When heavy rainfall swept across South Korea in July and Typhoon Khanun landed on the Korean Peninsula in August, the nation’s broadcasting companies including KBS, the major provider of disaster coverage, shifted to special-report mode and organized disaster-related programs.
In times of disaster, the role of the media is highly important, as they may contribute to reducing damage by informing the public of the risks of the disaster as quickly and precisely as possible, analyzing its cause and finding a solution. How about North Korea?
Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s disaster broadcasting from Seo So-young, research fellow at the Korea Information Society Development Institute.
When the monsoon rain hit North Korea on June 26, North Korean media reported that the rainy season had started. The State Hydro-Meteorological Administration, which is equivalent to the Korea Meteorological Administration in South Korea, noted the erratic movement of the seasonal rain front and stressed the importance of preparatory measures.
When Typhoon Khanun, the sixth typhoon of the season, hit the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula on August 10, North Korea delivered the news in a regular report at 8 p.m. And it aired overnight weather forecasts for the typhoon until 9 a.m. the following day on 18 occasions.
Compared to previous years, North Korea’s typhoon-related news programs have been scaled back this year. From May to July, North Korean media analyzed the risks of El Nino and gave major coverage to global warming. During the same period of last year, the country organized broadcast programs about typhoons and special reports about disaster prevention on multiple occasions. This year, however, the North simply re-aired El Nino-related programs.
2023 is the final year of North Korea’s five-year economic development plan. Given its current situation, the country finds it difficult to produce results of the plan. To ease the negative public sentiment, North Korea tends to underreport the damage from typhoons.
Disaster broadcasting plays a role in delivering the news about the damage inflicted by disasters promptly and accurately, providing emergency instructions and information needed for rescue and recovery, and informing the public of proactive measures to reduce potential damage. Until a few years ago, it was hard to find disaster broadcasting in North Korea.
The 1995 flood was so devastating that North Korea claimed “the worst flood in 100 years.” At the time, South Korea’s KBS covered the story.
Heavy downpours caused huge damage in North Korea. Local media, in an unusual move, delivered the news about rain-related damage, urging the public to provide relief goods to victims.
The massive flood killed 68 citizens and affected five-point-two million people, causing property damage worth 15 billion US dollars. On a very rare occasion, North Korean media disclosed the extent of the damage in detail.
It seems that North Korea released the flood damage to the media in order to ask the international community to provide humanitarian aid, rather than to prevent damage and respond effectively to disasters. After the flood, the North set up the Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee under the Foreign Ministry and reorganized the State Hydro-Meteorological Administration, which had been under the National Environmental Protection Committee, as an independent agency.
In fact, North Korean media and broadcasting did not play an important role when disasters occurred. In 2016, Typhoon Lionrock, the tenth typhoon of the year, caused severe damage to North Korea, which said that the precipitation was the record high in the history of the country’s meteorological surveys. When the typhoon was moving northward in late August that year, the state-run Korean Central Television simply warned about the potential damage from strong winds and heavy rains during the weather report at the end of its news program. Only when the nation came under the direct influence of the typhoon on August 29, the state TV delivered the news about torrential rains, a windstorm and high waves, while calling for preventative measures.
At the time, North Korea’s weather forecasting system was quite inaccurate. The country had little experience about reporting disasters, and it had few, if any, opportunities to convey disaster-related information to the public. When it comes to disaster prevention and response, relevant infrastructure was inadequate. If the people were aware of this realistic problem, along with the failure in disaster management, it would pose a burden on the top leader and the party. That’s why disaster broadcasting failed to play a desired role at the time. Rather, North Korea focused on post-disaster recovery work and showed the public how the state and the party overcame the hardship so it could create a favorable social atmosphere.
It seems North Korea attempted disaster broadcasting at the basic level in 2019, when Typhoon Lingling passed through the Korean Peninsula.
At the time, roads were flooded and street trees fell down in Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province. Leader Kim Jong-un, in a rare move, convened an emergency meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party to prepare for the possible impact of the typhoon.
Afterwards, not only cities and farming villages but all industrial sectors in North Korea made sure to prepare well against typhoons. The media, meanwhile, carried out disaster broadcasting to explain in detail the projected course and the intensity of typhoons.
The North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi in February 2019 ended in failure. Worse yet, international pressure and sanctions deteriorated North Korea’s economic difficulties. Against the backdrop, North Korean media showed leader Kim Jong-un taking great care of his people through disaster broadcasting, in an apparent move to create a favorable atmosphere and prevent the economic sanctions and difficulties from deteriorating public sentiment.
North Korea’s disaster broadcasting at the time was at the rudimentary level, compared to South Korea’s. Newscasters and experts at the national meteorological service appeared on TV for weather forecasts in the form of breaking news. The TV programs had no official title and they simply explained the movement of the typhoons and precipitation.
In 2020, North Korea’s disaster broadcasting began to take concrete shape, featuring special reports and breaking news reported from the scene of the disaster. That year, the rainy season started in late July. From early July, local media provided information about the monsoon season and some regional measures to prevent damage during their 8 p.m. news programs. In addition, they produced and aired separate programs about the rainy season. A new corner called “State Hydro-Meteorological Administration Notice” was aired as an official program. The media actively used visual effect technologies such as computer graphics, weather charts and text graphics. The format of the programs diversified, with a weather forecaster visiting the state weather agency to interview an expert.
From late August in 2020, North Korea was hit by three typhoons back to back, such as Bavi, Maysak and Haishen. The media organized special programs and briefed the audience on the typhoon situation by the hour through special reports. Reporters delivered the news about the current conditions or developments of the typhoons in front of violent winds and waves.
The reporters did not hesitate to enter flooded roads.
And those scenes were aired across North Korea in almost real time.
North Korea’s disaster broadcasting became full-fledged in 2020. Typhoon Bavi was approaching the Korean Peninsula in August that year. North Korea kept local residents updated on the typhoon, from the time when it stayed around South Korea’s southern island of Jeju until North Korea was out of the typhoon’s influence. At the time, the media aired rare overnight weather forecasts and explained in depth how the situation changed in different regions in line with the movement of the typhoon.
North Korea covered the news about Typhoon Maysak even more systematically. The broadcast studio, the State Hydro-Meteorological Administration and the reporter dispatched to the scene were all connected to inform the public of the typhoon’s course, which changed from moment to moment. In the middle of the night and in the early hours of the morning, the media aired feature-length art films dealing the theme of disasters, in an effort to raise public awareness of disasters.
At the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party in January 2021, leader Kim Jong-un stressed the need for a national disaster prevention and risk management system to protect people’s lives and ensure their safety. From May that year, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper consistently mentioned the need to devise preemptive measures to cope with catastrophic abnormal climate patterns, in preparation of natural disasters that mostly occur between July and September. The Korean Central Television also organized new programs for a potential intense heat and drought.
In this way, North Korean media routinely provided weather information and aired disaster-related programs in 2021 to respond more effectively to various weather-related disasters.
In 2021, North Korea’s disaster broadcasting became similar to South Korea’s. Interestingly, interviews of flood victims, with subtitles, were included in the program to add realism. That shows a contrast to the previous format, where journalists were sent to the scene to report the disaster. Also from 2021, weather forecasts were linked with some useful tips for farming, such as the expected time for heavy rain.
When North Korea moved out of the influence of Typhoon Khanun on August 12, the Rodong Sinmun said that the people were able to get over the difficulty once again. The paper brought to light some episodes in different regions that made an all-out effort to prepare against the typhoon.
On August 14, there were reports that leader Kim Jong-un inspected a flood-hit area in Anbyon County in Kangwon Province to call for efforts toward recovery work. It seems the reports are aimed at highlighting the top leader’s dedication to his people and strengthening internal unity. Actually, this is one of the characteristics of North Korea’s disaster broadcasting.
Unlike South Korea, North Korea does not reveal the number of deaths from disasters. It does not unveil flood-hit areas that were extremely devastated, either. Until 2021, North Korea paid keen attention to the reliability of information. But this year, I think North Korea’s disaster broadcasting will be focused more on publicizing how effectively the country prevents disasters and how well the state systems work for that purpose.
According to a report released in late August by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, about 51 million people in North Korea have been affected by natural disasters such as floods and droughts during the period between 1991 and 2020. The report titled “The Review of Disaster Riskscape of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” also says that the country have suffered a lot of casualties every year due to natural disasters.
We hope North Korea’s disaster broadcasting will contribute to protecting the lives, safety and property of local citizens.