Television sets: 57 per 1000 people (2003, compared to 19 per 1000 in Madagascar and 755 per 1000 in the United States). [Source: Nation Master]

North Korea is one of the world's most closed nations, with the totalitarian regime tightly controlling outside information and tolerating no dissent. Satellite televison is banned. Until the 1990s, there was one channel during the week, two on weekends North Koreans can be sent to a labor camp for watching Western televison.

According to the CIA World Factbook: There is no independent media; radios and TVs are pre-tuned to government stations; 4 government-owned TV stations; the Korean Workers' Party owns and operates the Korean Central Broadcasting Station, and the state-run Voice of Korea operates an external broadcast service; the government prohibits listening to and jams foreign broadcasts (2019). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

There are only four television channels in North Korea: 1) Central TV Channel for important political news; 2) Mansudae Channel for foreign country news; 3) Sports Channel for all kinds of sports; and 4) Cable line Channel for lives. Korean Central Television (KCTV) is a television service operated by the Korean Central Broadcasting Committee, a state-owned broadcaster in North Korea.

North Korean television has been described as "one part glorification of Kim Jong Il, one part castigation of South Korea and Japan and revisionist history that blames the U.S. and South Korea for starting the war.” In the 1980s and 90s, North Korean news often showed images of violent demonstrations in South Korea with the background blurred so that viewers could not see shops and cars, or other evidence of South Korean affluence.” North Korean news broadcasts feature an announcer who shouts out the news like a cheerleader.

For a while, maybe the practice continues today, about one hour of North Korean television programming was shown in South Korea every week. At first viewers were fascinated by what they saw but they quickly grew bored of it. Commercials in South Korea have featured North Korean models.

Television Programs in North Korea

Fixtures on North Korean television and radio as well as in the North Korean press are stories on happy workers, loyalist soldiers, U.S., imperialist aggressors, South Korean puppets and the incredible accomplishments of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Standard fare on North Korean television includes singing soldiers, old war movies and dramas with traditionally Confucian themes. North Korean people like Chinese movies a lot. The Chinese drama “KeWang,” produced in 1990 in China, with 50 episodes, has been very popular in North Korea. It has been shown in North Korea one episode per week. When it is shown streets of Pyongyang are nearly empty. [Source: Explore North Korea tour group]

In the 1970s, evening television programming included panel discussion by professors on economic policy (with few dissenting opinions) and lectures on how to avoid catching a cold. One 1970s television drama, called “Sea of Blood,” was about a family's struggle during the Japanese occupation was reportedly written by Kim Il Sung. [Source: H. Edward Kim, National Geographic, August, 1974]

North Korean radio and television programs urge citizens to eat just two meals a day. The government denies that this is because of food shortages. Instead they say it is to promote good health and nutrition. The government television station once did a documentary about a man who ate too much rice and died from a "gastric explosion."

Television Programming Under Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

Subin Kim wrote in NK News: “A grandmother in a rural part of North Korea was given a television from her grandson who worked in an urban area. The wooden box was truly astonishing: she could watch people on its screen and listen to songs, she could even go sightseeing in Pyongyang without needing a travel permit from the authorities. [Source: Subin Kim for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, March 10, 2015]
“Within a short time, the wooden box became a wonder of the town, but its popularity didn’t last long. People soon lost interest in the box because the content was so repetitive. What was wrong with it? After some consideration, she wrote a letter to her grandson: “Dear Son, we’ve finished with the television you sent. So please buy another one and send it to us.”

“This is a joke allegedly told by the chairman of the Korean Central Broadcasting Committee at a meeting with his colleagues in 1994. He was making the point that even party propaganda should be interesting to be truly effective, says defector and activist Jang Jin-sung a former worker of North Korea’s propaganda arm. But the chairman’s hint at an overhaul of the propaganda machine didn’t take off.

Less than a week later, Jang says, Kim Jong-il issued a new directive on TV production. Since the faces of his personal guards were exposed on state media news, Kim decreed that Korean Central Television (KCTV) replace 80 percent of its broadcast with music in a bid to evade enemy surveillance. All of a sudden KCTV had turned into the North Korean version of MTV. Struggling to keep things interesting, producers and writers of the committee came up with programs like ‘Musical Expedition’, ‘Musical Essay’, ‘Classic Exposition’, ‘Music and Poetry’, and ‘Classics and Great Men.’”

KCTV Programing

Korean Central Television (KCTV) is a television service operated by the Korean Central Broadcasting Committee, a state-owned broadcaster in North Korea. On the content on KCTV, Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The prevailing narrative in North Korean culture is an unblinking paean to self-reliance — the philosophy of juche, articulated by founding father Kim Il Sung. Music and movies celebrate the Great Leader's apparently single-handed accomplishments, including throwing Japanese and American imperialists out of the nation. "We will watch movies about how our Great Leader founded the party and our country,"Yon Ok Ju, a 20-year-old university student, says when asked what she and her family will do during the holiday marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party. That meant one more showing of "Star of Korea," which tells the story of Kim's rise to power, or "The Destiny of a Man" from the 1970s, or the post-World War II classic "My Homeland." [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2005]

Subin Kim wrote in NK News: “Today the channel usually starts at around 3:00pm with reports of the leader’s recent movements. There are re-runs of several documentaries and films, and regular news broadcasts three times a day at 5:00pm, 8:00pm, and 10:00pm which don’t usually last longer than 20 minutes. In a KCTV news show recently uploaded to YouTube the presenter starts by reading from newspapers around the world commemorating Kim Jong-il’s birthday – as long as it’s about the great leader, it’s news.

“The presenter goes on to harshly criticise South Korea for suppressing its people and reports what’s going on with ‘friendly’ countries like Iran. The channel then devotes the last eight minutes – out of a total 18 – of its broadcast to reading state newspapers like Rodong Sinmun. [Source: Subin Kim for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, March 10, 2015]

“The broadcast was part of a series of videos recently uploaded to YouTube – including some videos now being streamed in high-definition (HD). Martyn Williams from website North Korea Tech credits the new-look footage to Chinese equipment given a few years ago. He told NK News that he thinks North Korea are hoping to expand the HD service nationwide – if they haven’t done so already. But even with better resolution on offer – and less music broadcast than under former leader Kim Jong-il – the propaganda messaging behind the programmes remains largely unchanged.”

Ideologically-Correct Music and Dramas on North Korean Television

Subin Kim wrote in NK News: “North Korea’s constitution dictates that the Republic should nurture its “socialist culture”, meeting the worker’s demand for “sound” emotion to ensure that all citizens can be builders of socialism. “Every drama for television and radio has to be ratified by the highest authority, even in its initial planning stage,” said former KCTV writer Jang Hae-sung in a video for the South Korean Institute for Unification Education. The prevalent values in North Korean dramas are loyalty to the leader, economic awareness and self-rehabilitation, he adds. [Source: Subin Kim for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, March 10, 2015]

“Jwawoomyong (The Motto), a North Korean drama recently run by KCTV, mirrors those values. In one episode a father agonises that he has failed the party after his construction project falls apart, but is restored by the memory of his endless devotion to the party.

“Today’s music shows are also entangled in the web of ideology, like Yochong Mudae (Stages By Request), for example, which was aired on 15 February, a day before Kim Jong-il’s birthday. The featured songs – People’s Single-Minded Devotion, The Anthem of Belief and Will, and Let’s Protect Socialism – are clear propaganda. A music request show, the audience are asked to describe to camera how inspiring these songs are to them. “The belief that is the strongest/ the will that is the firmest/ is yours, the great iron man Kim Jong-il/ you are strong/ so strong that you always win,” go the lyrics of The Anthem of Belief and Will.

“Ideology and propaganda is also a mainstay for TV dramas. A Day in Exercise, which was aired on KCTV last Wednesday, tells a story of a young military officer who dares to break custom for the sake of effectiveness in battle. His actions make his platoon soldiers miserable. In one scene he deliberately tampers with his soldiers’ rifles right before shooting practice to ensure they check their rifles at all times. But when the young platoon leader suffers injuries during battle, he regains his strength by looking at the latest copy of state newspaper the Rodong Sinmun, featuring the supreme leader’s face on the front page.

“With little diversity on North Korean TV and extensive repetition – schedules show that a majority of the movies are re-runs – perhaps it’s not surprising that South Korean dramas are so popular among ordinary North Koreans, despite harsh penalties if they are caught.

“But it’s unlikely that we’ll see any significant changes in the North Korean broadcasts any time soon: “there are certain limitations in what the North Korean broadcasting system can express, even though it might be following recent technological trends,” says Lee Ju-chul, researcher at the South Korean national broadcasting system KBS. “Throughout the decades there has been little change in the contents [of North Korean television] and there will be little chance for a revolution in TV if there’s no revolution in North Korean politics first,” he said. to Portugal and 3-0 to the Ivory Coast in South Africa.

North Korea Show World Cup Match Live on TV for First Time — for a 7-0 Lose

Jonathan Watts and David Hytner wrote in The Guardian: “Of all the games to choose for a first live broadcast during this World Cup, a 7-0 drubbing was probably the last thing the authorities in North Korea wanted to see. But the isolated, football-loving nation witnessed its team's collapse to Portugal along with the rest of the world today as the state broadcaster, Korean Central Television, showed the entire game, despite a reputation for political caution and face-saving censorship. [Source: Jonathan Watts in Beijing and David Hytner, The Guardian, June 21, 2010]

“Previous games in the tournament – including North Korea's narrow loss to Brazil – were screened several hours after they happened, but visitors to Pyongyang confirmed the country's second Group B match was broadcast in full with no noticeable delay. The country's opening match against Brazil was reportedly not broadcast in full until 17 hours after it finished, and many people already knew the score via newspaper and radio reports. The World Cup draw – shown live across most of the world late last year – was not broadcast in North Korea until weeks later.

“Authorities in Pyongyang have not disclosed their reasons for the earlier delays, but it is likely to be a combination of time differences (the Brazil game was played in the middle of the night in North Korea), technical issues (there is only one channel outside the capital), rights ownership, and censorship (North Korea's media is arguably more tightly controlled than any other in the world).

“Ahead of the live screening there was considerable excitement in North Korea, where football is the most popular sport but most games, even in domestic and foreign leagues, are shown only after a delay of several hours or days. Foreign residents in North Korea said the news of the live broadcast spread like wildfire. "This is significant," said Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which has organised several trips to the isolated nation. "I have seen a lot of games in North Korea and they never show them live. I doubt there has been a letter-writing campaign, but they do seem receptive to the public desire to see live football."”

A week earlier, “the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union – a regional agent for Fifa – announced it would provide free coverage of the tournament so that North Korea's 23 million citizens can get a taste of life outside their homeland. The agreement was reportedly finalised only hours before the start of the tournament, which has given the local broadcaster little time to prepare. At the last World Cup broadcasts were shared by the South Korean rights holder, but relations between the two sides of the peninsula have soured since the sinking of the South Korean ship. Earlier South Korea said it would not provide coverage of the tournament. The political implications are hard to gauge. The heavy loss will certainly have been a blow to a pride-conscious nation, but the realism of many fans about their team's chances may have softened the impact.

Ri Chun Hee: North Korea’s Most Famous News Anchor

Ri Chun Hee is North Korea’s most famous news anchor. She is retired now after serving many years on North Korean state-run television station but is still brought out for important announcements. Matt Stiles wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Her television voice bellows and booms from deep inside, like a trained diva, with a delivery that commands attention. [Source: Matt Stiles, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2017]

Ri, who was born in 1943, “once anchored the state-news network's 8 p.m. broadcast, before retiring around 2012. She has since returned for major announcements, such as the two underground nuclear tests performed in 2016. Her delivery is, one might say, distinctive. It's forceful and operatic, with the tones flowing up and down. Sometimes her shoulders follow along as she reads. Occasionally Ri smiles, her expression a seeming mix of joy and pride. "Whenever I see her, it seems like she's singing instead of broadcasting the news stories," said Peter Kim, an assistant professor at Kookmin University in Seoul who watched the missile announcement.

“Ri, in her recent appearances, has worn a vivid pink Choson-ot, a traditional outfit that pairs a full-length, high-waisted skirt and a cropped, long-sleeved top. It's known as hanbok in South Korea. Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies who studies detailed imagery for clues about North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, calls Ri "our favorite lady in pink."

“Born in Tongchon, a coastal county in southeastern North Korea, Ri began her news — or propaganda, depending on the perspective — career in 1971, after attending the Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts. Little is known about her in the West, other than a few details gleaned from rare interviews that have surfaced over the years. According to a 2008 profile in a North Korean magazine, Ri lives in a modern home with her husband, children and grandchildren in Pyongyang, the capital. At the time, she drove a "luxury" car — a gift from the nation, according to the magazine.

“She also once granted an interview to China Central Television, or CCTV, around the time of her retirement, saying a new generation would succeed her on the air. "I see younger people on television, and they are very beautiful," she said, her jet-black hair pulled back and up in a conservative style. "I realized for television you need to be young and beautiful."

Now When Ri Chun Hee Appears It Must Be Serious

Now when Ri Chun Hee appears on North Korea’s television her the audience knows that something serious is up. Matt Stiles wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Ri “is still the go-to voice for what the government sees as its most-important milestones — events that conversely leave United States and South Korean security officials wringing their hands. Younger anchors don't have the same gravitas, said Nam Sung-wook, a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University in Seoul. "Her voice has strength to it — strong, expressive and also has great charisma to it," he said. "That's why she is qualified to deliver important messages." [Source: Matt Stiles, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2017]

“And on the rare occasions these days when Ri Chun Hee appears on North Korea's state-run news network, the audience knows the looming declaration is serious. The latest broadcast came when Ri — in her raspy, guttural cadence — told the world Tuesday about North Korea's successful test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, a weapon that one day might threaten the U.S. mainland. The launch, she breathlessly announced, demonstrated the "unwithering power of our state."

Ri's three-minute monologue, which helped prompt a flurry of international condemnations, is one of many historic moments in North Korean history the anchor has announced over a decades-long career for Korean Central Television — one of the only places locals can get broadcast news. "It is the very top-level announcements, the ones that North Korea feels particularly proud of and have maximum propaganda value," said Martyn Williams, a writer for the North Korean Tech website who gets the government's broadcasts live via satellite from his San Francisco-area home. "She's the one that goes out and tells the nation and the world."

“Dressed in black, Ri wept before the nation when reading the news that Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founding supreme leader, had died in 1994. She did the same in 2011 when his son and dynastic successor, Kim Jong Il, passed away.Now she's a presence for the third-generation leader, Kim Jong Un, when North Korea violates United Nations resolutions to achieve breakthroughs in its quest to develop nuclear weapons and the world's most-powerful ballistic missiles.”

Ri is likely the most-recognizable news reader in her country — and perhaps the only recognizable one from northeast Asia in Western countries. Her style is so distinctive that it's also invited comedic parodies in both Taiwan and Japan. "She's in that place now that just her presence on television signifies to the North Korean people that this is important, serious news," said Williams, the technology and media writer. "Certainly her appearance is noted overseas as well."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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