North Koreans woke up to news on Monday that their leader, Kim Jong Un, had arrived in Singapore for a landmark summit with US President Donald Trump.
Famed North Korean news anchor Ri Chun Hee informed the nation that Kim had landed, declaring the summit was a “historical first” that is “garnering the attention and hopes of the entire world.”
North Koreans gathered outside a train station in the capital, Pyongyang, to watch news of the summit broadcast on a large screen. Crowds looked on as images aired of Kim disembarking from the Air China flight and shaking hands with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday.
State-run Korean Central News Agency, KCNA, described the talks as “wide-ranging and profound,” adding that the two leaders would focus on establishing new DPRK-US relations, “durable peacekeeping” and denuclearization, among other things. An identical report ran on the front page of state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun, accompanying an editorial that discussed establishing “fair” international relations.
KCNA reported on Kim Jong Un’s nighttime tour of downtown Singapore on Monday night.
Camera crews captured images of Kim and his entourage entering the Marina Bay Sands, a hotel and entertainment mecca with an infinity pool, lookout point and the Ce La Vi bar and restaurant on the skyscraper’s rooftop.
He got “a nocturnal bird’s-eye view” of the city-state from the Marina Bay Sands building’s observation platform and received a briefing “about the social and economic development” of Singapore, KCNA reported.
Reporting from KCNA – the government mouthpiece famous for publishing threats to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire” – is likely the first time ordinary North Koreans received details about the aims of the Trump-Kim summit, which was previously announced in a KCNA wire in May.
The North Korean government tightly controls the flow of information inside the country, and average citizens are often severely punished for consuming media not sanctioned by Pyongyang, according to defectors.
The speed at which state media reported on Kim’s arrival was a departure from previous coverage of Kim’s summits with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and China’s president, Xi Jinping, which received coverage only after they had ended.
Undoing decades of propaganda
The United States and North Korea may be on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough, but among the many other difficulties in the way of improved relations is how to undo decades of propaganda that has taught North Koreans that Americans are their natural enemy and a constant threat.
Hatred of the United States can often seem like an integral part of North Korean life, along with loyalty to the Kim family and support for the country’s nuclear program.
At the Panmun Souvenir Shop on the northern side of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, mere yards from where Kim and South Korean President Moon met in April, there is an extensive selection of propaganda posters and postcards decrying the “US Imperialists.”
“We will crush the US attempts for a nuclear war,” read one seen during a visit to the shop last year. Another said, “To the US hardline, we will counter with the ultra hardline.”
For 65 years, North Koreans have been fed a narrative pushed by their government that Washington, not Pyongyang, started the Korean War, and continues to harbor a desire to conquer the country.
Hatred of the United States is helped by the very real memories among older North Koreans of the brutal bombing campaign waged against their country by the United States during the Korean War, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and cities leveled between June 1950 and July 1953.
US planes dropped approximately 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea (more in three years than they did in the entire Pacific theater of World War II), including 32,000 tons of napalm, according to historian Charles Armstrong.
The war, which ultimately led to the division of the Korean Peninsula, saw communist North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and later China, pitted against South Korea, backed by the United States and a broader UN-led collation.
“The bombing is treated as the American original sin in (North Korean) propaganda and it certainly was savage,” Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea’s Pusan National University, told CNN last year. “It’s become a political tool to justify the permanent emergency state.”
This is perpetuated by the fact no formal peace treaty was ever signed between North and South Korea when hostilities ceased in 1953, and technically, the peninsula remains at war.
The threat of a renewed bombing campaign, this time with nuclear weapons, is seen as a key justification for Pyongyang’s own nuclear program.
In recent years, the Kim regime has also pointed to the fate of countries such as Libya and Iraq as a reason to build up a strong deterrent.
What propaganda tells us about North Korea
Doing the impossible
While the US government bears responsibility for its actions during the Korean War, and for decades of matching every rattle of Pyongyang’s sabers, North Koreans receive a one-sided view of events.
During a recent visit to North Hwanghae province, CNN spoke to a 38-year-old farmer who said she wanted to visit the United States to see what the country that is “harassing Korean people so much (and) sanctioning our economy” looks like up close.
“What grudge is there between Korea and the US? They invaded our country and massacred us,” said the farmer, named Yun Myong Gum. “Why do you think we are suffering now? I really curse the Americans and want to destroy their land.”
Despite this anger, Yun, like most of her countrymen, was friendly and welcoming.
“We don’t think of American people badly, we just condemn its government,” she said.
But it’s that very government that Pyongyang is about to sit down with, and, potentially, to make a deal regarding the regime’s precious nuclear weapons.
This would have seemed impossible just six months ago, when Pyongyang sales assistant Pak Son Ok told CNN that Kim would never sit down with Trump.
“That meeting cannot happen and will not happen,” she said. “Because our Marshal promised to deal with that deranged lunatic with fire.”
CNN’s Tim Schwarz and Will Ripley in Singapore, Josh Berlinger in Hong Kong and Joe Sterling in Atlanta contributed reporting.