Is There Any Signal in the Noise from Pyongyang?

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Last year, I had the pleasure to overlap with Mason Richey at the East-West Center and attend the seminar where he presented his paper “Turning it Up to Eleven: Belligerent Rhetoric in North Korea’s Propaganda.” The paper has just been published in the journal Parameters. The publication is timely: sparked by Jeffrey Lewis’s recent piece, discussed in a previous post by Steph Haggard, arguing that North Korea is practicing for a preemptive nuclear strike, Washington is abuzz with tea leaf reading.

Richey has done the herculean task of coding a decade’s worth (1997-2006) of KCNA propaganda. During this period, North Korea issued 790 insults against the US, South Korea, and Japan; issued 302 threats against them; and 130 times claimed that it was under the threat of imminent attack by them. Superpower US was the prime target of invective (788 mentions).  Rival South Korea was second (550 instances). Pacifist Japan placed a distant third with 96 mentions, though the description of its government officials as “epileptic mentally deranged wretches” should have earned style points.

"What emanates from Pyongyang is pure noise, albeit noise of exquisite weirdness." 

When Richey correlates the propaganda against various real world developments, he finds that periods of diplomatic activity (meetings of the Six Party Talks, Sunshine Policy) are associated with a lessening of invective, while military operations and exercises are associated with an intensification of verbal abuse. That is to say, North Korean propaganda appears to be reactive. He finds no correlation between propaganda and actual provocations. In that sense, what emanates from Pyongyang is pure noise, albeit noise of exquisite weirdness.

One can quarrel with the univariate statistical analysis and there is the issue of how to handle leads and lags if one is looking for causal effects. The sample period covers only the Kim Jong-il era, and for current purposes, we really want to know if these results still hold for behavior under Kim Jong-un, who is frequently alleged to be more impetuous than his father. Nevertheless, this interesting paper can be interpreted as a kind of down payment on more extensive work which would bring the data set forward into the Kim Jong-un era.

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