The Koreas

Behind North Korea’s YouTube Ambitions

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The Koreas

Behind North Korea’s YouTube Ambitions

Pyongyang is not only after propaganda gains – social media monetization is a loophole to international sanctions.

Behind North Korea’s YouTube Ambitions
Credit: Flickr/ (stephan)

North Korea is famous for operating propaganda websites on an industrial scale. It is understood that North Korea currently operates more than 160 propaganda sites. These include news and tourism websites as well as online communities, all of which are designed to promote North Korea and its ideology and turn as many people as possible into North Korean sympathizers.

Pyongyang does not limit its efforts to its own websites, however. It also has a great interest in social media outlets, especially Western ones.

As the latest example, Uriminzokkiri, one of the most active North Korean propaganda websites, has resumed providing YouTube clips on its pages.

Uriminzokkri began to offer links to YouTube clips on its channel from February. It appears that the website reopened its channel, dubbed uriminzok, on YouTube this time last year.

Apart from YouTube, Uriminzokkiri utilizes Youku, a Chinese video hosting service that is similar to YouTube, to promote its videos. It has uploaded a variety of video clips including news clips, North Korean music videos, and propaganda output.

Separately, in December last year, a propaganda website, DPRK Today, added accounts on audio streaming website Soundcloud and video-sharing platform Vimeo, increasing its list of social media channels.

Another propaganda website, SoGwang, also expanded the number of social media outlets available on its website for users to share its content from five to 17 in January.

Since social media outlets are an effective tool to reach out to a wider audience, it is easy to conclude that North Korea is actively expanding its usage of them for the purpose of propaganda.

This might not be the only explanation, however.

The Wall Street Journal reported in September last year that North Korean agents were utilizing American social media outlets and U.S. technology to make foreign money in moves aimed at subverting the U.S.-led sanctions against Pyongyang.

North Korea is hiding from international sanctions by disguising itself on social network outlets and using U.S. job sites, instant messengers, and internet payment services, the paper added.

Wall Street Journal estimated that North Korea’s total revenue from software development projects using fake social media accounts could be millions of dollars.

It is unclear what efforts, if any, are being made to stop North Korea’s social media ambitions.

One of the most well-known deterrent measures is the shutdown of accounts that are verified as being backed by Pyongyang.

For instance, Uriminzokkiri’s YouTube channel was once shut down in 2017 for violating the social media platform’s community guidelines.

At that time, a YouTube spokesperson told Radio Free Asia that the channel “repeatedly” violated the community guidelines, without elaborating further.

Apart from that, YouTube also shut down the official account of North Korea’s state-controlled Korea Central Television in 2016. Before the closure, the channel played an important role in disseminating Pyongyang’s messages to the outside world via hundreds of videos on the platform.  The cause of that shutdown was also unknown, but observers believed it was a part of concerted efforts to tighten the U.S.-led sanctions against the North.

However, since these are merely a few official channels, critics believe the impact is limited. Other argue such moves only serve to limit an important resource for studying one of the most isolated and secretive countries in the world.

The latest summit between the United States and North Korea concluded without any agreement being reached, despite the fanfare that accompanied its announcement. Since the issue of lifting sanctions was identified as one of the main reasons behind the failure of the summit, some view it as a sign that sanctions have had an impact. Proponents argue they should continue until the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Japan’s Nikkei newspaper, for instance, pointed out in its latest editorial that the summit proved once again that sticking with strict sanctions is effective.

In this regard, it has become more important to recognize North Korea’s latest move to beef up its efforts on social media as sanction busting and come up with concrete measures to deter these efforts.