Ventriloquism as a Statecraft: Musings on media & human rights
by Daniel Morton
Did you know North Korea (officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) has communicated with the U.S. Black Panthers? Or that the DPRK tries to form bonds with disenfranchised groups around the world in a sense of solidarity? Well, I sure didn’t. It was quite a revelation to learn about this and more from Professor Sandra Fahy’s presentation on how North Korea manipulates the media domestically and internationally to deflect attention and accusations of human rights violations.
A very good example of how DPRK operates was their response to an extensive report done by the UN Human Rights Council, which described the atrocities the state committed on its own citizens. These violations include denying Koreans access to food, free speech, and subjecting them to torture, executions, and arbitrary detentions, among many other crimes.
Several countries used these findings to denounce the DPRK and their actions. How did this rogue state respond though? Of course, by denying the accusations and making their counter-report. Professor Fahy noted a common tactic of North Korea, that is not discussed as much, is how they accuse the U.S and other Western countries of being hypocrites since they have violated human rights as well. This tactic, known as tu quoque or appeal to hypocrisy, is an obvious ploy to get the international community to ignore DPRK’s crimes and avoid responsibility. You probably heard about “Whataboutism” as a slang term in the news because it is a variant of tu quoque.
This tactic is very important not only because it is becoming more common, but also because appeal to hypocrisy is one of the main strategies of authoritarian regimes like North Korea. This was clearly shown in 2014, when the DPRK held an event in London called, “Global Resistance from Ferguson to People’s Korea” (Ferguson being a reference to racial unrest and discrimination in the U.S.). As aforementioned, events like this serve two purposes: (1) trying to find common ground and solidarity with other disenfranchised groups who have suffered under “imperial rule”, and (2) use tu quoquo against the United States. Despite what they say or claim to think, Professor Fahy correctly stated it doesn’t absolve the DPRK of its crimes. It is just one of the many ways the nation has used media and public relations to cover up their crimes from international actors and their own people (By the way, despite their “solidarity” with African-Americans/blacks, North Korea had no problem calling Obama a “wicked evil monkey” and should live with other monkeys in an African zoo.)
Another tactic is “interpretive nudging.” As described by Professor Fahy, this is where one uses nouns linked to emotional modifiers to elicit a certain response. Some examples she mentioned were “puppet South Korea” or “UN conspiracy” or “imperialist U.S.” These interesting phrases are used as propaganda to portray the outside world as the enemy. Then, there is how DPRK leaders publicly denounce and defame the testimony of defectors and people who escaped the rogue state. Not to mention they fabricate interviews with “random strangers” to show how “great” North Korea is.
All of these tactics, from tu quoque to interpretive nudging to control of the technology, reveal how North Korea has used the media as strings, as “the state acts as a ventriloquist for the citizen.” It makes sense they are so creative with the media, considering the different practices they have for technology. North Korea is just one example of how different regimes around the world use the media to deflect attention away from human rights, and the prohibition of freedom of expression and press are serious threats to human security in these authoritarian states.
 Hanns Günther Hilpert and Frédéric Krumbein, “Human Rights in North Korea: A European Perspective,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs 30, no. 1 (2016): 67-92, Accessed February 13, 2020, www.jstor.org/stable/43829410, pg.68.
 Robert R. King, “Fifth Anniversary of the Landmark Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights,” Center for International & Strategic Studies, Accessed February 13, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/fifth-anniversary-landmark-report-un-commission-inquiry-north-korean-human-rights.
 Madison Park, “North Korea insults Obama with racist barbs, South Korea’s Park with sexist ones,” CNN, Updated May, 2014, https://www.cnn.com/2014/05/09/world/asia/north-korea-insults-obama/index.html.
 Shona Gosh, “10 ways North Koreans use technology differently from other countries,” Business Insider, Updated January 24, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/10-ways-north-koreans-use-technology-differently-from-other-countries-2017-1.