Foreigners can access a variety of sites and channels that offer glimpses of life in the DPRK. But how much of that content is run by the government?
By Hannah Gais
Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 2010. (Photo: Roman Harak/Flickr)
You have to wonder what Louis Cole expected.
The YouTube star and video blogger, who posts under the moniker “FunForLouis,” came under fire after a series of videos — including a music video — emerged depicting his travels to North Korea this summer. In a series of 10 videos, each 15 minutes or so in length, Cole bumps around Pyongyang and the North Korean coast. Hijinks ensue — on day three, he pranks a military guide on a captured United States spy ship. On day eight, he discovers wild cannabis growing on the side of the road in Majon, a beachside resort town (a common phenomenon).
Cole’s discussion of North Korean politics is limited, often to regurgitating talking points from his handlers or noting that the discrepancy between Western and North Korea narratives is “interesting.” His tone is vacuous and self-important, often to the point where his videos make for better B-roll than they do completed content. The resulting music video produced by him and his friend Lane Terzieff (a.k.a. Lancifer), “Surfing in the DPRK,” perfectly summarizes the worldview of an aspiring digital media superstar. “In the midst of war,” the video’s introduction reads, “we decided to make History instead. Ladies and gentlemen, the first pop music video to come out of North Korea.” It’s an especially bizarre assertion, given that a Slovenian industrial group, Laibach, had made headlines the year before for being the first foreign band to perform in the country.
With the number of foreign visitors to the country rising, the future of North Korea’s digital image actually rests in the hands of Web-savvy tourists.
Whatever Cole’s intent, his insistence that he’s somehow projecting a “new” and “unseen” image of the country is bunk; he’s hardly the first vlogger — or, for that matter, social media-savvy tourist — to traverse the so-called Hermit Kingdom. Yet, as we’ll see, Cole has spurred a crucial debate over how tourists, journalists, researchers, and artists should talk about North Korea online. And as the Hermit Kingdom continues to open up online, it warrants a look at how the country has dealt with the rise of Web 2.0—and how foreigners have grappled with portraying the country in a manner that isn’t too sympathetic to the regime.
Although former Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung became interested in information technology in the 1980s, the country’s foray into the Web didn’t take off until the early aughts — roughly around the time it developed and launched its own Intranet. While use of the country’s Intranet, or Kwangmyong, has spiked in the last decade and a half, access to the World Wide Web is extremely limited, with some experts estimating a user base in the low thousands out of a country of 25 million.
As a result, when the first page using the .kp domain appeared in 2003, it was geared toward foreigners, not native North Koreans. The DPRK’s websites in the Korean language are, as former North Korean Associated Press bureau chief Jean Lee told me, geared toward an audience of “‘overseas Koreans who support Pyongyang,” meaning “second-, third- and fourth-generation ethnic Koreans living in China, Japan, and Russia — not defectors.” (North Korean websites, in turn, are blocked by their neighbors to the south.) The government’s hand in Web development is palpable, not just in the messaging but also in the presentation of these sites. Among websites using the .kp domain, few make any effort to adapt to the modern Web. Many sites — such as Naenara (a portal with information on tourism, politics, culture, and North Korean publications) and Uriminzokkiri (a Korean- and English-language media site that’s proven to be one of the nation’s most effective forays into the digital world) — all look like they walked out of the mid-2000s. The same goes for those North Korean institutions that had the digital savvy to venture into Facebook, Twitter, and especially YouTube (which offers a broad array of North Korean content from a number of official, semi-official, and unofficial channels). Few of these sites make any attempt to integrate into the aesthetic of the modern Web, ignoring the stylistic developments of the past decade while offering a “rosier” picture of the country by broadcasting its standard fare of socialist kitsch with more than the usual ferocity.
Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish political activist who founded the Korean Friendship Association, assures me this is intentional. “Information that comes from DPRK is broadcasted in ‘Korean socialist style,’ not taking into consideration the huge cultural and social differences,” Cao de Benós writes in an email. “As such, it may seem boring for the normal Westerner.”
“Because people here genuinely believe that their leaders are great, for us to criticize them is like walking into a friend’s house and criticizing their mother. Some things you just don’t do, no matter how hard it is.”
That’s where foreign-run institutions like the KFA come in. Founded in 2000, the KFA seeks to “set the record straight” on the DPRK, so to speak, through conferences, meetings, exhibitions, and, naturally, cultural exchanges. Indeed, Cao de Benós, who holds the title of special delegate for the committee for cultural relations with foreign countries, could almost be called the more media-friendly face of state-authored propaganda. (North Korea’s state ideology, Juche, doesn’t lend itself to Western ears and ends up coming off as a bit goofy, no matter how skilled its foreign advocates are.) KFA’s reach is small — its site received around 32,000 unique visitors last month, and its U.S. branch has a bit over 8,000 likes on Facebook. Cao de Benós has, however, been more than willing to make himself available to the media to explain the DPRK’s position on any given subject.
Still, reaching out to a community of a few like-minded netizens can only go so far. With the number of foreign visitors to the country rising — around 100,000 came in 2014, and officials are hoping to welcome one million in 2017 — the future of North Korea’s digital image actually rests in the hands of Web-savvy excursionists.
For the most part, tourists can now effectively live-blog their entire trip — thanks, in part, to a 3G network accessible only to foreigners that the DPRK implemented in 2013. These days, you can actually find material on Instagram that’s geotagged in North Korea — not to mention on-the-ground material from Flickr or YouTube.
Particularly given the Kims’ longtime obsession with film, it’s no surprise that videos like Cole’s have become a focal point for controversy among Western viewers. Whether it’s an 18-minute summary or a several-hour montage, the self-produced “My Time in North Korea” video is now a distinct genre of travelogue. Some visiting vloggers opt to grapple with the oppressive choreography of the whole experience; others don’t. Jacob Laukaitis, a travel vlogger who told the story of his travels in a 14-minute video, focused primarily on his daily life in North Korea. “I simply wanted to make a video that would show you how your day to day would look if you went there as a tourist,” Laukaitis tells the camera in a brief, but welcome, disclaimer.
Others, like Andrew McLeod, opt for a more analytical approach. McLeod, a former aid worker, traveled to North Korea for four days in 2014, recorded his travels and commentary, and ended up having the completed video broadcast by digital-only Barcroft TV. “If I’m looking nervous when I say some of these things to the camera, it’s because I am, but not necessarily for the reason you’d expect,” McLeod explained in the midst of a tour. “We have minders all around us…. You don’t want to cause offense. Because people here genuinely believe that their leaders are great, for us to criticize them is like walking into a friend’s house and criticizing their mother. Some things you just don’t do, no matter how hard it is.”
Tourists, and even some multimedia journalists, end up covering similar ground. Thanks to the nature of tourism in the country, visits tend to be pretty repetitive. You’ll come across a number of different angles of Mansu Hill Grand Monument — a pair of 72-foot-tall statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il near the Korean Revolution Museum. The North Korean marathon, which recently opened up to foreign athletes, is a popular subject on social media. You can witness sightseers and journalists — including those from Vice in their first North Korean documentary from 2011 — being led by their handlers into schools, where they can enjoy performances and the occasional moderated interaction with students. For a country that has struggled with chronic hunger for decades, meals for visitors (and state television) are hearty and surrounded with the trappings of entertainment. Waitresses perform for patrons; visitors step foot in learning centers “almost every day”; interactions with locals are heavily mediated, if not all-out banned. There’s enough controlled content out there that, unless your technical skills are off the charts or you’re somehow given greater access, it’s difficult to generate material that’s truly enticing.
But that’s not the case for those YouTubers, like Jaka Parker and Aram Pan, who have sought to offer a more holistic view of life in North Korea. Parker, a vlogger and photographer who lived in Pyongyang from 2012 to 2016, told me that his original intention wasn’t even to show an unseen side of Korea — at least not at first. His videos introduce viewers to experiences that the average Westerner might never consider. In one, Parker records a short trip to purchase street food; in another, he’s enthralled by a selection of local comics, only to run into a problem that’s all too common among travelers to a country with no working ATMs: He doesn’t have enough cash.
“If I’m looking nervous when I say some of these things to the camera, it’s because I am, but not necessarily for the reason you’d expect.”
Whether North Korea is taking concerted steps to curate third-party content online is, aside from the occasional outburst over depictions of the Kims, unclear. Yet, as the emphasis on guided tours shows, the regime cares deeply about what foreigners can and cannot see. Visitors have always been limited in what aspects of the country they’re allowed to witness. Curating a social media presence — through both tourist-created and state-sponsored content — is the natural extension of propaganda from a country that, as Kim Suk-Young, a professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara, notes in her book Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, believes “religiously in the visual image as a reality-shaping vision.”
The DPRK has carefully controlled the image it presents to its own populace for decades; it’s only logical that it would carefully micromanage anyone seeking to present that image to the outside world. Plus, in a country where limiting residents’ contact with foreigners has become a survival strategy, controlling access, or lack thereof, is paramount. Meanwhile, Westerners have become so intent on seeing North Korea as a surreal outpost that we’re willing to swallow whatever gobbledygook is thrown at us. Whether we’re more likely to listen to an egomaniacal YouTube star or a Spanish aristocrat fawning over Juche depends on what we’ve always wanted to believe.
That doesn’t mean that tourist accounts — even if they aren’t shedding light on the “real” Korea — are wholly useless. “We see one side of life and not the deepest, darkest parts of the country,” Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours, told the Korean Herald last year. “But what we see is not a performance made for foreigners; we see real life and real people going about their real business. It’s a tiny glimpse, but it is a real glimpse.”
Still, for any outsider looking in on the country, the obvious moral prerogative — and one that Cole apparently failed at embracing — is to accept these glimpses for what they are: fragments. The “true” Korea, whatever that is, isn’t going to be instantly unveiled before the gawking visitors’ eyes. Even if the DPRK’s shroud of mystery disappears overnight, a country’s essence isn’t one that can be unearthed in the course of a week. It comes through ponderously and in layers, each one more inscrutable to the benighted traveler than the last.