The North Korea YouTube account is the country's officially recognised, front-line means of reaching Western audiences. It's also utterly insane. But it starts to make a little more sense once you meet the people behind it.
The odd first thing you'll notice about the North Korea YouTube page — created specifically to win the hearts and minds of English-speakers — is that nearly all of the videos are in Korean, making them almost wholly ineffective. But it gets even stranger — look closer and you'll discover that the channel is actually run by the Korean Friendship Association (KFA). This international gang of misfits has tasked itself with creating a positive online presence for the most colourful of the world's paradoxically communist dictatorships. And not one of them speaks Korean.
The international group's stated mission is to put a more positive spin on the global North Korea conversation. Which makes their decision to post videos such as the following even more bizarre. Because while they put hundreds of clips like the following online, they don't know any more about the contents than that it has to do with "Potato Pride:"
The KFA was founded in 2000, and its "delegates" come from a wide variety of nationalities, their President and founder being a Spaniard named Alejandro Cao de Benos, pictured above. Cao de Benos is incredibly passionate about his organisation's work, of which the three main objectives are as follows:
- Show the reality of the DPR Korea to the world
- Defend the independence and socialist construction in the DPR of Korea
- Learn from the culture and history of the Korean People - Work for the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula
Now, it may seem odd to willingly head a crusade to improve the public perception of a totalitarian dictatorship that perpetuates starvation and sends hundreds of thousands of its citizens to brutal labour internment camps. But then again, Cao de Benos is an odd guy. In this interview posted on May 16, 2012 he describes how he views himself as "a soldier of Kim Jong-il," and how he was drawn to the DPK when he heard that it "defeated American imperialism." He loves North Korea, he explains, because it reflects his faith. Do with that what you will.
What may be most surprising, though, is that North Korea seems to love him right back. In 2002, Alejandro Cao de Benos became the very first foreigner ever allowed to work on behalf of the North Korean authorities in an official capacity — a dream he'd had since he was a teenager. In order for this to happen, actual North Korean law had to be changed, allowing him to obtain a North Korean passport. He spends about half of every year in the DPRK. So more than just acting as North Korea's moral support overseas, the KFA acts as an officially recognised liaison between the everyman and the Hermit Country itself — and this includes their incredibly active social media accounts.
Perhaps even more bizarre, all of the official, English-language North Korean social media outlets are created and maintained largely by Americans. In fact, the International Communication Secretary and man in charge of the AFK's (and consequently North Korea's) English-language Internet outreach, Tommy Seilheimer (below), lives in Chicago.
Seilheimer appears to wear quite a few hats, according to his LinkedIn profile. He's former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach's webmaster, for one (Seilheimer is also one of the 460 people Bach follows on Twitter, for further corroboration). He runs something called Defcon13 Media, an SEO/web design shop. And while he's not listed as an official member, he's at least closely affiliated with a Poison tribute band that calls itself Posin. In between these gigs, he finds time to provide Kim Jong-un a North American soap box.
Seilheimer may have never visited North Korea personally, but he feels for a country that, in his eyes, has been grossly misrepresented in the media. Speaking about his initial interest in the group, Seilheimer tells us:
A lot of media in the US really was going hardcore after them. So I started watching some documentaries for myself and made my own decisions regarding what I thought they'd been through — as well as what they continue to do. It's one thing to have actually been there. And to actually go there and see what's going on is a whole different story. KFA delegates have gone on the state sanctioned tours, and they show you everything. So we don't really comment on that. I've never seen that and nobody at the KFA has ever seen any of these camps, so we just kind of leave that for the politicians to battle out. But we obviously wish the best for everybody.
According to Seilheimer, at least as far as their English-language, Western-directed social media goes, the KFA is intent on staying politically neutral. Or as politically neutral as one can be while supporting a virtually genocidal dictator. According to Seilheimer:
It's the Friendship association. We're not trying to be political. We're about sharing DPRK culture and all the learning that goes along with it. The [North Korean] government looks down on anything negative that we or anybody else would post.
Now while the Supreme Leader (or as Seilheimer casually refers to him, the President) doesn't quite have the best track record of keeping up relations, it would be perfectly plausible for this international gang of Kim Jong-un groupies to avoid courting controversy. Except for the fact that, well, they don't.
Listed inconspicuously at the top of the DPRK's website is the innocent, esoteric little acronym "OCN." Click through, and you'll find yourself at the Blogspot-hosted sabre-rattling of The Anti-imperialist National Democratic Front (AINDF). And who might be authoring these posts that describe how "Chairman Kim Jong Il made haughty Washington, which poses itself as a mater of the world, kiss the ground" and "the US should review history of the DPRK-US showdown recorded with ignominious defeat before launching the war exercises against the DPRK," you may ask? None other than our very own Korean Friendship Association — whose definition of "non political" is, to the say the least, profoundly confused.
While Seilheimer doesn't appear to have written any of these screeds himself, he's definitely aware of them. As he explained to us, "The other US delegates are free to write their own articles, but I definitely read them just to make sure they aren't attacking the US or vice versa." If this is what's gotten through, one can't help but wonder what qualifies as an attack.
Still, not everything is so politically oriented. The KFA's other blog is a much less political and far more bizarre creative outlet. You'll find, among other wonderful things, some lovely, not-at-all staged photos of North Korea's remarkable advancements as well as this lyricisation of the Official Delegate for Ireland's feelings towards the Dear Leader. Short preview: he likes Kim Jong-il. A lot.
But the main website is only one small aspect of the oddly crafted online persona the KFA maintains for North Korea. The truly interesting and even more baffling content comes in what these people are sharing with whomever might be willing to listen using everything from LinkedIn and Pinterest to YouTube and Facebook. Some of the articles, as well as all the photos and videos they aggregate on these networks, come from official DPRK sources. Seilheimer elaborates:
Anything we post on YouTube or Twitter or any of the other social media sites — it's all just about getting it out there. We're really looking to reach anybody. A lot of it's about learning, and the music is really good. Obviously, though, the documentaries and informative stuff we put up definitely does the best. Our big thing is just getting the videos out there. We don't push anybody. We don't say this is how it is. We literally just post the news and they can make their own decisions.
However, the problem is — and with the YouTube channel in particular — none of these Western, English-speaking delegates posting these North Korean articles and videos actually speak any Korean. Upon being asked how they overcome this seemingly massive barrier, Seilheimer tells us:
We usually use Google Translate; it's probably our best friend. Some people that we do know speak Korean, but we don't want to bug them all the time. For the most part, the press releases [the DPRK] make are pretty good. We just clean them up a little bit and rely on Google Translate. As for the videos, a lot of them, obviously, only come with a title on the top. So we just kind of go by that.
But the ever vigilant KFA doesn't let a little thing lack "total lack of understanding" stop them. Despite supposedly not knowing what anyone in the videos they're swiping from DPRK news is saying, they've been busy filling their YouTube page with hundreds of nearly identical, bizarre, often unsettling videos. And by god are they prolific.
Since Aug 29, 2012, the officially-recognised, KFA-run North Korea YouTube channel has uploaded 535 videos of wildly varied genre. Some will actually have descriptions written in English, making them appear to have been made with a Western audience in mind. For these, the themes generally stay somewhere along the lines of "Look How Not-Starving and Not-Imprisoned-in-Labour-Camps North Korean Citizens Are." For example, we learn that one Pyongyang man is off to offer his mom a Mother's Day bouquet of flowers in honour of her being "very meticulous" and showing "deep care for [his] growth." A heartwarming sentiment to which we all can relate.
But these relatively innocent forays into fiction exist alongside some videos of a very different nature. Their decision to post an English-dubbed video exposing Western propaganda, for example, seems a bit counterintuitive to their stated desire not to "push anyone."
Still, in addition to slandering Western culture, they do a nice job diversifying all this content of which they have no real understanding. You'll get women running through fields of flowers, what I can only pray is a North Korean remake of Game of Thrones, comedy skits, and this all-female reinterpretation of Brokeback Mountain.
A good portion of the channel really is relatively harmless, albeit totally non sequitor. Take this prime example, an episode of North Korean Iron Chef and its accompanying song. An excerpt of the translated lyrics, in which we see the deification of a noodle dish, follows.
Naengmyeon naengmyeon Pyongyang naengmyeon/ One of the best delicacies in the world/ Even groom and brides eat naengmyeon at their weddings/ Ah sure is cool/ Two bowls are not enough/ Okryu-gwan is a pride of North Korea
As recently as May, the channel saw another big hike in video uploading, including this one of "westerners" extolling North Korea's virtues and the freedom it graciously bestowed upon them. Sure, the lip movements don't always match the words they're saying, and the sporadically shifting blurs over their mouths would seem to suggest some poor video manipulation — but any tampering would, admittedly, have been done on North Korea's end. That didn't, though, stop the KFA from posting it.
While Seilheimer maintained that the government in no way has any control over the content they do or do not choose put out, the reality is that, by virtue of coming from official DPRK sources, everything they're working with has already been explicitly pre-approved.
Of course, it's incredibly unlikely that unintelligible videos and glorified photos of the Dear Leader are going to do much to alter the Western mindset regarding North Korea. At least, not for the better. So in that respect, although contradictory and hyperbolic, their efforts at "educating" the public aren't doing any real harm, as far as we know.
Still, this attempt at applying North Korean propaganda techniques to a Western audience is equally fascinating and terrifying, particularly for the depths of denial it requires. Which, come to think of it, is just one more thing they share in common with their beloved Democratic People's Republic of Korea.