- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

For those not accustomed to pronouncements by North Korea’s official news agency, the contrast seemed dizzying.

On Tuesday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) trumpeted the arrival of former President Bill Clinton, noting that he “courteously” conveyed a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from President Obama and held a “wide-ranging exchange of views on matters of common concern.”

Less than two weeks earlier, KCNA derided Mr. Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a “funny lady” who at times “looks like a primary schoolgirl” or “a pensioner going shopping” and makes “vulgar” remarks.

No one, except maybe North Koreans, ever accused KCNA of fairness or objectivity.

But Pyongyang’s official mouthpiece also can provide valuable clues about the secretive, totalitarian state.

For instance, Mr. Clinton clearly received kid-gloves treatment because the North Koreans wanted to portray him as a high-profile U.S. emissary out to make amends for what the North Koreans see as a “hostile” U.S. policy toward the country.

The former president, according to the Obama administration, was on a private visit to secure the release of two jailed American journalists - Euna Lee and Laura Ling - but was greeted at Pyongyang’s airport by North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan.

“The vast majority of [KCNA coverage] is really directed at North Korea’s internal audience,” said Scott A. Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a book on North Korean negotiation strategies. “The primary purpose is a propaganda purpose.”

Similarly, the comments last month about Mrs. Clinton “didn’t come out of a vacuum,” said former CNN Asia correspondent Mike Chinoy.

They showed just how upset North Korean leaders were when Mrs. Clinton compared them a few days earlier to unruly children, he said.

“They take tremendous exception to anything that belittles the system or the leadership,” Mr. Chinoy said.

Calls to the North Korean mission to the United Nations about the verbal jousting with Mrs. Clinton were not returned.

A few days after the “funny lady” comment, KCNA reported that North Korea had rejected the continuation of long-stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear future. Instead, the news agency called for “specific and reserved form of dialogue that can address the current situation” - a euphemism for bilateral talks with the U.S.

Mr. Clinton’s visit is being portrayed as fulfilling that demand - an especially useful point for the regime to make internally during a time of uncertainty over succession to Mr. Kim, who is reported to be gravely ill.

“They have signaled that any future dialogue with the United States is going to be on the basis of two [equal] nuclear powers,” Mr. Chinoy said.

Given what Mr. Chinoy calls the North’s typical “graduation of epithets,” Mrs. Clinton got off easy.

The “funny lady” crack pales in comparison to the words KCNA had for John R. Bolton - “human scum” - when Mr. Bolton served as the George W. Bush administration’s undersecretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation and as he sought to torpedo U.S.-North Korea negotiations. Mr. Bolton, in turn, called life in North Korea a “hellish nightmare.” Mr. Bush, meanwhile, told author Bob Woodward that he “loathed” the North Korean leader for starving his own people. Mr. Bush also called Mr. Kim, who is rather short, a “pygmy.”

The Associated Press, which frequently quotes KCNA, treats KCNA pronouncements as expressions of government policy.

“We check out their claims as best we can and interpret them based on current context and past performance,” the AP said.

But KCNA quotes found in U.S. newspapers don’t usually make it past the “bluster” to the points buried between the lines, Mr. Snyder said.

Ralf Bachmann was the Bonn, Germany, bureau chief for the Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst (ADN), the official news agency for communist East Germany from 1981 to 1986. At the time, Bonn was the capital of West Germany.

Mr. Bachmann said he sees many similarities between North Korea’s news agency and the work he did during the latter days of the Cold War.

“One constantly had to be mindful of the objective,” which was to strengthen the East German government, Mr. Bachmann said.

His coverage had to be cleared by the East German Communist Party’s Central Committee. He recalled that his dispatches would come back unchanged, corrected or not at all.

“Partisanship, back then, was the highest virtue - partisanship in the interest of socialism,” Mr. Bachmann said.

Most of ADN’s coverage was intended for East German publications. As such, Mr. Bachmann said, certain terms - such as “reunification” - and topics - including cars and shopping malls - were off limits.

The same is true for the North Korean news agency, Mr. Snyder said.

Because of the agency’s bias and belligerence, trying to understand North Korea based on KCNA would be like trying to understand the United States based on Hollywood blockbusters, he said.

“There are always elements of truth there,” he said, “but there is a lot of fantasy as well.”

Still, the taunts and boasts may be too colorful for Western media to ignore.

“Apparently, if you’re a journalist,” Mr. Snyder said, “it’s virtually irresistible.”

Betsy Pisik at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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