On Reading North Korean Media: The Curse of the Web

By | October 31, 2016 | No Comments

North Korea has a conflicted relationship with media content, as Martin Weiser makes clear. | Image: KCNA

North Korea has a conflicted relationship with media content and the internet, as Martin Weiser explains. | Image: KCNA

Over the last decade, a number of North Korean publications have gone digital, providing quick and easy access to North Korean media. This naturally raises questions: How do these sites operate and how reliable are they and the texts they publish? What might changes in official translations mean? How important is individual authorship of North Korean texts? And last but not least, how do translators and eventually editors shape the texts that we read?

Martin Weiser has written a multi-part series for Sino-NK in which he explores North Korean digital media and media practices in more depth. Based on evidence derived from more than two years spent mapping North Korea’s online presence, he highlights significant patterns in how North Korean organizations operate but also how human error and unchecked individual inputs can shape what we come to read. In this, the first part, Weiser explores how changes made to North Korean websites reveal both intentional editing of texts and instances of blatant, undiluted amateurism. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

On Reading North Korean Media: The Curse of the Web

by Martin Weiser

Like every other online source, North Korean websites are subject to change, update or simple changes in layout. Accordingly, material might be deleted, slightly revised, or completely rewritten. While researchers may wish to embark individually on the task of mapping how North Korean online content changes over time, three institutions save content of North Korean websites that can be used.

Three Access Routes: Changes and Deletions on Websites | First, the Internet Archive saves websites rather irregularly as part of the world wide web; it is the only service to also conserve changes made over time and make them accessible to the public. This makes it a strong option for scholars who want to save North Korean content for future citation. More recently, search engines have also provided access to cached content: For any search result, the down-pointing arrow behind the URL leads to the cached version of the site. Both the Internet Archive and this cache function have not been blocked by South Korea’s state monitors of the internet. Last but somehow least useful, the NKNews site KCNAWatch collects both text and images from several North Korean websites. However, for a commercial service, KCNAWatch is somewhat incomplete and this feature is therefore raised in a discursive footnote.1)KCNAWatch does not cover the major website DPRK Today (some 10,000 articles) in full, nor smaller news sites like Ryomyong, Voice of Korea, or the more recent Meari Tongsin. The header “DPRK Today” was only added to the KCNAWatch menu recently, and some texts still had to be added as of late September 2016. Surprisingly, no news from the Korean website of Naenara is saved there. English Naenara news is also only accessible for 2015 and 2016, even though access to news dating back to 2013 is easily available through the website’s subsections for economy, society etc. – not to mention earlier content saved through the Internet Archive. While KCNAWatch claims to have 2,500 English articles from Naenara, in the last five months alone more than 3,100 were published in Korean on the site. A similar lack of coverage can be seen for Uriminzokkiri, which has been archived since 2015 – leaving out about 20,000 earlier articles. Presumably, this is the case because KCNAWatch automatically checks the general list of news articles published by the websites, instead of the entire website. There is no reason to use a simple algorithm instead of a more sophisticated webcrawler.

The news article lists on North Korean websites Naenara and Uriminzokkiri are limited to a few months, and thereby older content cannot be accessed through them. But like Naenara, Uriminzokkiri also does not simply delete older news articles. Access is still possible through the search function or by inputting the numerical ID in the article URL directly. Earlier this year, Uriminzokkiri even briefly removed the two-month time limit, thus granting access to articles dating back to its inception in 2007. This was important because earlier articles do not have date stamps and exact publication dates are only visible in article lists. After a few months a new, six-month limit was introduced, similar to the current five-month limit imposed by Naenara. KCNAWatch does not include the content from the newspapers Rodong Sinmun and Minju Chosun, which have been made available through Uriminzokkiri since 2007 (about 25,000 articles), nor KCNA reporting available there since 2011 (another 20,000 articles). While most KCNA texts are available via the Japanese KCNA website, this website does not upload every article published by KCNA, and Uriminzokkiri also features longer original versions whereas the Japanese KCNA site covers only shortened ones.

KCNAWatch also only archives general news and no other texts, such as biographies of the Kim family or news available on sub-sites like the one for the North Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled. How important this gap is becomes clear when the current size of the archive is considered. Of the 400,000 texts available, 260,000 come from the Japanese KCNA site and 100,000 from the official North Korean one (90% of the total), but only about 40,000 from all four sources listed other than KCNA — presumably not checked for duplicates and certainly not excluding translations. Leaving out more than 100,000 articles from those smaller sites is a problem as it cuts off a large (and partially also more diverse) part of North Korea’s online media. KCNAWatch also only saves webpages once, not checking regularly for changes, and no function is included to check for duplicates or minor changes made across a single text published across several platforms. Lastly, KCNAWatch makes several claims about North Korean media and its own archive which are incorrect.2)Rodong Sinmun has not been providing English translations since 2015, as claimed by KCNAWatch (suspiciously, this number matches its coverage), but since 2012. Several false claims are also made regarding the Japanese KCNA website. One page says it has coverage since 1994, but it only went online in late 1996. Somewhere else it is then claimed that both English and Korean texts from this website are archived since 1997, but the Korean version is available only since 1998. Originally, this website was in English only. That KCNAWatch ignored the English content available for December 1996 can be considered a rather minor lapse in comparison. The claim that this website is searchable only through KCNAWatch also ignores the fact that it is searchable through any search engine which can limit results to only this page. As this website is based on HTML, all pages are indexed by search engines, different to the North Korean website which runs on a script language and is less accessible for automated webcrawlers. Even specific dates can be easily searched on the Japanese site, as its URLs are based on numeric dates.

Naenara, the official portal site of the DPRK government.

Naenara, the official portal site of the DPRK government.

Jang Song-taek: Airbrushed from DPRK History | Although older North Korean online materials are available through these three providers, limited analysis has been done on how North Korea changes its online content over time. However, the most important recent case of North Korean tampering with its own media, the purge of Jang Song-taek, did receive widespread attention.

A total of 35,000 articles were deleted from the official website of KCNA following the purge in late 2013, regardless of whether Jang was directly mentioned in them or not. This was also the pattern for the website of Rodong Sinmun, underlining that this was a comprehensive overhaul of North Korea’s media content to eliminate references to Jang as completely as possible.3)However, neither the Japanese KCNA website nor the database Korea Press Media (also based in Japan) changed any of their original content at this time, despite apparently close links to the North Korean government. This is even more surprising given that the Japanese KCNA website has edited articles in the past – although for presumably non-political reasons. While Jang (with several other officials) was specifically edited out of one article on Kim Jong-un,4)The older version had been archived. “Kim Jong-un Enjoys Joint Performance Given by Moranbong Band and State Merited Chorus,” KCNA, October 10, 2013, archived by the Internet Archive. two articles from early November where he was only mentioned with low-level officials were simply deleted.5)Chairman of State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission Meets Japanese Guests,” KCNA, November 6, 2013, archived by the Internet Archive; and “DPRK, Japanese Students Play Basketball Matches,” KCNA, November 6, 2013, archived by the Internet Archive. Compare the following:

Kim Jong-un Enjoys Joint Performance Given by Moranbong Band and State Merited Chorus (KCNA, October 10, 2013, changed)

Among the audience were Pak Pong Ju, Choe Ryong Hae, officials of party and armed forces organs, chief secretaries of the WPK Provincial Committees, service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and students in the city.

Now look at the original:

Kim Jong-un Enjoys Joint Performance Given by Moranbong Band and State Merited Chorus (KCNA, October 10, 2013, original)

Among the audience were Pak Pong Ju, Choe Ryong Hae, Jang Song Thaek, Ri Yong Gil, Jang Jong Nam, Kim Ki Nam, Choe Thae Bok, Pak To Chun, Kang Sok Ju, Kim Won Hong, Kim Yang Gon, Kim Yong Il, Kim Phyong Hae, Kwak Pom Gi, Mun Kyong Dok, Choe Pu Il, Jo Yon Jun and Thae Jong Su, officials of party and armed forces organs, chief secretaries of the WPK Provincial Committees, service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and students in the city.

While KCNA article edits might imply that the censors prefer a rather rough editing approach, a Rodong Sinmun article saved and (later re-edited) at Uriminzokkiri shows that at times they can be very careful. In the article, Jang’s name was dropped, as was reference to Pak Chun-hong (박춘홍) who was reportedly purged with Jang.6)경애하는 김정은동지께서 중앙동물원을 현지지도하시였다 [Beloved Comrade Kim Jong-un Gave Field Guidance at the Central Zoo],” Rodong Sinmun, May 28, 2012. Available through Uriminzokkiri. It resembles that which Rüdiger Frank witnessed in person during a trip to North Korea: the name of Pak Nam-gi, who was held responsible for the failure of the currency reform of November 2009, whited out from a newspaper article hanging on the wall of a chemical factory in Hamheung.7)Rüdiger Frank, Nordkorea: Innenansichten eines totalen Staates [Internal Perspectives into a Total State] (Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2014), 216. The apparent purge of Pak Chun-hong was reported with the purge of Ryang Chong-song (량청송) as both were deleted from other articles available at Uriminzokkiri.8) 北, ‘張 세력’ 박춘홍·량청송 당 부부장 숙청한 듯 [In North, Party Department Vice-chairs Pak Chun Hong and Ryang Chong-song Purged], Yonhap News Online, January 17, 2014. Yonhap News stated that it came across this deletion after checking content pertaining to on-the-spot guidance by Kim Jong-un that day. Presumably, this was done by hand and not automatically. As the content was not checked regularly it could have happened earlier and even at a different times for each individual.

This underlines the current problem of insufficient monitoring of North Korean websites. It is also notable that Ryang had already disappeared from North Korea’s media in March 2013, whereas Pak still was accompanying Kim Jong-un on field guidances until early October that year, a month before the last mentioning of Jang in a formal position. Although journalists were aware of this earlier disappearance, they did not appear to consider it puzzling. While Ryang had been on average accompanying Kim Jong-un on trips once every two months before, his early disappearance should have raised the question of whether he was purged considerably earlier than Jang and Pak. If so, his purging might have been independent of Jang’s case or, potentially even more interesting, it might have been the prelude to it.

The Biographies of the Kims: Mixed Messages | A less well-known example of changes to North Korean websites are the short biographies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on the North Korean websites Naenara and DPRK Today. Several changes to the text at Naenara can be traced over the last four years, while the texts at DPRK Today have been more stable and available only since late 2014. With the supreme leaders’ life stories purportedly sacred to North Koreans, it is surprising that the current texts available at the two websites are not identical. The one published by Naenara, for example, shows greater professionalism as it uses the correct names of the parties that merged into the Korean Workers’ Party in 1946, while DPRK Today tends to shorten official names. Even differing in content, currently Naenara claims Kim Il-sung “visited 16 countries on 106 occasions,” while DPRK Today states he visited 87 countries on 54 occasions – a quite blunt difference of which only one can possibly be true. In the same fashion, Naenara claims Kim Il-sung received 352 decorations from abroad, while the individual numbers DPRK Today gives for the different decorations only sum up to about 260.9)Short Biography of Kim Il-sung [위대한 수령 김일성동지의 략력],” Naenara, as of July 23, 2016; “Short Biography of Kim Il-sung [위대한 수령 김일성동지의 략력],” DPRK Today, as of July 24, 2016. A closer look at archived Naenara content reveals that the site updated its biography at some point in 2015 with this new information, while DPRK Today is still using the previous one available online since 2011.10)How old the 2011 version must have been can be glimpsed from the biography of Kim Jong-il. In 2011 it still claimed that the “Selected Writings of Kim Jong-il” only had 14 volumes, yet the 14th volume was published in 2000 and the then 15th followed in 2005. This “news” was added only in an update in 2012 or 2013. But by that year the “Expanded Selection of Kim Jong-il’s Writing,” published since 2009, already had surpassed this number and his “Complete Writings” published right after his death did also go unmentioned. Apparently, whomever was responsible for this update relied on a very outdated source. As the biography mentions Kim Jong-il being elected to the North Korean parliament in September 2003, the 2011 version of his biography must date from around 2004. “Short Biography of Kim Jong-il,” Naenara, as of December 19, 2011. Nonetheless it still is very odd that it was only twenty years after the death of Kim Il-sung that Naenara was able to acquire the eventual number of countries he had visited. The older versions have been archived by the Internet Archive in December 2011 and as late as July 2014. Next to this change, both versions show only minor differences. In 2014, Kim Il-sung now was referred to as “Great Suryong” instead of president (chusok) and the editor changed “independence” (광복) of Japanese rule in 1945 into “liberation” (해방). The latter change might be more in line with North Korea’s historical narrative of liberating the Korean people as the Korean War also is called the “War for the Liberation of the Fatherland” (조국해방전쟁). That this change happened so late is again surprising. That DPRK Today‘s content with its outdated information on Kim Il-sung’s travels was not updated is even more surprising as it still was stylistically corrected: In the phrase “til the last moment of his life” the originally used Korean word for life, saengmyŏng, was changed to saengae, which Naenara around that time corrected as well. But eventually the difference in quality of both websites should not surprise too much as the Pyongyang Moranbong Publisher (평양 모란봉 편집사) responsible for DPRK Today could be expected to be run less professional than North Korea’s official Foreign Language Publishing House, which is responsible for Naenara and also all official translations of the leaders’ works. Recently, Naenaera appears to care more consistently about the biographies than during the earlier years. In June 2016 it was added that Kim Jong-il was made the eternal chairman (수반) of the party only a month earlier and the number of international awards he had received was raised by one. The text of the North Korean constitution revised in June also was uploaded there by early September.

In 2015, Naenara also deleted reference to Kim Il-sung returning to Korea in September 1945, but this is still included on DPRK Today. De-emphasizing to some degree might forego questions about where exactly Kim Il-sung came from and why it took him so long to return home. His involvement with the Russian army before 1945 is still censored in North Korean propaganda. Currently, North Koreans often appear unaware that Kim Il-sung’s mother was a Christian and Kim Il-sung attended church during his childhood. Simply avoiding certain information in the general narrative eventually can have a huge effect for propaganda purposes.

Regarding Kim Jong-il, Naenara provides information on his travels abroad, including his first trip in January 1959, which was, of course, to the Soviet Union accompanying Kim Il-sung. The young Kim there turned down an offer to study in Moscow in favor of Kim Il-sung University – which is not mentioned in the brief biography. North Korean propaganda has consistently avoided stating that the university was located in Moscow, with two printed English biographies only stating that he went to a “foreign country” or “a foreign socialist country.”11)Kim Jong-il: Short Biography (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2001), 16-17; and History of Revolutionary Activities of Chairman Kim Jong-il (Pyongyang: Foreign Language Publishing House, 2015), 353. Both are available as PDFs on Naenara. Instead, the focus is solely on his refusal to study abroad depicted as exemplary devotion to Korea. But everyone reading Kim’s Short Biography might already understand which university it was since “a large number of [the foreign students there] were children of heads of state.” Possibly relying on unconfirmed gossip, sometimes the claim is still made that the younger Kim accompanied his father to the Soviet Union in 1957.12)김정일 ‘방러’ 최장기간 외국방문 [Kim Jong-il Spent Most Time Abroad in Russia],” NKChosun, July 26, 2001; and Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh, The Hidden People of North Korea (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 43. But at least when it comes to the official North Korean version, this is not true and North Korean propaganda would have few reasons to hide such information.

Ryomyong, the website of the People's Reconciliation Council.

Ryomyong, the website of the People’s Reconciliation Council.

Nefarious Nonsense: Human Error | Updates of North Korean websites sometimes leads to very human mistakes, as the Japanese KCNA website shows. By accident, four articles published on January 1, 1997, disappeared during a presumed reorganization of its website some years later, while their headlines were still included on the content page.13)Both the original page with six and the reorganized page with only two articles have been archived. As one of the articles dealt with Kim Jong-il paying respect to Kim Il-sung, we can be sure that this was not intentional but due to human error. Similarly, several other articles later published by KCNA are visible in the table of contents but not as full texts. In very rare cases it is the other way around: Without reference in the table of content, articles get uploaded that thereby can only be accessed by going through the numerical article ID in the URL. Apparently also human error, the Japanese website of KCNA features articles that do not comply with North Korea’s policy line of referring to “south Korea” and “north Korea” in order to stress that there is only one nation instead of two. At times capital and lower-case is used in the same article.14)This inconsistency was also noted by Perrine Fruchart-Ramond, “Facts of Acts? Korean News Agencies Reporting on Inter-Korean Relations,” in Valérie Gelézeau, Koen de Ceuster, and Alain Delissen, eds., De-bordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy (Routledge, 2015), 152, footnote 6. Sometimes the website even publishes news articles in all capital letters and in a few cases published them in a different encoding unreadable for the average foreign user.

That North Koreans occasionally do make rather grave, not to mention amateurish, mistakes when it comes to the internet was underlined most recently when a North Korean clone of Facebook accidentally went online. Editors of North Korean websites also sometimes make changes for which the logic is hard to comprehend. For example, Uriminzokkiri took down the journal of the Social Democratic Party in 2014, which might have implied a political decision. However, the website for the People’s Reconciliation Council, Ryomyong, features the latest editions of the same journal to this day. But here, links for three editions of the journal do not work. South Korean librarians incorrectly claim that the journals have not been available since the mid-2000s despite it being listed for sale in North Korea’s own publications catalog. Internet censorship by the South Korean government apparently has worked here very well. Why the editors of Uriminzokkiri thought it necessary to delete the journal at all, however, remains a mystery.

In Need of Surveillance: Saving for the Future | While the debate about saving content on the internet for future generations has been going on for a while globally, North Korean studies has shown little interest in the topic. This appears to be partially due to the assumption that North Korea publishes the same propaganda across all websites. Ignorance of the existence of sub-sites for its Social Democratic Party and Federation for the Disabled, which are clearly visible on two major North Korean websites, is quite telling.

Without in-depth knowledge and easy access to everything North Korea puts online, naturally the quality of journalism and scholarship on things North Korean will remain low. The material is there; we just have to mine it. Better monitoring of North Korean websites would likely yield many more examples of North Koreans updating and tampering with texts, programmers more accidentally than intentionally deleting content, and other bizarre features of the North Korean internet – not to mention yielding a vast range of materials to work with. A rather short list of websites operated by North Korea is known and, as smaller sites feature very little content, should be very easy to monitor for changes. In the future, we are, of course, likely to see a wide range of North Korean websites joining the global internet, allowing access to even more diverse content. On October 1, Naenara‘s new layout revealed a list of six North Korean domain “family sites” including the official website for the disabled federation, although none of them appear to have gone online yet.

Of course, the majority of people interested in such projects are based in South Korea and by domestic law forbidden to join in, at least not publicly. But there are a number of people across the globe who are not constrained by this, and who have an interest in documenting changes on North Korean websites and making them available and traceable for the public. The Internet Archive, which has archived content of those websites for almost two decades now, would be a productive starting point for a collaborative approach. Especially since the archiving process is automated and not complete for every website, only regular requests by individuals to save pages not covered will ensure that the tool can fulfill its purpose. This might, in fact, become a rather time-consuming procedure. But nowadays any blog can be made an archive and computer programs that crawl websites for texts, pictures and changes in code are easily written. Accordingly, the lack of such a database on North Korea’s internet appears to be more a problem of will and networking than technical obstacles and time constraints.

This article was amended on November 11, 2016 at the request of the author.

   [ + ]

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.