North Korea is trying a new propaganda strategy: YouTube influencers

Seoul, South Korea

The young woman searches through a fridge of popsicles, pulling out several to show the camera.

“It’s milk flavor – the picture is so cute,” she said in English, showing the cartoon packaging with a smile. “And that’s the flavor of the peach.”

After finally choosing an ice cream cone, she bites into it, stating, “The cookie is really delicious.

The four-minute video has racked up over 41,000 views on YouTube, but it’s no ordinary vlog. The woman, who goes by the name YuMi, lives in North Korea, perhaps the most isolated and secretive nation in the world.

His YouTube channel, established last June, is one of many social media accounts that have sprung up on the internet over the past two years, in which North Korean residents claim to share their daily lives.

But experts say all is not as it seems in these videos, and the footage contains telltale signs that the lives shown are far from the norm for millions of poor people under leader Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship.

Instead, they suggest that YuMi and others like are likely linked to high-ranking officials and may be part of a propaganda campaign to rebrand the country’s international image as a more accessible – even touristy – place than its constant discussions of nuclear weapons suggest.

YuMi’s videos “look like a well-prepared play” scripted by the North Korean government, said Park Seong-cheol, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.

For decades, North Korea has been relatively closed to the rest of the world, with tight restrictions on free speech, free movement and access to information.

Its dismal human rights record has been criticized by the United Nations. Internet use is heavily restricted; even the privileged few who have access to smartphones can only access a government-run and heavily censored intranet. Foreign materials like books and movies are banned, often with stiff penalties for those caught with black market contraband.

That’s why YuMi – who not only has access to a filming device but also to YouTube – is no ordinary North Korean, experts say.

“Connecting with the outside world is an impossible thing for a resident,” said Ha Seung-hee, a research professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

YuMi isn’t the only North Korean YouTuber turning heads: an 11-year-old girl who goes by the name Song A debuted on YouTube in April 2022 and already has more than 20,000 subscribers.

“My favorite book is ‘Harry Potter’ written by JK Rowling,” Song A says in a video, showing the first book in the series – particularly striking given North Korea’s generally strict rules prohibiting foreign culture, especially that of Western countries.

The video shows Song A speaking in a British accent and sitting in what looks like an idyllic child’s bedroom complete with a globe, bookshelf, stuffed animal, framed photo and pink curtains.

Song A, allegedly a resident of Pyongyang, North Korea, holds a Harry Potter book in a YouTube video uploaded on April 26, 2022.

Representations in pink of daily life in Pyongyang can also give a clue to the social status and identity of their creators.

YuMi’s videos show her visiting an amusement park and an interactive movie show, fishing in a river, working out in a well-equipped indoor gym, and visiting a limestone cave where young students wave the north flag. -korean in the background.

Song A visits a crowded water park, visits a science and technology exhibition center, and films her first day back at school.

Park, the expert, says these depictions are not 100% false, but they are extremely misleading and do not represent normal life.

It was reported that North Korea’s wealthy elite, such as senior government officials and their families, had access to luxuries such as air conditioning, scooters and coffee. And the facilities shown in the YouTube videos do exist, but they aren’t available to most people and are only granted to “special people in a special class,” Park said.

Those facilities are also likely not open or operating regularly as the videos suggest, he said. “For example, the power supply in North Korea is not smooth enough to run an amusement park, so I heard that they would only run it on weekends or on a special day like when they’re shooting a video,” Park added.

People walk on a snow-covered street near the Arc de Triomphe in Pyongyang on January 12, 2021.

North Korea is known for its frequent blackouts and power shortages; only about 26% of the population has access to electricity, according to 2019 estimates from the CIA World Factbook. These blackouts were captured on nighttime satellite images in 2011 and 2014 which showed North Korea plunged into darkness, almost blending into the dark sea around it – in stark contrast to the dazzling lights of China and neighboring South Korea.

The YouTubers’ fluency in English and access to rare luxury goods suggest they are both highly educated and likely connected to high-ranking officials, Park said.

Defectors have previously told CNN that some North Koreans are learning British English in their English classes. The British Council, a UK-based organization, also ran an English teacher training program in North Korea, sending teachers there for more than a dozen years before it was halted in 2017.

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North Korean propaganda is not new; previous campaigns have featured Soviet-style posters, videos of troops marching and testing missiles, and images of Kim Jong Un on a white horse.

But experts say YouTube videos and similar North Korean social media accounts on Chinese platforms like Weibo and Bilibili illustrate a new strategy: relatability.

“North Korea is trying hard to emphasize that Pyongyang is an ‘ordinary city,'” Park said, adding that the leaders “are very interested in how the outside world perceives them.”

Ha, the research professor, said North Korea could try to market itself as a “safe country” to encourage greater tourism for its struggling economy – especially after the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although it has not yet reopened its borders to tourists, “the pandemic will end at some point, and North Korea has focused on tourism for economic purposes,” Ha said.

Before the pandemic, tour options in which visitors were guided through the country by guides from the Ministry of Tourism were limited. The tours have been carefully choreographed, designed to show the country at its best. Even so, many countries, including the United States, warn their citizens against visits.

After the pandemic began, “there was talk (in North Korea) of getting rid of old forms of propaganda and implementing new forms,” ​​Ha said. “After Kim Jong Un ordered (the authorities) to be more creative in their propaganda, vlog videos on YouTube started to appear.”

A 2019 article in North Korea’s state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun, quoting Kim, said the country’s propaganda and news channels must “boldly abandon the old writing and editing framework with established conventions and conventional methods”.

YouTubers’ use of English may reflect this effort to reach viewers around the world. YuMi and Song A also include English names for their channels: YuMi also goes by “Olivia Natasha” and Song A by “Sally Parks”.

North Korea has posted other kinds of propaganda on YouTube over the past decade – though its official videos are often deleted by moderators.

In 2017, YouTube removed North Korean public news channel Uriminzokkiri and Tonpomail channel controlled by ethnic Koreans in Japan loyal to Pyongyang, claiming they had violated the platform’s terms of service and guidelines. the community.

Another YouTube channel called Echo of Truth, allegedly run by a North Korean resident called Un A who filmed herself enjoying daily activities in Pyongyang, was taken down in late 2020.

But the shutdowns have drawn outcry from some researchers who said the videos provided valuable insight into North Korea and its leaders, even if it was propaganda.

When CNN asked YouTube for comment on these removed channels, as well as those of Song A and YuMi, a spokesperson said the platform “complies with all applicable sanctions and trade compliance laws, including with respect to content created and uploaded by restricted entities”.

“If we find an account violates our Terms of Service or Community Guidelines, we will disable it,” the statement said.

Experts said the videos of YuMi and Song A could be Pyongyang’s attempt to reach an audience without drawing the attention of moderators.

And as scripted as they were, they too offered a valuable window into the country, said the experts.

“People already know that (the videos) were created for propaganda purposes…the public already knows about it,” Ha said. But, she added, “I think there should be proper education and discussion about how we should perceive (such) content instead of just closing doors.”


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