Public communication as a foreign policy tool: lessons for Japan from Iran and North Korea
Japan should follow the lead of countries like Iran, North Korea, China and Russia in designing a unified multilingual news portal as a “diplomacy tool”, says former foreign ministry analyst Satō Masaru.
How can Japan improve its use of global public communication as a foreign relations tool? One way may be to learn from governments that, out of necessity, relies heavily on this diplomatic tool. Internationally isolated countries like Iran and North Korea place particular emphasis on state-sponsored public communications and invest considerable resources in providing multilingual information aligned with specific strategic objectives. Their aim is quite simply to convey their views to the rest of the world and to make official information easily accessible to decision makers and opinion leaders abroad, including government officials, influential politicians and journalists.
Praise for state-controlled news sites
Pars Today is a news and commentary website operated by the state-controlled Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB. It has sister sites in over 20 languages, providing information in English, Chinese, Hindi, and Japanese, as well as Persian. The content includes not only national news, but also detailed coverage of the Middle East as a whole, as well as important developments in key countries like the United States and Israel. It also provides an overview of world news in the form of clips from Western media.
North Korea has an information portal called Naenara (Korean for “my country”) that offers content in nine languages, including Chinese, English and Japanese, as well as Korean. As with Iran’s Pars Today, this impressive multilingualism reflects the injection of government resources.
An important point to note about Naenara is that the different multilingual editions are not identical in their content. From the wide-ranging news and commentary on the Korean site, editors select and prioritize items of interest or relevant to the hypothetical readership of each foreign language edition. Thus, the Japanese site highlights elements relating to the Tokyo-Pyongyang relations and the ongoing controversies surrounding the past Japanese aggression, while the Russian site naturally focuses on the relations between North Korea and Russia. A certain political calculation undoubtedly enters into this assembly.
From top to bottom
Another important function of both sites is to publish the full text of the statements of the political leaders of the countries. Naenara, for example, carries the full text of all of Kim Jong-un’s major speeches as well as his remarks at summit conferences and similar events. While the average reader can do without such detailed information, it is extremely useful for diplomats, foreign policy officials, and other experts seeking to understand North Korea’s intentions.
It can be noted that when Prime Minister Abe Shinzō visited Iran and spoke with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in June 2019, Pars Today reported on the results of the talks in great detail and gave a published the information before the Japanese media. The driving force in this case was clearly the political goal of ensuring that governments around the world receive Khamenei’s political message exactly as intended.
Of course, in the case of Iran, there is also the religious component to consider; some departments of Pars Today are clearly concerned with the spread of Islamic doctrine. But when it comes to political news, the content seems strongly geared towards policy makers and opinion leaders in the target countries.
In this sense, Iranian and North Korean news sites differ in their intent from traditional instruments of mass propaganda like Radio Moscow of the former Soviet Union, which primarily aimed to influence public opinion around the world. Iran and North Korea appear to use their news websites as a foreign policy tool, targeting their message to a fairly small group of policy makers and opinion leaders. It is undoubtedly because their official diplomatic channels are severely limited that they attach such importance to strategic public communication.
English is not enough
It could be argued that a sister site in English should suffice if the information is geared towards connoisseurs. I do not agree. The point is that information provided in English is not universally accessible to opinion leaders and policy makers in non-English speaking countries. “Internationalists” can be proud of their fluency in English, but there are many powerful leaders at the national level in countries all over the world – Japan being just one example – who read nothing that isn’t. in their mother tongue. This also applies to journalists; if one wishes to reach journalists and commentators covering domestic politics (not just journalists from international and foreign language sections), there is a lot to be said for publishing information in the native language of the target country. More fundamentally, information in one’s mother tongue is simply easier and faster to assimilate, regardless of one’s level of education or expertise. This is, I believe, the reason why North Korea and Iran go to the trouble of translating their news sites into so many different languages.
Of course, Japan is not an internationally isolated country like North Korea or Iran. But that does not mean that he can afford to neglect public communication as a tool for external relations. On the contrary, I see an urgent need for Japan to strengthen its ability to communicate clearly and coherently with the world in order to advance its strategic interests amid the harsh realities of international affairs.
The Japanese government’s current approach to global public communication lacks unity and strategic focus. Instead of a single portal, the government has separate official websites for the Prime Minister and his cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, etc. Most of these agencies also have English pages that translate some of the information from the Japanese website, but there is no coordination or oversight from the central government. When it comes to communicating with the international community, a cohesive and unified message is essential.
The governments of Iran and North Korea use Pars Today and Naenara to convey their official positions. Likewise, it is usually possible to glean the government’s position on various issues from People.cn in China and Sputnik in Russia. It seems to me that Japan would also benefit from an internet portal that adapts to the government’s position while providing multifaceted information on a wide range of topics. Needless to say, public funds would be needed to support the multilingual translation, editing and administration of the website.
I believe that global public communications targeting opinion leaders in government and the media will play an increasingly important role in international politics in the years to come. The Japanese government needs to make better use of today’s digital technology to unify, clarify and amplify the messages it wants to send to the rest of the world.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Screenshots from the front pages of Pars Today (left) and Naenara.)