North Korea currently operates more than 160 propaganda websites, including news and tourism websites as well as online communities. Regardless of what these sites do, they share one goal: To promote North Korea and its ideology and turn as many people as they can into North Korean sympathizers.
With recent signs of North Korea opening itself up to the international community, some might assume that Pyongyang would have less need of these propaganda activities. On the contrary, North Korea has only escalated its efforts.
According to a Seoul-based think tank, the Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy, North Korea had about 7,000 agents engaged in this propaganda work as of the end of 2017, and it is adding more.
The latest changes observed on North Korean propaganda websites back this up.
North Korea has completely redesigned some of its major propaganda websites, including the news website Arirang-Meari and the website of the state-run English daily Pyongyang Times.
Arirang-Meari, which was established in early March 2016, has been more active than any other propaganda site recently. It is operated by the North Korean civic group Arirang and publishes content in the form of news reports and introduces video clips promoting North Korea.
The new Arirang-Meari website, which was launched in May, made its “video section” more prominent by pulling it up to the top of the website, hinting that it hopes to reach out to audiences with more visual materials. Previously, the section was relegated to the bottom.
Meanwhile, the new website of the Pyongyang Times provides abstracts of reports on its main page instead of simply listing the titles of reports as it previously did, making the website more readable.
Apart from the two websites mentioned above, the website of a pro-North Korea group of ethnic Koreans in China has a new design as well.
The new website of Paekdu-Hanna, the General Association of Koreans in China, has made its image and video sections more visible by placing them toward the top part of the page. It is also now available in a mobile version.
Signs are clear that the North Korea’s cyber agents want to make their propaganda websites look better and be more user friendly. However, there is more behind these efforts.
The Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy notes the agents are stepping up their efforts to manipulate online opinion through blog posts, video clips, and online comments. Of course, this effort mainly targets South Korea.
There are currently about 300 agents who specialize in online opinion-rigging activities, based on the institute’s estimate.
This is how they operate: The North Korean government has created memberships for its agents within influential online communities by using illegally acquired personal information of South Korean citizens. These new accounts are used to actively spread rumors, attempting to divide public opinion in South Korea and to create a favorable atmosphere toward the North.
Pyongyang is even running specialized department to teach Southern-style Korean language and slang to the agents so that they can reach out to greater numbers of people in the South.
Take the latest presidential election in South Korea as an example.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon indicated his intention to run for president in October 2016. His long and proven track record in politics and on the diplomatic stage meant he was an ideal presidential candidate for South Korea. Back then, Ban had the highest approval ratings of any candidate.
North Korea had a different view, however. Ban was widely supported by conservatives and was likely to run as a conservative candidate. History has proven that Pyongyang has not been able to get along with South Korea’s conservative administrations.
North Korea immediately launched a “backbiting” campaign by mobilizing its propaganda media outlets. The number of reports criticizing Ban was observed to increase dramatically during that time.
In order to appeal to the South Korean people’s deep-rooted negative sentiments toward Japan, North Korea’s propaganda began to focus on portraying Ban as a puppet of Japan. An image of Ban paying a deep bow to the Japanese Emperor in 2015 became one of the most popular images used by the propaganda outlets.
South Korea is still heavily exposed to North Korea’s propaganda activities, but it is not prepared to tackle it, according to Yoo Dong-yeol, head of the Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy.
“The South Korean government needs to nurture personnel specialized in analysis of North Korea’s propaganda activities and able to develop countermeasures while introducing regulations to eradicate it,” said Yoo.
He also stressed the importance of public attention and awareness. In South Korea, not many even know North Korea is operating such propaganda websites, and people often consume and share content provided by the North without realizing.
“Civil activities such as public campaigns to tackle North Korea’s propaganda efforts would also be helpful,” Yoo noted.