Updated at 11:30 a.m. ET
To the accompaniment of jangly guitars, a woman wearing glasses, short hair and a red overcoat shows off the landmarks of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. “Every building in Pyongyang is going through general cleaning to shake off winter dust,” she says in English in a recent YouTube video.
In another video, the same woman, named Un A, is wearing a tracksuit and sneakers as she jogs along the capital’s Taedong River on her day off.
“Today I’m going to show you what Korean people do in their free time, OK?” she says. “I would say the most popular way of spending time for us is doing sports … like basketball, volleyball, table tennis.”
Conspicuously missing from her attire is the lapel pin North Koreans usually wear in public, showing the country’s ruling Kim family patriarchs.
Never mind that most North Koreans can’t access the Internet. In line with a new effort to give its stolid state propaganda a makeover and reach out to foreign audiences, North Korea has established a foothold in Western social media via videos like these on YouTube and on Twitter.
Who exactly is making and disseminating the videos on various YouTube channels is unclear. The channel featuring Un A is called “Echo of Truth,” with 23,000 subscribers. It has put out a couple dozen episodes, variously titled “What’s Up Pyongyang” and “Pyongyang Tour Series,” since last year. The site says the channel was created in 2017.
While one of the videos touts the prowess of the “invincible Korean People’s Army,” most focus on consumer and lifestyle topics. One shows Un A discussing the benefits of North Korean brass tableware; another shows her screaming on amusement park rides.
The channel links to a Twitter account with the handle @coldnoodlefan (cold noodles are a popular food in both Koreas). The bio below the picture of Un A describes the account, with some 8,600 followers, as that of a “peace advocate” offering “unbiased news” on North Korea.
As of late Wednesday morning, Twitter had labeled the account “temporarily restricted,” with a warning of “unusual activity,” although users could still click through to the content.
Some reports outside North Korea have said these YouTube and Twitter accounts are linked to state-run or state-affiliated North Korean media. While this is hard to confirm, analysts believe it’s unlikely the videos are made by ordinary North Koreans.
“I think that there is some sort of backing by the regime for this to be possible,” says Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea analyst for the U.S. government. “But, of course, that is not to say that this is state-run.”
Lee says the use of Western social media is a new twist to a nearly two-decade North Korean strategy of using the Internet to shape foreign perceptions of the country. Until now, that strategy has relied on traditional, state-run media.
The regime aims to dispel the notion that “it’s a poor, destitute country run by a dictator,” she says, “and that they don’t have the freedom to do anything.”
In multiple episodes this spring, Un A set out to debunk foreign news reports that COVID-19 had triggered a wave of panic-buying in the capital. At a modern-looking supermarket, shoppers and clerks show her shelves full of snacks, disinfectants and toilet paper.
“As you can see,” Un tells viewers in English, “all the shops are fully stocked with products and food to meet the people’s demands.”
Other videos target a South Korean audience. North Korean websites are blocked in the South, because of security laws, but YouTube is not.
One episode, narrated in Korean on the “New DPRK” YouTube channel, takes viewers inside the well-appointed apartment of a middle-class Pyongyang family.
The mother, in a trench coat, unpacks from a shopping trip, as her husband and little girl sit alongside her on a leather sofa. She gives her daughter new shoes, clothing, a Pine brand backpack and pencil case, and Dandelion brand notebooks.
Asked by her mother what she will do to deserve all the merchandise, the girl gushes: “I will make the commander happy,” referring to leader Kim Jong Un.
Since taking power in 2011, Kim has emphasized raising North Koreans’ living standards. He has pushed state factories to make goods that people actually want to buy, including those by the Pine and Dandelion brands.
“I think that [North Korean leaders] understand that there is a desire, inherent desire in in the people to want better things,” says Lee.
In a related trend, North Korea’s government has pushed the country’s journalists to produce better propaganda that doesn’t insult people’s intelligence. It is a de facto admission that, as foreign media content seeps into the country via bootlegged, smuggled videos or memory cards and South Korean radio broadcasts, consumers have other choices of what to watch, listen to and read.
North Korean authorities still warn of harmful foreign cultural influences. But consumerism is no longer taboo. Wealthy entrepreneurs called donju are snapping up luxury goods. And Western-style cafes and fast-food restaurants have sprung up in the capital.
The YouTube videos do not take viewers to North Korea’s other cities and rural areas, which lag far behind Pyongyang. The United Nations has said that 40% of North Korea’s population doesn’t have enough to eat.
And not everything in the videos looks free or spontaneous. Supermarket prices and an entire building on a Pyongyang street are pixelated out, without explanation.
There’s frequent, fulsome praise for Kim Jong Un. In the episode with the riverside jog, Un A explains: “All this enthusiasm for sports has begun thanks to our Respected Marshall. He personally instructed people to do more physical exercises.” She adds breezily: “See, even girls here like sports.”
Until last month, North Korea claimed it was completely free of coronavirus cases, something that medical experts viewed with skepticism. Un’s explanation was that “our respected Supreme Leader has foreseen everything at the very beginning, and took exact and decisive measures beyond anyone’s imagination, while others were still hesitating.”
While to some audiences, this kind of language may sound clumsy or overblown, Lee notes that it has succeeded in attracting foreign viewers, especially young South Koreans.
Fed a steady diet of reports focused on Kim Jong Un, his nuclear arsenal and human rights abuses, they may be curious to see videos that seem to show facets of life and leisure in the North that they hadn’t imagined.
“They’ll think that they’re learning things about North Korea by watching these videos,” Lee says.