Yongusil 41: KCNA Watch, Reboot
In these hot and furtive times, when even a Seth Rogen comedy can set minds a-twitching inside Pyongyang and the Beltway alike, every burst of narrative fury from north of the DMZ can seem like the start of something noteworthy. Of course, most seasoned watchers know that context is everything, and that there is very little new under the sun. But the problem is arriving at context, and evidencing it in ways that don’t make people glaze over; after all, there are only so many different methods of insisting on the veracity of last year’s New Years Message or reminding listeners of the importance of anything that Kim Il-sung said in Kanggye in 1968.
Rodong Sinmun, KCNA, Tongil Sinbo and others, the full repertoire of North Korea’s print media, are vital tools in determining the latest changes to Pyongyang’s institutional emphasis, just as they are for tracking the whereabouts of luminaries like Pak Pong-ju or the guidance visits of the Young Generalissimo. However, utilising these sources in the form presented by Pyongyang, the one through which most analysts and commentators strive valiantly to absorb them, makes it difficult (if not nigh on impossible) to negotiate the ebb and flow of northern daily priorities, and that leaves one short of that vital, elusive context. This is not just due to the dysfunctional nature of their internet architecture; they also have a damaging propensity for post-fact editing and/or deletion.
In such conditions, it is no understatement to say that a robust, trustworthy online resource providing functional search facilities would be a Godsend to researchers and analysts dealing with matters from Sinuiju to Kaesong, Nampo to Hamheung. Though attempts at collation have been made in the past (the now venerable, automated nk-news.net, for instance), nothing has managed to achieve the holy grail of collating the available resources in a utilisable way…until now. Last year, NKNews.org introduced an expanded KCNAWatch as part of a paywalled upgrade. Notwithstanding issues of morality concerning paywalls more broadly, they made considerable infrastructural and editorial investment in the tool, and its functionality was welcomed.
The primary focus of this Yongusil, however, is a new (and currently free) upgrade to KCNAWatch. They’ve added extra content, including searchable indices of Rodong Sinmun, Tongil Sinbo, Korea Today, DPR Korea and Foreign Trade, as well as KCNA’s North Korean and Japanese main sites in English and Korean. It is also apparent that their categorization algorithm has been updated to keep track of developments in a wider range of fields than before; there is now institutional focus to go along with linear mentions of leading figures. KCNAWatch is now a definitively more functional resource than KCNA and Rodong Sinmun’s own products, not least because it is far less likely to crash or go offline for days at a time.
There is, however, one key fault with which an epistemic community must take issue, which is that NKNews.org does not offer any methodological explanation of key features of the site. They have the “Kim Mentions” and “KCNA Threat Index” prominently located on the front page, and while Kim “Mentions” is fairly self-explanatory, it is not at all apparent how the “KCNA Threat Index” is arrived at – its owners do not make clear what constitutes a threatening or aggressive piece of North Korean terminology. This makes the instrument empirically worthless. Given the importance of perceptions of North Korean institutional, governmental and military risk, such an omission is a grave flaw, one which we at Sino-NK hope to see addressed in future, the better to ensure that KCNAWatch becomes a genuine tool for academic purposes.