I am trying desperately to catch up at least a little on my reading of all the feeds and blogs to which I subscribe. Naturally, the most valuable and often the most entertaining are the posts by John Brown. These always contain a considerable amount of information and insights which reveal the diverse approaches to the study and practice of public diplomacy and international communications.
Going back to November I have identified an interesting pattern developing in the Korean Peninsula, and I will be interested to follow how this thread evolves in the wake of North Korea’s current power transition. These reports describe how North Korea has entered the 'Twitter Era' for its propaganda, despite the internet being strictly off-limits to ordinary North Koreans. The propaganda website, Uriminzokkiri, has added Facebook and Twitter tags but the 'share' function is restricted to posts criticising South Korea and the US. Meanwhile, the propaganda regime also posts propaganda footage to Youtube. This suggests that new communications technologies are available in the North and that someone within a government agency has the technological understanding of how to use them. This is quite revealing for a society we are told is somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, South Korean propagandists are still using the old Cold War technique of distributing to North Korea leaflets attached to helium balloons. A military source in November noted the decision to suspend this campaign 'was partly made because the wind currently blows in the wrong direction.' It is understandable why South Korea would resort to such ancient and unreliable techniques given the proximity of the target audience and the inability of North Koreans to access other means of communications. But it is fascinating to think that as Pyongyang finally embraces the information revolution - albeit in a limited way - South Korea is forced to depend on balloons and leaflets.
All of this reminds me of a visit to Jinmen in 2010. Jinmen is an island that belongs to Taiwan but is actually closer to the People’s Republic of China. Jinmen was at the centre of military action between China and Taiwan in the 1950s and was subject to periodic shelling of propaganda leaflets until the 1970s (Taiwan reciprocated in kind). Jinmen was the focus of Taiwan's propaganda activity and remains a military garrison to this day.
In one of the many museums dedicated to the outbreak of war between the two sides in the 1950s, there is a fascinating exhibition of propaganda which includes descriptions of Taiwan’s leaflet campaign in China. A map showed just how far balloons sent from Jinmen penetrated the Chinese mainland (I attach a photo to this blog). I was very suspicious of this map; given the size and terrain of the PRC, could balloons really reach so far inland? And how did Taiwan's psyops teams know where they went and what happened to them? I asked my contacts at Taiwan's Political Warfare College about this and they assured me that balloons could travel that far depending on the gas used to fill them, while Nationalist agents in the mainland could verify their reach. I am not convinced, and I remain suspicious that this is an example of propaganda about propaganda. But the Cold War historian in me is smiling in a self-satisfied way that in the age of blogs, twitter and Facebook, balloons and leaflets are still being used.