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Improbably, North Korea becomes an online sensation

North Korea – the reclusive, impoverished state that denies internet access to all but a handful of its citizens – has, improbably, become an online sensation.

With its chubby dictator, campy propaganda videos and near-daily threats of attack against its neighbors and the United States, the secretive police state has never been more searched for, tweeted or discussed. Some semi-chagrined analysts say the North, for the first time, has gone viral.

Although Pyongyang tries every few years to drive up regional tensions and win political concessions, this latest saber-rattling has more forcefully captured global attention, in part because the mysterious and potentially dangerous North so perfectly feeds the appetites of the internet and social media.

In recent days, Google search interest in North Korea has spiked: Seven times more people searched for information about North Korea in March than at the previous high point of interest, October 2006, when the state successfully completed a nuclear test. Within the United States, North Korea was Twitter’s No. 3 trending topic for the week ending April 4, behind Easter and Good Friday.

Analysts say the surging interest plays into North Korea’s hands, amplifying the sense of crisis on the Korean peninsula. The North caters to the web by using social media and updating its state-run news agency website several times a day – fresh rhetoric for every news cycle, in what South Korea’s national security chief called a “headline campaign.”

“In tension-building, North Korea is succeeding beyond expectations,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “This is the most publicity North Korea has gotten in 30 years, and perhaps since the Korean War.”

In recent weeks, the North’s rhetoric and belligerent activity has been particularly intense. North Korea nullified the armistice that ended the Korean War, threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Washington, announced the restart of a reactor that generates weapons-grade plutonium and shuttered an industrial complex that it had operated jointly with South Korea. Yesterday, it claimed “powerful striking means” were on standby ahead of an expected midrange missile test.

With Secretary of State John Kerry due to arrive in South Korea today for previously scheduled meetings, Seoul deployed three naval destroyers, an early-warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system to help it detect the potential launch, a Defense Ministry official told the Associated Press.

Some 36 percent of Americans say they are tracking North Korea-related news, making it the most closely followed foreign news story of the year, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

The web popularity is notable, in part, because the North’s leaders – fearful of any tool that could spread dissent – have tried to seal off their nation from the internet, limiting access to only a few hundred people. Those elites, largely members of the North’s propaganda department, use the web strictly for state-sanctioned purposes, crafting messages that portray the North as an imperiled but determined fighter, under threat from U.S. imperialists, united under its peerless leader.

Some of the attention the North attracts on the web is probably unintentional. Its videos of attacks on America, deployed as sober warnings, use instrumental music of Western songs and borrow from U.S.-made video game footage. A recently released video, shown on domestic television and shared on YouTube, portrayed German shepherds mauling a photo of South Korea’s foreign minister. The minister’s face was attached to a wooden mannequin dressed in an olive-colored hunting jacket.

“As for the campiness, that suggests that the videos are largely for internal consumption” on state television, said Ken Gause, an expert on North Korean leadership at CNA, an Alexandria, Va.-based analysis organization. “Even if North Korea produces something for international consumption, it is not going to stray too far from the narrative it has told its people. After all, these videos could make their way back into the regime and cause confusion.”

Some of the most recent – and widely shared – images and videos portray North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. Kim’s image is heavily stage-managed, but it’s the stage of a movie villain. Kim, who is believed to be 30 years old, brandishes weapons, smokes cigarettes in spacious rocket-control rooms or hunches in front of Soviet-era machinery. In one recently released video, Kim, wearing a dark Mao suit, sat at a spacious desk, surrounded by four older generals, discussing a “U.S. mainland strike plan.”

“If they are doing this for the YouTube hits, they’re playing it well and showing a certain amount of sophistication in understanding what will get a viral response,” Martyn Williams, a journalist who operates a blog about North Korean technology, said in an email. “But if they are really sophisticated, they’d understand this bluster ultimately doesn’t really affect the opinion of the average Western viewer.”

Many scholars who have devoted their careers to North Korea embrace its occasional dark comedy. But they also worry that the hysteria about the North’s international intentions distracts from a more fundamental issue – how the country treats its people.

When David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, gives public speeches, he includes a slide show of images few see on the internet. The photos are ordinary: a couple holding hands, people on cell phones, children walking down a street.

“And I take 10 minutes and just show photos of North Korean people,” Kang said. “Because it’s so easy to forget about them. We kind of think, ‘Oh, they’re brainwashed. Or they’re robots.’ They’re human beings. And they didn’t choose to be born in North Korea. They’re just trying to get through the day.”

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