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North Korea Steps Up Efforts To Reach Out To Foreign Audiences On Social Media

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

North Korea is stepping up its presence on YouTube and Twitter. Never mind that less than 1% of North Koreans are believed to have access to the Internet. The target audience for the new social media outreach is foreigners, and the aim is apparently to make the country seem more normal to outsiders. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: "What's Up Pyongyang?"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUHN: That's the name of the new series on YouTube. The host is a young woman in glasses and short hair named Un A. Her stated aim is to give viewers the real story about North Korea. And to do that, she jogs, shops and sings her way through the capital Pyongyang. In one episode, Un sets out to debunk foreign media reports that COVID-19 has triggered a wave of panic-buying in the capital. At a department store, shoppers and clerks show her shelves full of snacks, disinfectants and toilet paper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UN A: As you can see, all the shops are fully stocked with products and food to satisfy peoples' demands.

KUHN: Other Korean-language videos target a South Korean audience. North Korean websites are blocked in the South due to national security laws, but YouTube is not.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

KUHN: One episode takes us inside the well-appointed apartment of a middle-class Pyongyang family. The mother, in a trenchcoat, unpacks the fruits of a shopping trip. She gives her daughter a Pine brand backpack and pencil case and Dandelion brand notebooks. Asked by her mother what she will do to deserve all the merchandise, the daughter replies...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "I will make the commander happy," she gushes, referring to leader Kim Jong Un. Since taking power in 2011, Kim has pushed state factories to make goods that people actually want to buy. Rachel Minyoung Lee is a former U.S. government North Korea analyst. She says the brand consciousness in the videos reflects Kim Jong Un's efforts to improve people's living standards.

RACHEL MINYOUNG LEE: And I think that they understand that there's a desire - inherent desire in the people to want better things.

KUHN: North Korean authorities still warn of harmful foreign cultural influences, but consumerism is no longer taboo. Wealthy entrepreneurs called donju are snapping up luxury goods in Western-style cafes and fast-food restaurants have sprung up in the capital. Rachel Lee says that by showing all this, the YouTube videos are meant to change common foreign perceptions about North Korea - for example, that...

LEE: It's a poor, destitute country run by a dictator and that they don't have the freedom to do anything.

KUHN: Not everything in the videos looks free and spontaneous. Supermarket prices and an entire building on a Pyongyang street are pixelated out without explanation. There is frequent praise for Kim Jong Un, such as this episode in which Un A goes for a jog and explains why Pyongyang residents love sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UN: All this enthusiasm for sports have begun thanks to our respected marshal.

KUHN: Rachel Lee notes that while it's unclear who is producing these videos, they're definitely not something an ordinary North Korean would be allowed to make.

LEE: I think that there is some sort of backing by the regime for this to be possible, but of course, that is not to say that this is state-run.

KUHN: Lee says that convincing or not, the videos have at least succeeded in attracting some attention from foreign audiences who she says may actually learn something about North Korea from them.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.