots. That’s the way people talk about the country. And then as I went on and delved into it, I found that wasn’t the case at all. There’s a lot more to it. North Korea becomes a lot more interesting when you realize it’s populated by humans that are not actually that much different than the people around us, except in key respects that have been actively shaped by the people in power. That’s more interesting than seeing them as preprogrammed automatons. That’s what CNN coverage would have you believe. 

Epoch Times: What experience in North Korea left the greatest impression?
Mr. Montz: After they take you to the International Friendship Exhibition, which has all the gifts from around the world given as supplication to the “Dear Leader” and his son, they take you to lunch at what was initially billed as a seven star restaurant. It’s in the middle of the woods. The hotel is in the middle of nowhere. It’s empty, but there are 50 people on staff, because in North Korea everyone has a job and everyone has work. They take you to a big, barren dining hall. The waitresses dutifully provide you with a nine-course meal. Do they realize how absurd it all is? All this money got spent on this hotel, and no one uses it. 

Epoch Times: We saw some threats to destroy South Korea recently—what do you make of that rhetoric?
Mr. Montz: My family is all in Los Angeles, so it’s important to me that they’re not able to reach the U.S. mainland—but I don’t worry for a second about any nuclear provocation. I think it’s all about cultivating loyalty with the military and showing that the successor can continue the military first policy of the father. They have zero intention of doing anything that would jeopardize their existence. I would give it a .1 percent chance that they will genuinely escalate things militarily. 

Epoch Times: What role does nuclear provocation in general play in North Korean propaganda?
Mr. Montz: There are a lot of farmers. They have incredibly difficult lives. Common sense would tell that it would absolutely make it easier to endure that if you felt it was part of some grand national project. And there is no grander project than standing up to the evil American imperial intruders. It seems to be a really intoxicating force. Having an all-encompassing enemy that you can fight against is a hugely animating force in the human psyche. We just love to have enemies, out-groups; we love to be part of a special tribe and have some group that we’re fighting against. The North Korean ideology is that writ large. 

Epoch Times: Has the juche ideology evolved over the life of the regime?
Mr. Montz: They’ve had to account for the undeniable fact that South Korea is really rich. They’ve had to switch: it used to be that the South Koreans are suffering, they messed up, allied with the idiot American imperialists, and now they’re poor. It turns out that a command and control economy can work for a while, and then you hit inevitable wall. The ideology had to evolve when there was a lot of seepage from the outside, and it was undeniable that South Korea was outpacing them economically. So now they say the South are richer than we are, but they feel ashamed that they have betrayed the pure Korean spirit. And they say that the South Korean people yearn for reunification, the restoration of a utopian Korean Peninsula. Of the major evolutions in the propaganda, that’s the big one.

Epoch Times: But they’re not self-reliant, right? So how do they maintain the propaganda of self-reliance?
Mr. Montz: I think a lot of them don’t know. During the height of the most virulent anti-American propaganda, it was a time when they were the number one recipient of American food aid. Most people just don’t know about how much they rely on the outside world. On the other hand, there are lots of people that go on diplomatic missions for this country. They go to China and see Western affluence in all its glory, and go back to North Korea and they never leave. Some seem to have sufficiently resilient ideological training.

Epoch Times: What does the message in the film have to teach us, who live in the West?
Mr. Montz: There are underlying structures of human cognition through which we see society and culture, and in turn, propaganda and media can tap into those structures. Whatever propagandistic tools that are acutely manifest in North Korean society, the underlying psychological structures are not unique to North Korea. They’re shared by all human beings. All of us have particular habits when it comes to how we perceive the world, and savvy people with political power can exploit those habits, to get people complicit in their own subjugation. But I don’t want to give too much away. It’s like asking what Rosebud stands for. The reason I made a movie is so that you have to see the movie!

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