Never did I think it would be Kim Jong Il who would get me to open a Twitter account.
I was as adamant a holdout of the micro-blabbing phenomenon as you will find. Best to keep your breakfast menu and exercise regime to yourself. Actor Ashton Kutcher’s musings? No, thanks. Lady Gaga’s insights? Hmm.
North Korea turned me around. Who can resist Dear Leader Kim’s propaganda arm churning out crazed statements in 140 characters? Its postings haven’t disappointed, branding South Korea a “prostitute” and a “dirty whore.”
Reactions to North Korea’s “uriminzok” Twitter account focus on how Kim will have his sinister way in cyberspace. Yet what if the opposite is true? Opening this window might backfire on Kim to the benefit of the entire world.
The thing about social networking is that it runs both ways. Imagine how defeated the officials entrusted to transmit Kim’s views will be when they are ridiculed and challenged. Only a handful of North Korea’s 24 million people have access to computers -- Kim’s propaganda corps among them. They form the vanguard of our ability to penetrate Pyongyang.
Kim knows how the world views his leadership; few North Koreans do. His online dogmatists will be exposed to a steady diet of outside views of their nation’s leadership for the first time. It will be rough reading. They won’t be happy to learn that Kim is more a target of comedians around the globe than generals. Or that the son best known overseas is the hapless one arrested in Japan in 2001, when he tried to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a Dominican Republic passport.
Kim’s propagandists might find out just how impoverished their masses are relative to Sudanese, never mind South Koreans. This information could filter up the food chain and find an audience with the military bigwigs who have Kim’s back. And as Kim goes more and more online, it becomes harder to put the information genie back in the bottle.
The talk in Seoul and Washington is often about the Kim Dynasty ending amid a civilian uprising among North Korea’s people. It’s just as likely to come from a coup by middle managers in the nation’s elite. Comments from the outside might reach the class privileged enough to act, fan doubts about Kim’s regime and encourage a move to topple it.
South Korea’s government is wrong to block North Korea’s Twitter traffic. It smacks of weakness for an open and technology-savvy nation to think it has anything to fear from Kim’s thought fragments. If anything, they will just reinforce the extent to which South Korea has shot ahead and the North is stuck in time. And not a very good time, either.
One Twitter update refers to America as “The Poor Donkey” and directs you to a cartoon of Uncle Sam riding one weighed down by rocks. Others refer to “immortal exploits” of the government and how “we will be strong and prosper under the party’s leadership.” As if!
The same goes for Kim’s YouTube videos. Their propaganda value is virtually zero. North Korean households can’t watch, and those outside the Hermit Kingdom can’t help but giggle at how amateurish and reality-challenged they are. My personal favorite shows North Korea’s goal against Brazil in the World Cup from different angles, suggesting a blowout by Kim’s team. Others dismiss U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a “minister in a skirt,” invoke Che Guevara as a fighter “remembered by our posterity” and declare “let’s destroy the nuclear war provocation of the U.S.”
An online cottage industry has sprung up to poke fun at Kim’s disinformation efforts. YouTube is littered with humorous depictions of North Korea’s massive army parades and duck-walking soldiers synched to hip-hop music. There are even parodies of parodies: videos based on Kim jokes from the creators of “South Park.”
Fake Twitter accounts are popping up with clever postings. “The Dear Leader finally has admitted that he has an Oedipus complex,” said one from “Fake Uriminzok” in a reference to Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung. From “kimjongillest”: “Saw picture of me on the AP. I look so fat & jowly & no one will ever love me. Meeting w Great Plastic Surgeon of the People.”
Arguably, no one does agitprop better than Kim. This timely embrace of modern technology coincides with a momentous event: the possible naming of North Korea’s next leader, expected to be Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
Kim’s foray online is a work in progress. Last month, Facebook Inc. deleted two accounts that purported to be from North Korea. Kim is already there, though. Not the Dear Leader, but parodies of what his account might look like. One is named “(Expletive) Kim Jong Il.”
There is growing evidence that Kim is invading cyberspace. The angle that normally comes up first is the risk of cyberterrorism. Imagine how U.S. markets would quake if Kim’s hackers managed to crash the Internet. Technology also holds great profit potential.
There’s even a role for The Dude, the pot-smoking underachiever played by Jeff Bridges in the movie “The Big Lebowski.” North Korean programmers developed a mobile-phone bowling game based on the 1998 film, and another on the 1997 film “Men in Black.” Kim is championing a software industry to help raise cash for his impoverished regime. It’s a revenue source on which coast-guard boats can’t keep tabs.
Employing Twitter is a double-edged sword for Kim. It opens his secrecy-obsessed leadership to an unprecedented level of back and forth. In other words, debate.
It’s an information-age paradox. Celebrities such as Lady Gaga bemoan the loss of privacy that comes with fame -- and then they post their every thought on Twitter. In Kim’s case, the more he shares what he thinks, the more chances we have to retort and reach his people. Computer access in North Korea is enjoyed by a very select few -- also the ones you really want to communicate with.
Kim’s regime may not be ready for this interaction. The rest of the world is.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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