How and Why the Western News Media Get North Korea’s Economy Wrong
January 2, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
It is the accustomed practice of Western news media to refer to North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, as a propaganda outlet, by which is implied that it is a source of self-serving lies. It would be more accurate to say that KCNA propagates the point of view of the North Korean government, which is unquestionably self-serving, or at least intended to be. It is hardly likely that anyone would express a point of view that was deliberately self-damaging. And as far as lies go, while I have no evidence that the North Korean government lies, it would come as no surprise to discover that it has, from time to time, backed its point of view with deceptions, both deliberate and unintended. Humans, as a rule, are not unfailingly honest or free from cognitive biases that sometimes make it difficult for them to see what others see, and North Koreans are as human as anyone else.
All the same, were KCNA to carry reports completely devoid of deception, it seems very likely that it would still be the case that the Western news media would label the news agency a propaganda outlet, in the sense of passing off deliberate lies as truth. This is so because the North Korean view is so often at odds with the spin pumped out in Western capitals by officials of state and reported and passed along by Western news media that it must seem to the purveyors of the Western point of view than the North Korean alternative must be wrong and deliberately so.
If we define propaganda as propagating a self-interested point of view, then entirely absent in Western journalistic commentary on the official news agencies of the foreign states that Western governments are hostile to is any recognition that they, themselves, i.e., the Western news media, are indistinguishable from the foreign news agencies they discredit. As much as the KCNA, Western news media propagate the official viewpoints of states, in their case the points of view of Western states, expressed by presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of defense, Pentagon generals, heads of intelligence agencies, and so on, whose words are carefully reproduced and reported, almost always uncritically, in Western newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts. Asked by the journalist and film-maker John Pilger to explain how his news organization failed to challenge official deceptions about Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction, the pretext for the 2003 Anglo-US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a senior news executive replied that it is not the job of the news media to question what state officials say, only to report their words. This amounts to admitting what left critics have long contended: that the Western news media are merely stenographers for those in power.
Moreover, the fact that Western news media are mainly privately-owned and not run by the state does not make them disinterested and neutral. For the most part, Western news media are owned by an ultra-wealthy business elite. Accordingly, these media promote positions that are compatible with and conducive to the interests of the larger corporate community to which they belong. The view that the news media reflect corporate community interests because they are part of the corporate community is almost axiomatic. There would be no controversy in the claim that a newspaper owned by labor unions would promote positions that are compatible with the interests of labor. Nor would there be much disagreement with the view that a news network owned by environmentalists would take a dim view of fracking. Clearly, then, we should expect media owned by wealthy business owners to reflect the viewpoint of wealthy business owners.
Indeed, it would be naive to accept the deception implied in the phrase “independent media” that media that are independent of the state are neutral, unbiased, and therefore uniquely authoritative. They may be independent of the state, but that does not make them independent; they’re still dependent on their owners. But concealing their dependency allows the news media’s business owners to smuggle their interests into the ways the news is reported behind a facade of journalistic neutrality. Hence, a pro-business point of view is seen to be common sense, since it is disseminated by news media which profess to be independent and therefore impartial, unbiased, and objective. However, the truth of the matter is that privately-owned news media have a point of view, i.e., that of the corporate elite which own them. The same corporate elite dominates the state and the public policy process through: lobbying; funding think tanks to prepare policy recommendations for governments; political campaign contributions; and over-representation relative to their numbers in the legislative, executive and bureaucratic branches of the state. This explains why the Western news media uncritically echo the viewpoint of state officials: they’re both working for the same masters.
The function of the Western news media in propagating a point of view that favors its owners is evident in its propagation of certain ideas about North Korea as incontestable truths, though which in fact are far from incontestable, but which have the congenial effect from the perspective of the corporate elite of seeming to uphold the superiority of the capitalist system and the necessity of governments catering to foreign investors if they’re to secure prosperity for their citizenry.
These ideas, or myths, come in two parts:
1. The idea that North Korea is desperately poor.
2. The attribution of its alleged poverty to the public ownership and central planning of its economy and failure to establish an attractive climate for foreign investment.
Visitors to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, are often struck by the contrast between the city as it is (clean, modern, and teeming with well-dressed and seemingly prosperous residents) and North Korea as it is portrayed by the Western news media (impoverished, rundown, gloomy, on the verge of collapse.) Pyongyang is not the horror of poverty that Western news media make it out to be.
A recent article in the South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh paints a picture wildly at odds with the Western news media’s gloomy view.
Three years after Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea, the streets of Pyongyang look much different. The streets of the city are lined with new 40-floor skyscrapers, and taxis drive down them. Before, they had been dark at night, but now they are illuminated by bright lights, while smartphone-toting women are dressed more smartly than before.
The Hankyoreh quotes a recent visitor to North Korea, Jin Zhe, Director of Northeast Asia Studies for the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences: “The economy appears to be moving briskly in Pyongyang these days. What particularly stood out were the large apartment buildings being built in various parts of the city and the bustling activity at the markets. You can really feel how much it’s thriving.”
The North Korean economy is growing and production of industrial and agricultural goods is on the rise . Food scarcity, however, has been a problem (though a diminishing one), and conditions appear to be less favorable in the countryside than in Pyongyang.  The existence of food scarcity is almost invariably attributed by Western reporters and editorial writers to the alleged inefficiencies of public ownership and planning or to North Korea’s investment in its military, allegedly at the expense of its people. Both attributions are facile.
Until the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea experienced no food insecurity under an economic system based on public ownership and planning. It was only after the demise of communism in Eastern Europe that food security became a problem. As in Cuba, the crash of the Eastern European socialist states created an economic shock, as North Korea’s trading relationships and economic interconnections with these states broke down. Agricultural production suffered as inputs became scarce. Food production was further set back by a series of natural calamities.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe had two additional effects on North Korea’s economy.
First, it allowed the United States to ramp up its military intimidation of North Korea. In 1991, the top US military official at the time, Colin Powell, complained that “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.”  With the Warsaw Pact out of the way, the United States could now concentrate on eliminating other communist states. In February 1993, Lee Butler, head of the US Strategic Command, announced that the United States was retargeting hydrogen bombs aimed at the old USSR on North Korea (and other targets), though at the time, North Korea was a non-nuclear weapons state. One month later, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  Already on a permanent war footing—the Korean War had never officially ended and the United States had tens of thousands of troops garrisoned across the border in South Korea and in nearby Japan—North Korea was forced to devote a crushingly large part of its resources to its military and self-defense. Now the pressure on the North Korean economy was being ratcheted up further.
Second, the United States and its allies had maintained a wide-ranging system of sanctions on North Korea—more accurately described as a campaign of economic warfare, aimed at wrecking the North Korean economy. With the option open prior to 1990 of establishing economic ties and trading relationships with communist allies, North Korea was largely able to side-step the effects of the US-led campaign of economic warfare. However, after 1991 the door was closed, except for North Korea’s relationship with its neighbor China.
John Mueller and Karl Mueller explain:
During the Cold War the effect of economic sanctions was generally limited because when one side imposed them the other side often undermined them. Thus the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was substantially mitigated for decades by compensatory Soviet aid. But in the wake of the Cold War, sanctions are more likely to be comprehensive and thus effective, in causing harm if not necessarily in achieving political objectives. So long as they can coordinate their efforts, the big countries have at their disposal a credible, inexpensive, and potent weapon to use against small and medium-sized foes. The dominant powers have shown that they can inflict enormous pain at remarkably little cost to themselves or the global economy. Indeed, in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated. 
Western news media almost never attribute the economic difficulties experienced by countries that have been subjected to campaigns of economic warfare to the effects of those campaigns. Instead, their economic difficulties are almost invariably imputed to economic mismanagement (which is equated to expropriation of privately-owned productive assets or failing to compete for, cater to, and indulge foreign investors) or to the targeted government’s socialist policies (and always, targeted governments pursue policies the US State Department would decry as socialist, though they’re often more accurately labelled as economically nationalist.) The aim of this deception is obvious: to discredit economic policy that fails to comport with the profit-making interests of the Western corporate community.
Much has been said by the political left about the devastating effects of the US embargo on Cuba and of the millions of Iraqis who died as a result of disruptions caused by Western sanctions throughout the 1990s. But very little has been said about sanctions in connection with North Korea, despite the reality that North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned country on earth and has been menaced by a campaign of unremitting US-led economic warfare since 1950. Policy-makers in Washington now despair of having any levers left to exert pressure on North Korea. The country is under such a heavy burden of sanctions, and so thoroughly menaced by military pressure, that there are few levers left to reach for.
In a December 26 Washington Post op-ed former US president Jimmy Carter opened a tiny crack in the near total embargo on mentioning sanctions and their effects on North Korea’s economy. Carter acknowledged that the “U.S. embargo, imposed 64 years ago at the start of the Korean War, has been more strictly enforced, with every effort made to restrict or damage North Korea’s economy.” Carter then went on to draw the link between US policy aimed at “destroying the (North Korean) economy” and “the plight of people,” arguing for economic warfare that didn’t attack “the living conditions” of North Koreans.  What he didn’t espouse (not unexpectedly, but which needs to be argued for) is the complete removal of sanctions on North Korea. The US-led campaign of economic warfare on the country has no legitimate grounds. Its ultimate aim, working in conjunction with US-led military pressure, is to force the North Korean government to jettison its system of public ownership and planning and to fold itself into South Korea, where it can become part of a larger US neo-colony. There are no legal or moral grounds for this policy. Its existence is rooted entirely in the profit-making interests of the West’s corporate elite. The more immediate goal of the campaign is to limit and disrupt the North Korean economy in order to discredit alternatives to capitalism and US free enterprise. Achieving this aim critically depends on the cooperation of the Western news media. They must ignore the effects of the sanctions (as well as US military pressure) and attribute North Korea’s economic difficulties to its economic and defense policies.
If propaganda amounts to the propagation of a self-serving narrative, the Western news media need look no further than themselves and their owners to find the perfect model. North Korea, according the propaganda system of the West, is desperately poor, when in fact, at least in Pyongyang, it is anything but. North Korea’s alleged poverty, according to the same model, is due to it military policies, with no mention made of how they are legitimate self-defensive measures taken to resist the very real military threat posed by the United States and its allies. Similarly, North Korea’s alleged indigence is imputed to its economic system, with the effect of economic warfare whose object is the destruction of the North Korean economy totally ignored.
What Western propaganda must miss is the most compelling story of all—how a country born off a guerrilla struggle against Japanese occupation holds on, and even, by some measures, has managed to thrive, despite being subjected to 64 years of economic warfare and military threat, including the threat of nuclear annihilation, by the most powerful and predatory state on the planet.
1. “After three years of Kim Jong-un, skyscrapers popping up on Pyongyang skyline,” The Hankyoreh, December 29, 2014.
2. In his New Years 2015 address, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un referred to his country’s “food problem” as well as “the shortage of electricity.”
3. Quoted in Carl Kaysen, Robert S. McNamara and George W. Rathjens, “Nuclear weapons after the Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1991.
4. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. p. 488-489.
5. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.
6. Jimmy Carter, “Cuba, North Korea, and getting sanctions right,” The Washington Post, December 26, 2014.