TOKYO—The world is largely relying on North Korean and Russian media for information about the unusual train journey of leader Kim Jong Un to meet with President Vladimir Putin at a space facility.
While news gathering is, to varying degrees, constrained by both authoritarian governments, the coverage by those countries’ respective media this week is providing a window into the neighbors’ unique news environments and how the summit is being presented to people in North Korea and Russia.
The coverage shown to North Koreans is meant, like all media efforts there, to reflect the government’s propaganda needs. The country’s reporters have no higher aim than glorifying Kim for Koreans and the world.
But Kim’s trip to Russia, where foreign and local media have more access and leeway than in Pyongyang, has challenged how the North Korean press portrays one of Kim’s most important diplomatic moves in years.
There are no independent television channels left in Russia since Putin invaded Ukraine, and journalists for Russian state media follow the Kremlin’s line. Although social media is increasingly popular, most of Russia still gets its news from the powerful state television network, which encompasses multiple channels across 11 time zones.
Here, then, is a look at how people in both countries are getting information about a summit of two isolated leaders eager to thumb their noses at Washington and perhaps establish closer military ties with one another.
A sure sign that big news has happened in North Korea is the appearance on state television of the Lady in Pink, as she’s sometimes called by outside observers because of her penchant for pink traditional Korean hanbok dresses.
Sure enough, Ri Chun Hi appeared on TV this week to present, in a booming voice resonant with emotion and pride, Kim’s departure from Pyongyang on his green and yellow armored train.
Ri is an institution in North Korea—Kim rewarded her with a luxury home for her decades of work.
She appeared on TV to announce the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, to describe Kim Jong Un’s summits with Donald Trump, and for coverage of big weapons tests over the years as the country built a nuclear program.
“Senior officials sincerely wished him good health and a successful foreign visit,” Ri declared Tuesday, as the broadcast showed still cuts of Kim walking past honor guards and shaking the hands of senior officials in a lavish sendoff at a Pyongyang train station.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), meanwhile, has taken a circumspect approach to Kim’s Russia visit. Even on a slow day, KCNA sometimes puts out dozens of dispatches, in Korean and English, chronicling Kim’s every move in public.
For the Russia trip, however, there have only been a handful of carefully packaged stories, appearing sometimes a day after the events.
Reporting on Kim’s departure from Pyongyang, KCNA wrote in an English translation that the “Respected Comrade,” as he’s invariably described, “wished the Pyongyang citizens and all other people of the country well-being and successes in their work as a token of his warm farewell to them” and then left the city “amid a warm send-off.”
Kim’s arrival in the Russian border city of Khasan was later described in a longer story that carefully noted the honor guard, military band and envoys who welcomed him. He was said to have “extended best wishes to the president, government, army and people of the Russian Federation.”
The Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper, which mainly targets a domestic audience, published about 20 photos on Tuesday and Wednesday showing Kim’s departure from Pyongyang and his arrival in Khasan.
North Korea is very serious about glorifying and maintaining the dignity of Kim, and the Russians have cooperated thus far, with Putin personally accompanying him on a tour of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
The danger for North Korean media, however, is the unpredictable nature of a foreign summit. As much as it might want to, North Korea cannot control every aspect of what happens abroad.
Luckily, Kim seems to enjoy appearing in public on his rare travels outside his nation. In Singapore, for example, during the summit to meet Trump, he walked among crowds and toured skyscrapers.
And for anything that goes off script this time in Russia, North Korea’s propaganda officers can always rely on the day-long delay in publishing the news so they can craft the appropriate narrative before presenting it to the people at home.
Although Russian state television was rather muted Tuesday when Kim’s train rolled into Russia, TV channels broke into scheduled news reports Wednesday to show photos of Putin meeting Kim at the space launch facility.
Russian state TV typically covers Putin’s every public move, but instead of the usual images of Putin meeting regional officials or berating government ministers, viewers watched as Putin greeted Kim with a 40-second handshake and then toured Putin’s pet project, the cosmodrome.
Before the visit, Russian state wire service RIA Novosti suggested that “the world is watching with bated breath,” accompanied by screenshots of headlines from around the globe. A pundit on a top Russian TV show could be seen questioning how the North Korean economy and political system is “so successful.”
Reporters from Russian state media get access to Putin and the Kremlin that no western journalist could dream of, and it was through them that details of Kim and Putin’s meeting trickled out.
A state television news anchor told Russians that the leaders’ meeting lasted at least five hours, and Russian state wire service TASS reported on the menu for their working lunch—dumplings with Kamchatka crab.
But there was scant mention of the real reason for the visit. Analysts suspect Putin invited Kim to visit Russia to make a deal—North Korean weapons to fuel Putin’s war in Ukraine, in exchange for technology.
TV host Pavel Zarubin regularly gets up-close access to the Russian president, and Putin’s meeting with Kim was no exception. Zarubin posted a video on his Telegram channel Wednesday of Putin apparently waving goodbye to Kim while surrounded by multiple bodyguards.
Putin was smiling and looked pleased; perhaps he got what he wanted from the visit.