A mock missile is burned by South Korean protesters. Image by Tomas van Houtryve/VII. Seoul, 2012.
Protesters in Seoul ready the props for their demonstration. Image by Tomas van Houtryve/VII. Seoul, 2012.
The demonstration is mainly for the benefit of the media. Image by Tomas van Houtryve/VII. Seoul, 2012.
A mock-up of a missile used in the Seoul demonstration. Image by Tomas van Houtryve/VII. Seoul, 2012.

At 7:39 a.m. local time, on April 13, 2012, North Korea launched a three-stage long-range rocket.

Within minutes, the United States, South Korea and Japan claimed—nearly in unison—that the rocket had splintered apart and splashed into the sea. These three nations are North Korea's primary sworn enemies, so it would be easy for Pyongyang to brand their claims as false and declare the mission successful. After launches in 1998 and 2009 that failed to attain orbit, the North Koreans did exactly that.

After this launch, the minutes and hours began to tick by. Neither North Korea nor any neutral country with tracking capabilities weighed in with information about the rocket.

Dozens of foreign journalists who had flown in to Pyongyang from around the world—for the extremely rare and expensive privilege of reporting on the rocket launch directly from North Korea—were kept utterly in the dark. On April 8 they had been allowed an exclusive visit to the remote launch pad, but then they were funneled back into the typical Potemkin-merry-go-round tour of Pyongyang's garish monuments, stale museums and performances of idolatry for the Kims.

The correspondents, who were not told about the launch by their minders, were put in the unenviable position of learning about the liftoff from their editors in London and Beijing.

Finally, more than four hours after the launch, North Korea television reported the rocket's liftoff—and much more surprisingly—its failure to attain orbit.

The North Korean government's official admission of such a failure is unprecedented. The rocket launch was meant to be the main attraction of their biggest national celebration in decades, marking the 100th birthday of North Korean's founder, Kim Il-sung.

The importance of keeping face and national pride at this event can hardly be overestimated. When I last visited Pyongyang in 2008, officials were already talking about how important it was to achieve their goal of building a powerful and prosperous nation by 2012 for the Great Leader's anniversary. The underlying myth that keeps the population terrified and obedient in North Korea is the constantly reinforced idea that the country is mercilessly encircled by vicious enemies, and that only the Kim dynasty can save the people from imminent harm with their military genius and god-like powers. The humiliating public failure of the rocket on the same day that Kim Jong-un finished his official transition to power goes a long way to undermining that myth.

Meanwhile, this time I was in Seoul where almost everyone seems completely numb to North Korea's perennial provocations. Imagine living next to neighbors who constantly bang pots and pans together, shake knives at you through their windows and occasionally pelt your roof with eggs. Initially, you might be driven to anger and paranoia. Now imagine that the behavior continues ceaselessly for over 60 years. You'd most likely get used to it and eventually ignore it. Most people here are much more interested in the latest Samsung tablets, Pokemon characters and K-pop bands than North Korea's tantrums.

Yet, when a really big North Korean provocation arises, like a nuclear bomb test or last week’s rocket launch, a small, diehard band of ultra-conservative protesters appears and performs highly theatrical demonstrations.

Most of the protesters who turned out for the launch were elderly men, and many wore embroidered military hats identifying them as Korean War veterans. They said they belonged to a civil society group called "Korean Parents Federation," but they weren't what one would expect to find at a PTA meeting. They arrived at a favored protest spot, a short distance from the U.S. embassy, carrying two gigantic model missiles, a large bag or fireworks, several bottles of kerosene and an effigy of Kim Jung-un.

The protest unrolled in a ritualistic manner, and it was clear that the theatrics were aimed directly at the press. A gaggle of cameramen and photographers, myself included, huddled around the props and protesters in a semi-circle while most of the pedestrian traffic walked by without stopping. Occasionally some of the press photographers shouted directions to the protesters or helped the most frail elderly ones hoist up their sagging placards. (Such gestures of participation will get you fired from most serious western news organizations, but here in Korea it is disturbingly common.)

Finally, everything was in place. As the men chanted, a mock Patriot missile was sent crashing into the fake North Korean rocket, unleashing a spectacular fireball that engulfed and vaporized the effigy of Kim Jong-un.

These South Koreans may not have the same totalitarian pomp as their counterparts across the border, but they seem just as capable at waging the propaganda war.

Project

With the same ruthless skill it uses to keep its population in check, North Korea also keeps journalists in the dark. But much can be learned from the outside looking in.

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