This is what communication failure looks like: Visuals at the North Korean border

DR NICHOLAS MICHELSEN, Director of Research, King’s Centre for Strategic Communications

The following reflects on a recent trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between The Republic of Korea (ROK) and The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted with War Studies Head of Department Professor Michael Rainsborough. We were in South Korea by invitation of KCSC associate Dr Jonathan Woodier, of Woosong University, to take part in an international academic network project funded by the ROK government.

The line between North and South Korea is the most militarised border in the world, cushioned on both sides by two-kilometre exclusion zones packed with bunkers, observation posts and artillery. The North’s recent high-altitude test of an intercontinental missile, which suggested a capacity to reach Washington had it been lofted at a lower arc, alongside the potential for an atmospheric test of a DPRK nuclear bomb and the prominence of North Korea hawks in the Trump administration, means that this conflict reigniting is not unthinkable, regardless of any warming in North-South relations associated with the Winter Olympics.

Our guide was a US soldier who seemed at most to be in his early twenties. The purpose of the military presence in the DMZ was de-escalation, he told us, which meant taking care never to communicate threats across the border. We were instructed not to laugh, point at or mockingly gesture at anyone we saw on the other side. Direct engagement with DPRK representatives, in any case, was extremely limited. Though a constantly manned phone-line exists, and the DPRK is called on it four-times each day: ‘no one ever picks up’. A recent phone call, and subsequent face to face discussion regarding the Olympics, was the first direct contact in several years. When urgent messages (concerning defections, for example) need to be passed on to the other side, they are literally shouted across the border line. Here visual forms of communication have obvious strategic significance. They are the main game in town.

We passed the road to ‘Peace Village’, the inhabitants of which, many of whom have second homes in Seoul, are paid around $80,000 year to the farm rice fields in the DMZ. We looked around the new but clearly hardly used last station in the South on the line to Pyongyang. DPRK propaganda was carried on the wind as we overlooked ‘Propaganda Village’ just across the border (in which apparently, most of the buildings are uninhabited stage props). All the uniformed soldiers we saw, other than our guides, were ROK. The UN force currently includes a Swede, a Swiss and two New Zealanders, but this is clearly a ROK-USA operation, with de-emphasis on the latter. We saw little of the extreme securitization of the DMZ. The military architecture accreted over the last 60 years was always outside the field of vision. Our US guides adopted a casual air, interjecting moments of seriousness, joking with the ROK soldiers standing on guard, and talking-up what they described as the exceptional dullness of the DMZ.

Only the immediate border area appeared in stark dissonance with that message of peace-keeping humdrum. It was here that a defector had been shot several times in the back in November by DPRK soldiers as he ran across. Our US guide joshed that given the number of bullets that had been fired at the fellow, the incident gave a good indication of what poor shots the NK soldiers were. Whilst our US military minder seemed keen to ‘lighten the mood’, there was no missing the contradictory visual messages that dominate the immediate border area.

We were lined up in double file and led though a building built to house peace talks (never used for such), and flanked by two ROK soldiers in distinctive uniform, standing stock still in a curiously intimidating pose. These guards projected an air of threat by design. Slickly dressed in very dark green uniform, with big gold buttons and strikingly black shiny helmets redolent of something that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini might have worn, they commanded the visual space. Nowhere else in the DMZ did we see anyone wearing these uniforms or holding this posture. We were led directly into one of several single-room buildings which sit astride the border, in which the armistice talks had been held. Two more ROK guards held poise around the table at which the cease-fire negotiators had sat (in one instance, for 12 hours straight, as neither side wanted to be first to confess to having a bladder). Our guide gently made fun of the impassive guards in black. The kids were too groomed to really terrify. Their menacing poise, especially once we had been told it was a “modified readiness Taekwondo pose”, contained an element of the absurd. In this sense, it was classic example of “fascist chic”, as Michael Rainsborough put it.

I wondered who the intended audience for this aesthetic was. Outside, we were instructed not to photograph left or right – precluding taking pictures of our two flanking guards – and lined up double file on the top of three steps looking out over the border. In front of us, three more of the guards stood close to the border facing North Korea, half sheltered by the buildings astride it. Their stance and positioning performed menacing readiness for violence. On the other side, by contrast, a single DPRK soldier stood, nicknamed Bob (on account of his bobbing in and out when the guard was changed). Bob projected a sorry image, standing lonely and apparently unarmed across the border.  His solitary figure looked vulnerable, visually overpowered by the line of glaring ROK soldiers, half-bodied and dark-clad.

These border visuals seemed a case study in poor Strategic Communications. Perhaps the distinctive dress and posture is a tradition that can be traced back to the extended period of post-war military dictatorship in the South. It may be that the heavily militarised aesthetic reads as reassuring to a ROK domestic audience (I doubt it). It might impress a few foreign tourists, but to someone with an interest in the power of communications, posturing in a Stormtrooper outfit looks like an own goal.

The sole visible representative of the DPRK projected unthreatening vulnerability to any audience that might directly view, or see footage of, the border. The ROK soldiers projected menace alongside Mussolinian homoeroticism. How often, one wonders, must this picture of dark clad militarism be used in DPRKs domestic propaganda? It is hard to imagine a better imagery to accompany its account of its neighbour as a fascistic stooge of American imperialism. Our tour was an unintended contributor to this image, with groups of civilians filing out in military order, not appearing dissimilar to that we see of life in the DPRK, to line up and glare across the border. This visual win is handed to the DPRK’s ugly regime every day.

Given the dearth of means for making contact with the population of the DPRK, alongside the fragility of the secretive state’s constitutive myths, and the far higher standard of living in ROK, one might think that efforts would be made to create a visual metaphor at the border that was less helpful to the propagandists in the North. For an international audience, the obvious question is why is South Korea projecting fascist chic and aggression at the border, when DPRK is communicating almost judo-like from weakness? An observer can’t help but interpret the border as a space of asymmetry and inequality. This, of course, is precisely how the DPRK communicates, and seeks to justify, its pursuit of a nuclear missile capacity.

This is what communications failure looks like. It has been remarked that better (offensive and defensive) communications must be critical to effectively dealing with Kim Jong-un, given how few and disastrous are the military options, and the failures of deterrence. As the Trump administration doubles-down on the latter, the visuals at the ROK-DPRK border are a timely reminder that knowing who your audience is matters in world politics.

Image: The author.

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