By Andrew Jeong 

SEOUL -- Kim Jong Un's propagandists have embraced a new calling: social-media influencing.

North Korean propaganda has long struck a familiar chord, spewing vitriol toward imperialist outsiders and fawning over the ruling Kim family's achievements. But Pyongyang's image makers are now peddling a softer image of the Kim regime, which is best known for being nuclear-armed, reclusive and impoverished.

The makeover attempts surfaced last month, when, in an unusual tactic, separate Twitter accounts appeared bearing the names of two Pyongyang bureaucrats: Kim Myong Il, a negotiator who appeared at 2018 inter-Korean talks, and Han Song Il, of a Pyongyang institute considered to be a propaganda agency. The posts -- in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean -- depicted everyday life.

"It's finally kimchi season," the account bearing Mr. Kim's name tweeted on Nov. 11. "Just thinking about our healthy and tasty kimchi makes my mouth water."

Days before North Korea's Mother's Day on Nov. 16, a tweet on the account read, "Mother, much love and respect to you."

Then late last month, both accounts were abruptly taken down. Twitter Inc. declined to comment.

It is most likely that North Korean propagandists, rather than Messrs. Han and Kim directly, did the tweeting, say close watchers of Pyongyang's internet activities. But the regime must have had signoff, they say, based on the access inside the country, as shown in their uploaded photos.

Few North Koreans can access the outside world's internet, with officials able to monitor users' every activity and confiscate devices at will.

As far back as 2014, Kim Jong Un implored his propagandists to more frequently use the internet for propaganda. But the campaigns drummed the typical beats.

More recently, Pyongyang's propagandists used the internet to emphasize its finer points. North Korea watchers say the country, more isolated than ever, likely wants to recast itself as a regular place, undeserving of economic sanctions that have held back progress.

This week, a North Korean propaganda website, tongilmeari, tweeted out what it said were first-person accounts from its reporters. The tweets were similar to those that appeared under the accounts bearing the names of Messrs. Kim and Han.

"The walkway next to the Potong River, my commuting route and where I take strolls, is growing more and more beautiful," one tweet said, referring to the river that flows through Pyongyang and its suburbs. "The newly remodeled river walkway is probably why my commute is so enjoyable." The post was reproduced in Japanese.

A series of video blogs on YouTube over the summer showed a young woman calling herself "Un A." Speaking in English, she gave tours of grocery stores and riverside parks.

Another YouTube account, called "New DPRK," an abbreviation of the country's official name of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, showcased a horse-riding club near Pyongyang and a school that teaches people how to skydive. The host converses in Korean, but the content has English subtitles.

While New DPRK has switched off comments, the Un A account is populated with praise for the Kim regime that slams traditional media for failing to show the real North Korea.

Given Pyongyang's global image as an impoverished dictatorship, any depiction showing modernization and normal behavior among citizens could supersede previous notions about the country, said Koh Yu-hwan, who has visited North Korea and interviewed recent foreign visitors there.

"These accounts have convinced some Westerners that North Korea is where people like you and me live, an ordinary country," said Mr. Koh, who heads a South Korean state think tank focused on unification.

Tech companies haven't always given North Korean propaganda a free pass, but policing of the Pyongyang-backed social-media accounts has been uneven. Earlier this year, Twitter removed an account called "coldnoodlefan" that posted some of Un A's videos. But established propaganda outlets, such as Uriminzokkiri, a Pyongyang state-run website, have been allowed to stay active for about a decade.

Twitter said in August that it would denote state-affiliated media accounts as government-backed but hasn't added the label to the Uriminzokkiri account.

A Twitter spokeswoman said the "coldnoodlefan" account had violated the platform's rules, which ban content that supports violence, sexual harassment or illegal commerce.

Meanwhile, YouTube, a unit of Alphabet Inc., has kept Un A's videos online, even as it has suspended other accounts associated with known propaganda entities such as DPRK Today that had broadcast the regime's state news. It has also suspended or shut down about a dozen channels related to North Korea in recent years, with more than half of the shutdowns occurring as sanctions ramped up against the country over its nuclear tests and long-range missile launches.

YouTube has reinstated some of those accounts. The company didn't respond to requests for comment. YouTube has previously said it complies with all sanctions and trade laws, including banning content created or uploaded by "restricted entities," without elaborating.

China-based Uriminzokkiri, or "Only Between Our People" in Korean, appears to be behind the Twitter accounts that were recently taken down, based on whom the two accounts chose to follow first, said Martyn Williams, a fellow at the Stimson Center who has researched North Korea's online activities.

Kim regime officials likely shut down the Twitter accounts after generating media attention in South Korea and attracting online backlash, said Moon Jong-hyun, a North Korea expert at EST Security, a Seoul-based cybersecurity firm.

In response to Mr. Kim's post about Korea's most renowned side dish, an anonymous Twitter user wrote, "Do you get executed if you don't properly make kimchi there?"

"This probably discomforted the North Koreans," Mr. Moon said.

Write to Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 04, 2020 08:23 ET (13:23 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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