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  • JunHyeok Jang

How do North Korean media report COVID-19?

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)---the diseases caused by a novel strain of coronavirus that originated in Wuhan in December 2019---becomes the greatest and imminent threat to human-beings in 2020, resulting in over 1 million cases of infections and 60,000 deaths globally. This crisis can elicit public resentment and thereby undermine regime stability unless the government responds to this epidemic effectively. Especially, this is the case in authoritarian regimes where citizens are not allowed to freely remove the incompetent incumbent.


Authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia have taken rigorous measures to mitigate potential threats from unsatisfied citizens. Like other democratic countries, they first attempt to remove the source of dissatisfaction, which is COVID-19, by shutting down cities and having people under quarantine. Unlike democracies, however, they are also found to manipulate information to conceal the true level of dissatisfaction.


Since the initial breakout of COVID-19 in China, many reporters and scholars have kept track of how Chinese state media shapes discourses. Not surprisingly, it is found that China attempted to conceal sensitive information that may elicit public resentment but rather distract people's attention to positive news. For example, Vanessa Molter from Stanford Internet Observatory found that Chinese state media silenced the fact that the Chinese government detained a whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, one of the first to report the novel disease in late December. Rather, when he died of the virus, the media emphasized how great his sacrifice was. In a similar vein, Chinese media focused on positive stories about better recovery and successful treatments while dismissing new cases of infections and increasing trends of death.


Then, how about North Korean media? North Korea has been reporting 'zero' coronavirus cases despite the fact that specialists cast serious doubt on it. In this post, I show how Rodong Sinmun, the most influential state media in North Korea, conveys information about COVID-19 while concealing the true level of infection.


North Korea is known to have the worst level of press freedom (North Korea ranked 179th out of 180 in the 2019 RSF World Press Freedom Index). There are no private media in the country and all state media serve as a mouthpiece of Kim's regime. COVID-19 in Rodong Sinmun

I retrieve 3,331 Rodong Sinumn articles for 01/02/20 - 03/31/20 from KCNA watch, which provides official DPRK media output in real-time. To examine how North Korean state media convey information about COVID-19, I extract related articles using a keyword "신형코로나비루스," which is an official term of COVID-19 in North Korea.

Figure 1 presents the prevalence of reports regarding COVID-19 in Rodong Sinmun over time. Specifically, red bars represent the prevalence of reports that directly related to North Korea among all COVID-19 related articles. In general, COVID-19 received more attention over time (depicted as blue bar charts). However, as noticed, the media did not cover domestic conditions related to the epidemic as much as did other general or international news regarding this epidemic. This pattern suggests that the North Korean government actively controls the influx of threatening information that may elicit public anxiety and resentment. And it coincides with findings of existing studies that autocrats tend to censor sensitive information that may act as a focal point of anti-government movement (e.g. King, Pan, Roberts 2013).

Figure 1. Prevalence of reports regarding COVID-19

Topics in domestic COVID-19 news


How does Rodong Sinmun report domestic situations regarding this epidemic? As mentioned, North Korea keeps reiterating zero case of the epidemic domestically. On top of that, I find that most reports (more than 80 percent of the news) predominantly emphasize how much effort the government put on blocking the virus. These efforts are described in great detail so that typical readers in North Korea can readily believe what the government says.


"Officials of Nampho Inspection and Quarantine Agency for Exports and Imports take thorough measures so that any slightest negligence cannot occur." (3/9/2020)
"The DPRK has toughened up the state emergency anti-epidemic system to cope with the damage by COVID-19 rapidly spreading to nearly all countries and regions of the world." (3/28/2020)

Also in nearly 20 percent of the reports, they urge people to follow specific directions to prevent being infected. Interesting to note that the pieces of recommendation are often provided with detailed and unbiased information about COVID-19 from international research groups.


"Let's not let COVID-19 invade. We are now carrying out the quarantine project in the entire area and units, but we must not relive any tensions but take scientific and proactive containment measures more thoroughly." (3/9/2020)

One of the primary goal of Rodong Sinmun is to praise the leadership of Kim Jong Un and the socialist regime. Not surprisingly, nearly 10% of reports come with the statement of how great the regime is when it comes to dealing with the global epidemic as compared to other developed countries. For example, it claims world leaders are surprised by zero coronavirus case in DPRK, which is, of course, hype.


"The World Health Organization and epidemiologists are amazed by the fact that the malignant epidemic, which is widespread in so-called advanced countries, cannot reach DPRK." (3/21/2020)

North Korea also seems to concern some negligent and irresponsible people who do not take this epidemic seriously (although it only appears twice during sample periods). This is very much analogous to what we find around the world, from South Korea to the U.S. Interesting is the fact that one of the most controlled societies also suffers individual defection.


"Some people become insensitive about the epidemic, claiming they will not be infected because the country has blocked all borders. People walking around streets without wearing a mask tell us this fact. How can we say that we are citizens benefiting from the most superior socialist healthcare system if we ignore the seriousness of what is happening around us." (2/16/2020)

Figure 2 shows the topics covered in domestic COVID-19 news. These topics are not mutually excluded, that is, a single article can cover more than one topic.

Figure 2. Topics of Domestic COVID-19 News




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