Page last updated at 23:18 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 00:18 UK

The meaning of N Korea's strange jibes

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

The Pyongyang Times of North Korea
N Korea's media sometimes makes bombastic, even vitriolic, comments

South Korea has even begun to keep count.

A government official recently claimed that North Korea's official state media has insulted the South Korean president more than 1,700 times this year alone.

That is an average of 10 insults a day.

He is variously called "a lackey", "a stooge", "a dictator" and the leader of "a gang of traitors".

The official admitted that the jibes were sometimes "downright silly".

But the language chosen by North Korea to attack its opponents can border on the terrifying.

Last year, for example, it threatened to reduce South Korea "to ashes" and, more recently, warned of a "fire shower" of nuclear retaliation.

So, just how much attention should we be paying to this kind of rhetoric?

Is it mere bluster, or is there a real risk that the bombastic outbursts will be translated into action?

'Wolf in sheep's clothing'

Michael Harrold has an unusual claim to fame.

In 1987 he became the first British citizen to be employed by the North Korean government in Pyongyang.

The American Yankee is a wolf in sheep's clothing
About the US:Even piles of manure in the fields are fuming out smoke of hatred
[S Korean leader Lee Myung-bak] is a political charlatan, an absent-minded traitor and a US sycophant
US imperialists are the greatest threat to humanity [in the 20th Century]
We will tear the limbs from the United States, which is an empire of evil
The situation is inching close to the brink of war due to the brigandish moves of the US

His mission was to offer advice on the correct use of English for the translations of North Korean propaganda.

At the start of his seven-year posting, having arrived in a strange and bewildering city, he remembers buying himself a Korean phrase book.

"The second from last chapter was called 'useful phrases'," he tells me.

It included such choice essentials as: "The American Yankee is a wolf in sheep's clothing", and "the US imperialists are the greatest threat to humanity in the 20th Century".

Unlikely to trip off a beginner's tongue perhaps, but the run-of-the-mill phrase book was his first lesson in how all pervasive this kind of language is inside the reclusive country.

External enemy

So does the average North Korean go about his daily life peppering his speech with such casual insults? Is North Korea really one of the angriest places on the planet?

Professor Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute
At times when the relationship with the outside world is more peaceful they use softer language. But when relations get worse, that's when it gets much tougher
Prof Paik Hak-soon

Joo Sung-ha, who defected from North Korea seven years ago, thinks it might be.

He is now a journalist working on the foreign desk of the Dong-A Ilbo, a South Korean broadsheet, with regular cause to analyse the propaganda coming out of Pyongyang.

"It is a unique aspect of socialist societies in general," he tells me.

"People learn to use this kind of strong language, even in everyday life. It is instilled into society."

The state-run newspapers are certainly full of it, a constant hard-blowing of warnings and threats aimed at an external enemy kept constantly in the forefront of people's minds.

But if the rhetoric is designed to rally citizens to the leadership's cause, it may have limited effect, according to Mr Joo.

"People are too used to it. They learn to read between the lines for the real meaning, and the often repeated words like 'war' don't even register."

'Nuclear maniac'

They register in South Korea though.

So much so that North Korean propaganda is still illegal here, banned under the country's national security laws.

To read a North Korean newspaper you need special permission to access one of the secure collections, like the one held at the Sejong Institute, a private think-tank, located just outside Seoul.

Professor Paik Hak-soon shows me round, and pulling a large volume of the Pyongyang Times off the shelves, it falls open at an edition from March 1988.

North Korean missile launch - photo released April 2009
North Korea recently threatened a 'fire shower' of attack

Little has changed, it seems.

Right there in the first paragraph is the talk of the "US imperialists" and the South Korean "military fascist clique".

The individual words might not tell you much, but according to Professor Paik, it is worth trying to follow the trend, the rising and falling tone of North Korean rhetoric.

"There are ups and downs," he says. "At times when the relationship with the outside world is more peaceful, they use softer language. But when relations get worse, that's when it gets much tougher."

North Korean propaganda, the theory goes, can be used like a barometer, giving clues about the current thinking of the leadership in Pyongyang.

President George W Bush was "a gangster" and "a nuclear maniac", but despite the abuse heaped on current US policy, no personal insult has yet been levelled at President Barack Obama.

If and when it comes, it might tell us something about North Korea's assessment of the prospects for dialogue and engagement with his administration.

'Piles of manure'

At times of extreme hostility the language turns flamboyant, even poetic.

America sank so low in 2003, according to state radio, that even the "piles of manure in the fields" were "fuming out the smoke of hatred."

It is strong stuff, no doubt, but sometimes the outside world can be tempted to analyse too deeply.

Michael Harrold
'Great Leader' became a bit repetitious, says Michael Harrold

Michael Harrold has written a book about his seven years in Pyongyang, entitled Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea.

"One very senior translator once asked me whether using the title Great Leader every time we referred to Kim Il-sung was perhaps too repetitive and limited its impact, and I agreed," he tells me.

So, for a time, the term was occasionally dropped from North Korea's English language news reports, much to the excitement of foreign journalists.

Speculation began to run rife, Mr Harrold recalls, that the leader was losing his grip on power.

"I think they were somewhat disappointed when I told them it was simply a translation issue," he says.


The anecdote helps explain why North Korea's statements sometimes read so strangely.

Mr Harrold was employed as a proof-reader, but the English translation itself is always done in-house by North Korean nationals.

Joo Sung-ha, North Korean defector, now journalist in Seoul
Joo Sung-ha says North Koreans use angry rhetoric on a daily basis

And it is the English language news reports from the country's state-run news agency that make up the bulk of what appears in the foreign press.

Joo Sung-ha, the defector turned South Korean journalist, says there is an easy explanation for North Korea's use of seemingly antiquated words like "brigandish" to refer to its opponents.

"They're using old dictionaries," he says.

"Many were published in the 1960s with meanings that have now fallen out of use, and there are very few first-language English speakers available to make the necessary corrections."

So, while North Korea's rhetoric is certainly worthy of analysis, perhaps we shouldn't be too alarmed by every outburst.

To be fair, even its most inflammatory statements are not always what they seem.

That "fire shower" of nuclear attack made a great headline for journalists, but many gave less emphasis to an important proviso: as so often with North Korea, the warning was conditional, to be acted upon only if someone else started the fight.

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