Accessibility links

Breaking News

How North Koreans Found Out About Kim Jong Il's Death (It Wasn't Online)

People react as they mourn the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang
People react as they mourn the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang
It was a surreal moment, befitting of North Korea, when a news anchor announced the death of Kim Jong Il.

Against a dreamy backdrop of lush green forests and snow-covered mountains (no doubt a metaphor for Kim's ascension to a better place), the black-clad anchor read the news, fighting back the tears, as if she were giving a eulogy for a close friend.

Although Kim reportedly died on December 17, the announcement was delayed until December 19, no doubt a conscious attempt at message-control, as many people would hear the news at work.

With the vast majority of North Koreans offline, there was no need for such message control on the Internet. (The limited Internet North Korea does have is known as the “Kwangmyong,” essentially an isolated national Intranet with heavily controlled content and filtered search.) From North Korea Tech:

North Korea’s state media ventured online last year when a new Internet connection was brought to Pyongyang. The state-run news agency, the major national daily and the international radio outlet all have websites and steadily churn out daily propaganda about economic growth, scientific breakthroughs and the trips of Kim Jong Il across the country.

The audience is purely international — almost no one in North Korea has Internet access — and the subject matter not one that lends itself to breaking news. So perhaps it’s not surprising that North Korea’s media didn’t immediately replace their sites with somber pictures, banner headlines, or breaking news tag.

As North Korea Tech reports, official websites were very slow to get the news up:

KCNA’s Korean front page was pretty much the same. North Korea’s other websites, the national Rodong Sinmum daily and Voice of Korea international radio service, didn’t bother to immediately update their websites. Uriminzokkiri, a China-based site with close links to Pyongyang, was also slow out the gate in getting the news up.

But don’t read too much into this. The death of Kim Jong Il is a huge event for the country and the state propaganda machine. The lack of national mourning on the websites is likely much more to do with an inability to turn around a slick website redesign in hours that anything else.

With so many slick, Internet-savvy despots around, it's interesting to see how a country responds when the Internet is so devalued, so irrelevant. While earlier this year there were some signs that North Korea was becoming more savvy with its Internet propaganda and tentative forays into social media, those were clearly baby steps -- all of the official sites look like Geocities knock-offs from the late 1990s and are certainly not going to convince anyone abroad that North Korea is a forward-thinking regime.

What will be interesting is to see whether "the successor," Kim Jong Un, will allow a more open Internet -- that of course is tied to the larger question of whether he will open up North Korea at all. With the prominent role of the Internet and social media in the Arab Spring, the North Korean model of keeping the vast majority of people in the dark is likely to endure.