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North Korea cracks down on use of propaganda publication as scrap paper

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Yonhap News/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
August 09, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea is cracking down on its citizens using propaganda newspapers as scrap paper, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.

Merchants in the marketplace need paper to wrap the goods they sell, wallpaper installers use it to plaster a layer of filler, and tobacco vendors even use it to roll cigarettes. 

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, which features news about the activities of leader Kim Jong Un, propaganda essays on the merits of socialism, and the government’s spin on world events, is printed on relatively high quality paper, and is therefore the best source for scrap.

The government, however, says it is disrespectful to use images of Kim Jong Un in scrap paper and mandates that old issues of the Rodong Sinmun get recycled. That hasn’t stopped the people from selling yesterday’s edition in the marketplace, though.    

“It costs a little more than regular scrap paper,” a resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service, adding that it is a better alternative to the used notebooks and other sources of rough paper made from rice straw or corn stalks.

“The Rodong Sinmun is high-quality, so it can be bought for 5,000 won (US$0.60) per kilogram (2.2 lbs),” she said. “Regular scrap paper is sold at 2,000 won ($0.24) per kilo, and low grade paper at 1,000 won ($0.12).”

But the authorities are now cracking down on sales of the newspaper in the marketplace this month, the resident said.

“The Rodong Sinmun advertises the activities of the Highest Dignity,” she said, using an honorific term for Kim Jong Un. “On the 5th, two traders secretly sold old copies of the Rodong Sinmun to a rice cake vendor and a cigarette vendor in the marketplace. They were caught by a police officer in civilian clothes and sent to a detention center.” 

The two will likely face harsh sentences for their alleged disrespect of the country’s leadership, the resident said.

“A police officer I know very well told me that [they] will be sent to a disciplinary labor center for one or two years because the authorities charged them with the crime of reselling the party’s newspaper, an anti-socialist act.”

‘In high demand’

The six-page Rodong Sinmun newspaper is published in Pyongyang every day and distributed throughout the country via local publication centers in each city and county. RFA was not able to confirm the current daily circulation of the newspaper, but in 2015 reported that Kim Jong Un ordered production and distribution of 600,000 copies per day.

Readers are urged to recycle the newspaper when they are finished reading it. The employees who deliver it collect old papers once per month, and send them to the factory to be pulped and remade into paper that will be printed with the latest edition of the Rodong Sinmun. 

It is during the recycling step that entrepreneurial newspaper deliverers can take a few old copies and sell them for scrap in the marketplace, a resident of North Hwanghae province, south of Pyongyang, told RFA.

“The Rodong Sinmun is in high demand for wallpaper installation, and for individually wrapping bread, rice cakes, and candy,” he said. “Many men buy it for tobacco paper, but recently it has disappeared due to a crackdown by the authorities.”

Authorities are trying to discover who originally sold old copies of the paper to the vendors in the Sariwon marketplace, so they are investigating the workers who distribute it when it is published, the North Hwanghae resident said.

“There are about 10 people who distribute and collect the Rodong Sinmun at the publication center in Sariwon, but it is not yet known which, if any of them, will be caught in the investigation,” he said. “Nobody reads the Rodong Sinmun because it is full of lies and propaganda.”