Understanding North Korea's Public Messaging: An Introduction

Understanding North Korea's Public Messaging: An Introduction

Author: Rachel Minyoung Lee


This policy paper was published in collaboration with The Wilson Center Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy and the National Committee on North Korea as a part of the "Understanding North Korea" roundtable series. This paper reflects the views of the author alone and not those of the National Committee on North Korea, the Wilson Center, or any other organizations. 

North Korean media analysis is, simply put, a process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Much of North Korean media content is routine propaganda, perhaps even meaningless noise. More often than not, trends and patterns that are key to understanding Pyongyang's intentions remain buried under meaningless propaganda, and it is the job of the analyst to filter out the noise and discern the message. Serious analysis of North Korea's public messaging requires the right methodology and a well-trained eye to apply it rigorously and systematically to decode the messaging. A smart data curating tool for speeding up and improving the accuracy of the analysis would be icing on the cake.

The objective of this paper is to introduce the basics of a propaganda analysis method to help both consumers and producers of North Korea analysis avoid the all-too-common pitfalls of cherry picking, comparing apples and oranges, and drawing conclusions based on the proximity of two events. In that vein, this paper will examine a) the significance of North Korea's public line for understanding Pyongyang's intentions; b) a time-tested analytic framework for propaganda analysis; and c) the key changes in the North Korean communications strategy since the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi and potential implications for this analysis method.

About the Author

Minyoung Lee is a Nonresident Fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center. Lee was a North Korea collection expert and analyst with Open Source Enterprise (OSE; formerly known as Open Source Center) under the CIA from 2000 to 2019. During that time, she wrote on the gamut of North Korean issues, from leadership, domestic politics and economy, and foreign policy, to social and cultural developments. As Analysis Team Lead, Lee led a team of collection officers and analysts to track and analyze North and South Korean issues with implications for Pyongyang’s regime stability and regional security. Since leaving OSE, Lee has been cited regularly by leading global media outlets, to include The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Financial Times. Lee earned her B.A. in English literature and her M.A. in international law, both at Korea University.

About the "Understanding North Korea Roundtable Series"

The Understanding North Korea roundtable series is a joint program of the National Committee on North Korea and the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor - Korean Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy. The roundtable series was established to enable emerging scholars of North Korea to share their research ideas with peers and experts in the field, and to publish their findings in a format accessible to a general audience.