Saturday, February 18, 2017

Why Speculation Makes for the Best Political Propaganda

To anyone outside the highest echelons of North Korean political hierarchy, the Hermit Kingdom's state-directed intentions remain completely opaque.  Any provocative moves emerging from the country almost often come as unpredicted and surprising, giving major media outlets all that much more to work with when they think about breaking news headlines.  In the past years, that usually meant the next missile or nuke testing that raise the blood pressures of the Japanese and South Koreans.  But apparently the North Koreans have other initiatives up the sleeve that change up the pattern a bit.

The biggest news coming North Korea this past week was the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of the current leader Kim Jong-un.  Being the first son of previous leader Kim Jong-il, he was naturally groomed for the next leader in accordance with the country's dynastic succession system.  But since falling out of favor in mysterious circumstances, he has been living in exile, flying back forth between Macau, Beijing, and other parts of Asia in a bid of avoid media attention and the deathly hands of the North Korean state.  It seems this time in Kuala Lumpur, he was not so successful.

Given who he is, Jong-nam's death naturally attract attention from the media and a wave of professional and avid Koreanologists (the author included) to speculate on exactly why Jong-nam was assassinated, why KL, and why now.  Given how little information about Jong-nam can be taken as truly factual, any analyses based on such information can be nothing more than educated guesses.  And with apprehension of suspected assassins, and often conflicting accounts from this ragtag bunch ranging from Indonesian youth thinking they were on a prank show to aloof North Korean traders, the supposed analyses only gets more confusing.

The reality is, given how little information there is, these Koreanologists cannot even agree on whether the assassination of Jong-nam is a directive given by the North Korean authorities.  After all, given how far Jong-nam is from the center of power, his fiery criticism on how the country is run today cannot hide the fact that he has little influence over the direction of the country's political future.  In addition, given that he spends little time in North Korea itself, it is not so conceivable that he has a network of proteges and allegiances that provide him fresh information to undermine the leadership of Jong-un.

That said, perhaps the primary beneficiary of continued speculation on the root causes of the assassination is none other than the North Korean state itself.  Even if the North Korean state was not behind the assassination, to be constantly conceived as the culprit gives the outside world a false belief of the country's strength via the reach of its operatives around the world.  It strengthens the state by indirectly silencing the tens of thousands of defectors who often show no qualms about openly criticizing the various economic and human rights situations in their birth country.

In essence, this is no different from terrorists' standings being boosted by media coverage.  When violence is sensationalized through exaggerated reporting and then further amplified by speculations of the masses, the violent is made stronger than they are in reality.  And since an image of violence is held at a premium in both the cases of North Korea and terrorist organizations, the amplification of their violent image by the public serves a propaganda victory.  Public opinion would turn in a way that would favor soft accommodation of their violent stances and away from hardline confrontation and opposition.

Furthermore, unlike terrorist organizations, the North Korean state deliberately obscures the overall strategy of their political moves.  Terrorists use violence as a means of achieving political prominence, but the same may or may not be true for North Korea as it seeks to survive as a political entity while remaining relevant in the international arena.  North Korean state, ultimately, is seeking equal recognition of other countries around the world, so it has no need for violence unless the threat of violence can be used as a bargaining chips on the negotiation table.  This is fundamentally different from terrorists who seek to destroy opposing states.

The uncertain role of violence in the North Korean state, then, adds even more to the uncertainty of speculations.  Was Jong-nam's assassination politically motivated?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Is the North Korean leadership made more stable by Jong-nam's death?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Was the whole thing staged for a foreign audience?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Because there is no clear answer to any of the important questions behind the assassination, people assume the worst, the most calculated, and most intelligent motivation behind its execution.  No better propaganda can make people fear of the North Korean state's genius.  

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