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
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
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
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
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
Write to Andrew Jeong at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 04, 2020 08:23 ET (13:23 GMT)
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