Live from Pyongyang: N.Korea state media tests new formats on air and online

SEOUL, Sept 3- As two typhoons hammered North Korea within a week of each other, state media broadcasts looked unusually reminiscent of international TV coverage, with correspondents standing knee-deep in floodwaters to provide rare, nearly real-time reports. “It’s surprisingly fast and honest public service reporting from KCTV unlike anything we’ve seen…

By Josh Smith

SEOUL, Sept 3 (Reuters) – As two typhoons hammered NorthKorea within a week of each other, state media broadcasts lookedunusually reminiscent of international TV coverage, withcorrespondents standing knee-deep in floodwaters to providerare, nearly real-time reports.

Thursday’s broadcasts were the latest example of a nationalpropaganda machine that is slowly evolving in the face of morecompetition from international media that seep into the isolatedcountry, analysts said.

In unprecedented overnight broadcasts, correspondents andanchors were shown at locations around the country, shouting thelatest developments while being lashed with wind and rain.

The format offered seemingly unscripted moments rarely seenon the state-controlled Korean Central Television, including onerain-drenched reporter brushing off attempts by a man trying tohand him an umbrella in the middle of a report.

“It’s surprisingly fast and honest public service reportingfrom KCTV unlike anything we’ve seen before,” said MartynWilliams, a researcher at 38 North, a U.S.-based think-tank thatmonitors North Korea.

The coverage is almost certainly part of a top-down responseto leader Kim Jong Un’s recent call last week for more effortsto prevent damage from the typhoons, Williams added.

“The layers of censorship and approval needed are toocomplex to do this without pretty high-up approval,” he said.

EVOLVING MEDIA

The coverage reflects Kim’s policy of greater transparencyand resolving issues head-on, rather than trying to hide them,said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea open sourceintelligence analyst in the U.S. government.

“Damage from natural disasters has always been a highlysensitive topic for North Korean state media, and showingnear-real-time news reports from flood sites on state TV wasunthinkable,” she said.

Since the early days of Kim’s rule, North Korean TV hasexperimented with various stylistic and formatting changes,ranging from bringing in a younger generation of TV newsanchors, to showing more graphics during newscasts, to emulatingSouth Korean entertainment shows, Lee said.

“Kim Jong Un seems to have realized early on that KCTVneeded to keep up with the times to compete with the influx ofSouth Korean and foreign media and entertainment content, andthat explains KCTV modernization efforts,” she said.

A MESSAGE FOR THE WORLD

In recent years, North Korea has dabbled in online mediaaimed at a more global audience as well.

Among them are a Twitter account with the [email protected] – a nod to one of North Korea’s most famousdishes – which described itself as “Anti-war, peace advocate andunbiased news” on North Korea.

According to Colin Zwirko, a reporter at Seoul-based NKNews, which specializes in North Korea, the account appears tobe linked to the North Korean state-run Sogwang media group,sometimes even publishing content before it appears on officialoutlets.

@ColdNoodleFan – which was recently suspended by Twitter forunspecified reasons and currently displays a message by theplatform warning that the account has shown “some unusualactivity” – has nearly 9,000 followers, while following zeroother accounts.

An English-language YouTube channel called “Echo of Hope”has gained nearly 29,000 subscribers and more than 1.5 millionviews with videos of “daily life” in North Korea.

Among the channel’s most popular videos are clips about apizza restaurant in Pyongyang and smiling people at an amusementpark, as well as videos about the coronavirus situation andrecent floods.

A series of videos, including some under the title “What’sUp, Pyongyang?”, feature an English-speaking young womanidentified as “Un A” touring various spot in the city.

In recent months, “Echo of Hope” has quietly been removingold-style videos of North Korea’s former leaders, focusinginstead on the newer videos that gather many more viewers,Williams found.

And North Korea’s Chinese-language efforts appear to be evenmore successful, with 533,000 followers on Weibo, according toWilliams.

“The goals of these initiatives seem to be to saturatesocial media with some positive messages on North Korea, or atleast make people sceptical about what they read about NorthKorea elsewhere,” Zwirko said.(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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