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Puppets, running dogs, lackeys: North Korean news agency spares no one

By Tim Lister, CNN
South Koreans watch a broadcast of a photo that includes Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong-Il's son, released by KCNA in September.
South Koreans watch a broadcast of a photo that includes Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong-Il's son, released by KCNA in September.
  • The Korean Central News Agency is the official voice of the North Korean government
  • It is known for its often belligerent and always flowery language
  • The government in Seoul is called "the South Korean puppet group," for instance
  • "Brigandish" is a term it favors in referring to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

(CNN) -- "Running dogs," "imperialist lackeys," "criminal gangs" and "brigandish moves" -- that sort of propaganda language died with the Cold War, except in the offices of the Korean Central News Agency.

The official mouthpiece of the North Korean government, KCNA is rarely at a loss for words. And it has never heeded the advice of Mark Twain: 'When you catch an adjective, kill it." But despite its often belligerent and always flowery rhetoric, it's also a (somewhat opaque) window on the thinking in Pyongyang.

KCNA was founded in 1946 and supplies the staple diet for all newspapers, radio and television in the country. At a pep talk in 1964, its workers received this advice from a senior party official: The agency "must pay serious attention to each word, to each dot of the writings it releases because they express the standpoint of our Party and the Government of our Republic."

As for an editorial line, the official went on: "So far we have slapped the enemy in the face. From now onwards we must strike at it with a heavy club."

The agency rarely refers to "South Korea" -- preferring terms such as "the South Korean puppet group." Sometimes it drops any reference to the South, opting for expressions like "the Lee Myung Bak group's treacherous and anti-reunification acts," referring to South Korea's current president. And it liberally uses quotation marks to imply illegitimacy.

The agency rarely refers to "South Korea" -- preferring terms such as "the South Korean puppet group."

In recent years, it has favored "brigandish" as the adjective of choice for the United States. Last year, it wrote that remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were "brigandish sophism reminiscent of a thief crying 'Stop the thief!' " Clinton seems a favorite target. "Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping," KCNA opined in an editorial in July 2009.

It frequently warns that war is imminent, and the language is often recycled. This week, the wording is that the "Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war due to the reckless plan of those trigger-happy elements." That's almost copied and pasted from June last year, when it wrote: "The situation is inching close to the brink of war due to the brigandish [that word again] moves of the U.S."

If Washington is often the villain, the hero is always the "dear leader" and "peerless patriot," Kim Jong Il. He has been variously credited with ensuring there is not a single case of HIV/AIDS in North Korea and dispensing vital advice to farmers.

The cult of personality is never far from KCNA's output. "Groups and centres for the study of Kimjongilism were formed and are active in many countries of the six continents, which is given attention as an expression of the unanimous aspiration and will of the progressive humankind," it wrote in 1997.

All eyes on North Korea

The mix of news on KCNA is often eclectic. On the day that North Korea carried out its first nuclear test in 2006, the agency reported "a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation." But it also announced that commemorative stamps had been issued to mark the 80th anniversary of the Down-with-Imperialism Union (DIU) and that Kim had received a gift from a Nepalese library delegation.

Despite the verbiage, Korea analysts pore over the tone and content of KCNA's output. It's almost an anthropological exercise -- detecting the coded signals being sent to friend and foe and to the North Korean people.

Sometimes, those signals are hard to divine. In one dispatch earlier this year, KCNA lambasted the investigation that concluded the North was responsible for sinking a South Korean warship. "This is a natural product of the plot hatched by those who sought to gain something through a clumsy farce only to meet a fiasco," it fulminated.

But at other times, what is said -- or not said -- can be significant. On New Year's Day 2009, the annual policy message said North Korea would "develop relations with the countries friendly towards us." That and an absence of bellicose words directed at the United States was taken as a hint that the North was willing to work with the incoming Obama administration.

Similarly, when the West was awash with rumors about Kim's health last year, KCNA made a point of reporting that he had "granted a long audience to and had a cordial talk with Hyon Jong Un [Hyun Jeong-Eun], chairperson of the Hyundai Group."

And occasionally, the agency admits to problems at home -- alluding to food shortages last year when it said "a radical turn should be brought about in the efforts to improve the standard of people's living."

However outlandish some of KCNA's claims and reports may seem, its output is still unwelcome in the South. KCNA's English-language output (which is actually hosted by servers in Japan) is blocked in the South -- along with a number of other websites that have connections with North Korea.

So residents of Seoul were at least spared the news Friday that the armed forces of the North are "ready to give a shower of dreadful fire and blow up the bulwark of the enemies."

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