Just when you thought North Korean propaganda videos had hit their batty peak, they drop this one on us. “How Americans Live Today” is a Korean-language video that purports to show what life is really like in the bleak, impoverished United States, where there are no birds because they’ve all been eaten by starving Americans. It is a land of homelessness, starvation and rampant gun violence.
Ironically, the video portrays American life as somewhat like the darkest days of North Korea’s 1990s famine, though with much more violence and drug addiction. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman points out, “As with much great trolling, North Korea is taking some of its great weaknesses — the grinding poverty, food shortages and official bellicosity — and projecting them onto its adversary.”
Americans, in this telling, subsist by eating snow. Their homes are collapsing despite the best efforts of the Red Cross to provide shelter. (In another irony, the video says that the Red Cross gets its materials from North Korea.) It describes the “former Republican candidate for Oregon” (no office is specified, perhaps betraying some ignorance of the American political system) as drinking “coffee made from snow.”
The video shows homeless shelters as the defining feature of American life, saying they’re filled with “The poor, the cold, the lonely and the homosexual.” Yes, gay rights are poor in North Korea.
Some of the footage might be of the United States, but a lot of it clearly isn’t. The pay phones don’t look very American, and one screenshot I took shows a Dell post in what might be Spanish or Italian.
It’s difficult to know the video’s provenance. The above version, dubbed in English, was posted to YouTube by a user based in India. It carries a watermark from Ifeng or Phoenix TV, which is based in Hong Kong and broadcasts in China. A non-watermarked version, which is three minutes longer and includes a reference to the Sandy Hook shooting, was uploaded to a German YouTube account that features many videos from North Korean state media. This version says the video is titled “The dark reality of capitalist societies.”
There are a few clues suggesting the original video, if not necessarily the English dub, may be authentic. The narrator is speaking in the theatrically emotional, sing-song Korean often used in state media broadcasts. And the message is consistent with North Korean propaganda, which seeks to convince its citizens that they’re not actually trapped in grinding poverty and hunger after all; they’re living in the richest nation on Earth! That means deterring defectors and keeping people loyal by presenting the outside world – particularly South Korea and the United States – as even poorer and hungrier than North Korea.
This message has been getting tougher and tougher for North Korea to sell to its people. Since the famine, the country has tolerated greater black market trade across the Chinese border to provide sufficient food, which means that video CDs of foreign TV shows and movies also come across. North Korean security forces have been so worried about the potential impact of these video CDs, which clearly show South Koreans and Americans living in prosperity far beyond the North Korean norm, that possessing them is a serious crime. Blaine Harden, in his excellent book “Escape from Camp 14,” reports that security officials sometimes shut down power to entire apartment blocks, then raid individual homes to see if they have any contraband video CDs trapped in their players.
Still, the propaganda is largely successful, although in part this likely has to do with selling the ideology first and the facts second. Otherwise rational and skeptical people might be more willing to believe outlandish propaganda if they already buy into the hyper-nationalist ideology behind it. The reporter Barbara Demick once met with a North Korean defector who had just crossed the border, who had risked everything to escape her country, but who still cried out in fear when meeting Demick. “Evil Americans are our enemies,” she said.
Here’s the full version, in case you speak Korean:
North Korean propaganda video ‘explains’ what life is really like in America – Washington Post (blog)