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North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun more popular than Singapore’s Straits Times

The Straits Times published a news report saying that it "continues to be Singapore's best read newspaper".

Quoting the latest annual Singapore Media Index Report released by Nielsen, ST said that 29.8 per cent of Singapore residents aged 15 and above read ST everyday. "It marks a percentage point improvement from last year," ST proudly proclaimed.

However, when compared with North Korea's official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, the Rodong Sinmun, ST's figure paled. Almost everyone in North Korea reads the Rodong Sinmun one way or another.

According to NK News, a specialist information source that focuses on North Korea, each workplace has a cell organization led by a 'cell secretary'. Each cell consists of about 10 people who are party members. The paper Rodong Sinmun is delivered to all the cell secretaries.

A defector told NK News that the paper officially should be read on a daily basis, but people don’t. "It is read about once in a week. Cell secretaries read it first and deliver the stories to the people, but sometimes a worker responsible for propaganda does it instead,” the defector said.

“When there is an important issue, all the workers at the factory used to read it together, for 30 minutes in the morning,” another defector added.

And in schools, there is a practice called "dokbo", reading important news articles, which is conducted at school every morning.

The Rodong Sinmun is also hung at the newstands in train stations for people to read.

Many people said it would be easier to read Rodong Sinmun in Pyongyang, as all of the papers are printed there and delivered to other regions via a "train". This indicates that Pyongyang and some large cities, well-connected by train, are much more reachable for the paper. The rural areas may get the paper later if trains are delayed, considering the poor quality of railroads in North Korea.

Boring newspaper popular among North Koreans

On Rodong Sinmun, pages and pages of Rodong Sinmun are devoted to the veneration of the leader and documenting his activities, followed by criticism of his rivals in South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, along with praise the leader/party/North Korean people have received from a foreign delegation, with some of the scientific achievements of the North thrown in.

The paper may sound boring but it is actually quite popular with North Koreans.

A defector said North Koreans read the newspaper eagerly, because it is the only route to grasp outside news, and it is difficult to watch TV due to the lack of the electricity. "Page 1, 2 and 3, reporting about Kim Jong Il’s activities, are not interesting, however, page 4 about domestic news, page 5 about South Korean news, and page 6 about international news cover different news daily,” he added.

Regarding whether they believe in the information from the Rodong Sinmun, people indicated mixed opinions.

The defector said North Koreans can understand the hidden facts behind the text. "Even though the paper is propagating the negative aspects of South Korean society and capitalism, I could feel the 'joy of living' when reading the paper," he said, adding that North Koreans often analyze the articles in reverse.

"For example, the Rodong reports that the 'South Korean puppet government sentenced (someone) to one year in jail for admiring our general on the Internet'. Then, North Koreans think, 'We would be executed by firing squad if we admired the South Korean president. What a good society!'"

But a young defector told NK News, "In South Korea, we can compare the Hankyoreh and Chosun Ilbo, which is so interesting. However, in North Korea reading the newspaper was not entertaining at all. The paper was full of praising and with revolutionary intonation. People just read it to kill time, nobody reads it seriously."

Newspaper a valuable commodity in North Korea

So where do the papers go after people finish reading?

A defector described how to use the paper as a toilet paper, tobacco paper and wallpaper.

"Originally, people should return this paper to the publication supply base, but people rarely do and instead sell it at the jangmadang (market)," he said. He said one week of the Rodong Sinmun papers has about the same value as one kilogram of corn, and one piece of Rodong Sinmun paper can make 40-50 tobacco sticks.

"Once he starts to smoke the Rodong Sinmun tobacco, he cannot smoke other kinds of tobacco. I used to smoke the Rodong Sinmun tobacco, and after defection, couldn’t smoke with Chinese paper tobacco due to the poor taste."

However, there is one strict rule on recycling: Papers including the North Korean leaders’ pictures should not be used for other purposes.

Rodong Sinmun staff are privileged

Just like SPH staff especially the higher echolon ones, the life of a Rodong Sinmun staffer is highly secure and privileged.

"The provision to the journalists is allegedly better than artists and actors, the people who are treated very well," a defector said.

In SPH, ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line.

In fact, they have all been vetted to ensure their pro-government leanings.

The current CEO of SPH is a SAF Scholar who is paid about $3 million a year.