by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.
It should surprise no one in 2017 that, politics notwithstanding, the internet loves pop icon and supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un, one of the few dictators whose online cult following rivals his cult of personality. Kim has evolved into such a meme in his own right that he has inspired sub-memes cherrypicked from photographs published by North Korea’s state-owned media. So it happened that, on December 18, 2011, the Tumblr blog Kim Jong-un Looking at Things began.
Kim Jong-un Looking at Things acted as the successor to Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, a blog with the same premise except that it followed Kim Jong-un’s father, whose death on December 17, 2011, brought the first entertaining venture to an end. Kim Jong-un Looking at Things, however, has remained active to this day, publishing its latest post about him looking at children on July 9.
The blog’s short “About” section reads, “The dear respected leader likes to look at things, too”. “Looking at babies“, reads a post from March 18. “Looking at a flight simulator screen“, says another from February 25. According to Kim Jong-un Looking at Things, the North Korean dictator has looked at a skybridge, a photograph (pretty meta), tile samples, a train car seat, and tree roots.
Because so little information escapes North Korea, which uses its own national intranet, Kwangmyong, South Korean and Western analysts must scour satellite imagery and state media to determine what they can about the hermit kingdom. Blogs such as Kim Jong-il Looking at Things and Kim Jong-un Looking at Things likely started as outgrowths of this phenomenon.Copycats of the original blogs proved quick to spread. One, a website of the same name, stopped posting on June 30, 2015. Other websites have assembled their own lists, a trend that Euronews and The Daily Mirror soon joined. The Atlantic has even run similar articles on Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. The website Know Your Meme, meanwhile, has documented quite a few other examples.
BBC News reported last year that foreigners can access fewer than thirty North Korean websites (fewer than fifty by September 2017), speaking less to the country’s authoritarianism than to its backwardness and suggesting that Kim values the Internet far less than the trolls satirizing him and his quirks. “When North Korea brings up a new website they never publicise it,” Martyn Williams, a San Francisco-based expert, who runs the website North Korea tech, told BBC News. “Either someone finds it by accident or it might show up in a search engine”.
According to Vice News, North Korean officials enjoy better Internet access than the citizens whom they represent, using their connections to open Facebook and even watch pornography. “Our analysis demonstrates that the limited number of North Korean leaders and ruling elite with access to the internet are much more active and engaged in the world, popular culture, international news, and with contemporary services and technologies than many outside North Korea had previously thought”, reads a report by Recorded Future, a technology company specializing in real-time threat intelligence, which Vice News quoted. “North Korean leaders are not disconnected from the world and the consequences of their actions”. They will likely have seen the thousands of memes satirizing Kim, including Kim Jong-un Looking at Things. No one has hypothesized how the supreme leader might react, though.
The North Koreans have rarely taken Western satire well in the past. In 2014, the FBI and the White House alleged that Bureau 121, a North Korean cyberwarfare agency, which is part of the Reconnaissance General Bureau of North Korea’s military, hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment for refusing to pull The Interview, a comedy film about assassinating Kim Jong-un. Outside the Sony hack, Bureau 121 has tended to attack South Korea from offices in China.
While Tumblr blogs may prove too obscure to provoke the supreme leader, the renewal of tensions between China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States could lead to another round of cyberwarfare. North Korea’s nuclear weapons have resulted in a series of verbal confrontations between Pyongyang and Washington in recent weeks. The New York Times reported in March that the Pentagon has been waging a virtual war against North Korea’s missiles and nukes for three years, meaning that, whether intentional or not, the Western world is in effect waging a two-front cyberwar against North Korea: one through covert, military means, the other through civil society and pop culture, represented online by humble but popular enterprises such as Kim Jong-un Looking at Things.
For now, online comedians seem all too happy to undertake the overt war against North Korean propaganda on their own, and the North Koreans will continue supplying them with material.
Patrick Truffer, “North Korea’s atomic bomb: living with the status quo“, offiziere.ch, 23.01.2017.