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Maybe The North Korean Government Isn't Using Twitter After All

Not a member of the Twitterati yet
Not a member of the Twitterati yet
Last week it was widely reported that the North Korean government was embracing social media and was now on Twitter (mostly in Korean), Facebook, and YouTube.

Even the U.S. State Department reacted, with chief spokesman Philip Crowley tweeting a series of responses:

We use Twitter to connect, to inform and to debate.

The North Korean government has joined Twitter, but is it prepared to allow its citizens to be connected as well?

The Hermit Kingdom will not change overnight, but technology once introduced can't be shut down. Just ask Iran

Now it seems, according to a Forbes report, that the North Korean government might not be entering the bright new world of social media after all:

A North Korea government official tells Forbes that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as reported by thousands of publications worldwide. The accounts are run by government supporters, not government officials, living in Japan and China, not North Korea.

Those social media sites are still banned in North Korea, says the official.

“Any kind of IT-based communication is interesting for the DPRK,” emails Alejandro Cao de Benos, a special delegate for North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. But don’t be fooled: “Such websites will never be run by our Government directly.”

When I first heard the news last week, I was going to write that this is another reminder that even medieval basketcases like North Korea will take the if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach on the web, instead of retreating further into their unwired foxholes. Just like Iran seems to be doing.

If North Korea were tweeting it would seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the idea that social media -- or even going a bit further back, the Internet -- is somehow an exceptional medium in that it tends to lean toward the progressive and can only serve to emancipate.

Well, maybe North Korea will remain the unfortunate exception. Or maybe the country's government just read Crowley's tweets and decided, after all, that it probably wasn't worth the risk for fear of spawning its own web-savvy Green Movement. (Admittedly pretty hard in a country with only a handful of Internet users.)

The real question is whether those tweeting "supporters" are doing it because they are genuinely overwhelmed by the need to sing the praises of North Korea or whether they're simply government proxies. Either way, I'm not sure it matters much. Just as allowing third-parties to handle your cyberattacks can be a wise tactic, allowing your social media to be managed by out-of-country "supporters," genuine or not, might be a nice workaround for closed and repressive governments.

In the meantime, here are the five best fake leaders on Twitter.