Thursday, July 14, 2011

North Korea's incredible typo-free reporting

As a professional copy-editor, I was intrigued by this recent article on Ju Sung Ha's excellent blog, 북한RT (North Korea Real Talk), on the subject of why copy-editing is such a dangerous job in North Korea.  Ju Sung Ha is a North Korean defector and a reporter for the Donga Ilbo, so he knows what he is talking about on this subject. I decided to translate the article here for your enjoyment. (If there is an interest in this sort of thing, I may translate more of such articles when I have time to spare).

North Korea's secret to error-free newspapers?
By Ju Sung Ha 2011/07/13

Of all the world's newspapers, which one is has the fewest typographical errors?

Of course it is impossible for one person to check all the newspapers in the world, but if this question were put to me I would unhesitatingly reply "North Korea's Rodong Shinmun."


The reason for this is that few other newspapers in the world undergo as many phases of proofreading as the Rodong Shinmun.

The reason I say there are "few" rather than "none" is that, as explained above, I am unable to survey every newspaper in the world. I don't know, China's People's Daily may also have a very thorough copy-editing system.

However clearly North Korea has the strictest standard of punishment in the event that a mistake goes uncorrected. If an editor mistakenly allows an error in an article about Kim Jong Il to go through, he or she is sent off straightaway for "revolutionary re-education (혁명화)."

"Revolutionary re-education" means strenuous manual labor at a work camp; in other words, they get demoted from a fairly comfortable office job to menial labor or farm work. In some cases they are eventually reinstated, but most of them live out the rest of their lives as poor farm workers.

One defector who had worked at a publishing company in North Korea reports of a patricularly glaring incident in which "Kim Il Sung Wonsunim" (Great Leader Kim Il Sung) was mistakenly written "Kim Il Sung Wonssunim." In the North Korean dialect a "wonssu" is someone against whom one has a serious grudge due to some past injury. Luckily the error was discovered just before printing and disaster was averted.

Another time a smaller newspaper printed "Rodong Shinmun" as "Rodong Shinshin." As a result the editor-in-chief was sent off for six months of revolutionary re-education.

Since even small newspapers are subjected to this level of punishment, it's fair to say that a mistake in the Rodong Shinmun would be tantamount to disaster. In that paper it is hard to find even the simple spacing errors that are common in South Korean newspapers, much less any typographical errors.

It would be fair to consider North Korean newspapers as reference materials for the correct rendering of North Korean language. Not only newspapers but magazines and other printed materials also undergo an equally rigorous editing process.

South Korean newspapers generally undergo four stages of editing. First the reporter edits his or her own work, then it passes across the desks of the senior editor and the department head. Finally a team of Korean language experts give the article a final look before publication. Even after passing through all four steps, when the article appears in the next day's paper mistakes are quickly discovered.

The Rodong Shinmun's proofreading system requires several additional levels of editing beyond what is done at South Korean newspapers. First, the printing room has its own editing team. Articles continue to undergo editing after being sent to the printing room.


If an error is discovered during printing the presses are stopped. The persons in charge of each phase of editing are specifically named, so if an error is discovered those persons are directly held accountable in deciding where to impose punishment.

At a South Korean newspaper, whenever the presses are stopped to correct an error several million won are lost. Therefore, unless an extremely urgent article must be inserted or a serious mistake is found, it is prohibitively expensive to do so. If millions of won were wasted just to correct one small error, there would be hell to pay.

But North Korean newspapers have no such consideration. If an error is discovered the presses are stopped, without exception. The printing room editing process is not the end.
After the newspaper is printed it is reviewed once again. This process is called post-review. If a mistake is discovered in post-review, the hundreds of thousands of already printed papers are all scrapped and the paper is re-printed.

In the case of foreign-language materials that are sent abroad for propaganda purposes, there was one instance reported by several defectors in which a mistake was discovered after the materials had been delivered to North Korean embassies in various countries; a huge shipping bill was paid to have all the copies sent back to North Korea.

Such things are possible only in North Korea. They are only possible if one views the purpose of the press as propaganda rather than journalism. It is only in North Korea, where even the smallest error is unforgivable if it relates to the prestige and dignity of the leader, and where the value of propaganda is not calculated in terms of money, that such a system can exist.

There is another secret to North Korean newspapers' error-free record; namely, a production system with very few pages, many reporters, and no pressure to meet deadlines. The Rodong Shinmun prints just six sheets per day.

By contrast, the major South Korean newspapers typically average 50 sheets per day. Even considering the space in South Korean newspapers taken up by advertising, the amount of content in the Rodong Shinmun is dramatically less. The other North Korean newspapers print only 4 sheets.

Yet the Rodong Shinmun employs about 600 reporters and editors. Considering that the editorial departments of the major South Korean newspapers each employ only about 300 people, this is a remarkable number. Therefore even those who are employed as reporters for the Rodong Shinmun still may only rarely get their articles published.

On top of this, the Rodong Shinmun also has several hundred "Rodong correspondents" stationed in various parts of the country who also contribute articles. While these people are not official Rodong Shinmun reporters, they send in local interest stories and such in their spare time in addition to their regular jobs. They are "correspondents" in a very literal sense.

A Rodong correspondent might publish an article once a year. Those of exceptional talent who get published more frequently stand out conspicuously from the rest.

These articles are generally stories about how well local officials are doing their jobs; therefore those correspondents who get published frequently must have the trust of local officials.

In the 1990s a correspondent from a farm in Dancheon City published 3~4 articles in one year; this when some others might go for years without publishing anything.

There are many days when Rodong Shinmun receives propaganda materials from the Central Party Propaganda Department which cover several sheets. Furthermore, because they have no competitors, there is seldom any pressure to get breaking news out quickly.

Thus reporters are able to spend several days revising and cleaning up their articles. In such an environment, is it any wonder that errors are such a rarity?
 
The other North Korean newspapers also have many reporters and few sheets to produce. Furthermore, of the four sheets that these other papers produce generally two of them are filled by articles or materials sent out by the Rodong Shinmun. Thus the rate of error is even further reduced.

Nevertheless, as long as editing is done by humans some errors will inevitably get through. When I was living in the North I recall seeing errors in the Rodong Shinmun once or twice.

But so what if North Korea's newspapers are free of typos? It is a thousand times more important for a newspaper to communicate the news every day without manipulation, even if it is full of typographical errors.

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