The week that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt announces he will visit North Korea is the week that state news agency KCNA updated its website, this time with a fresh new look that includes a heavy focus on multimedia content. But despite what is now the third update to its official online presence, the North Korean developers behind the website continue to approach web standards in a unique manner that leaves the system cumbersome and impractical to use.
The official website available at kcna.kp first appeared online in October 2010 and was later updated in April 2011. Prior to its appearance two years ago, KCNA news had only been available online via a Japanese website hosted by North Korea’s “Chongryon” community (overseas North Koreans in Japan). That website, still in existence at kcna.co.jp, continues to operate (albeit with content usually being updated 24 hours after the news appears at the .kp domain).
While version two of the KCNA website appeared to have made several breakthroughs when it emerged in April 2011, North Korea blogger Curtis Melvin today remains unhappy with the sites latest refurbishment:
The new site appears to be a step backwards. It does not appear to correct any of the deficiencies with the last version and it adds a few more problems. The prime real estate is dedicated to top stories of 2012. Below the fold, the stories are not laid out in any coherent way. The most notable feature eliminated from the new page is the quick link to “Kim Jong-il’s” activities. The search function works on the main page, but does not work on the “results page” (where search results are displayed).
So what’s actually changed in version 3.0? First up is the new landing page (pictured above), which features a photo-heavy presentation of North Korean achievements. First time visitors to the site are now greeted by photos of new apartment buildings in Pyongyang, London 2012 Olympic gold successes, and of course a tribute to the recent successful rocket launch. But in a sign of the “Juche” nature to the websites’ development, among these photographs includes an animation showcasing the auspicious 100th year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
While the rest of the world has been sharing online motion graphics files known as animated GIFs for decades, the 2012 animation on the new KCNA website seems anything but. While looking much like an animated GIF, upon closer inspection the filetype appears to shown how North Korean developers have gone done things truly in their own style by creating an animated JPEG format image.
UPDATE: One NK NEWS follower explains the North Koreans may have simply renamed the file format:
— Stuart Robert Foy (@__foy) January 4, 2013
Another new feature on the KCNA site relates to user registration, with a process that suggests the news agency is now keen on mining multiple layers of detail from its ever expanding user base. Name, birthday, sex, telephone, email, address, and nationality are all requirements of the registration process, but quite why is yet anyone’s guess: as of today logged-in viewers are unable to access any other parts of the website.
Whether KCNA will be able to persuade many users to register remains to be seen, with Curtis Melvin explaining, “I have not registered because I am at home and I don’t want them to know my IP address.”
When the previous iteration of the KCNA.kp site arrived in October 2010, many users were happy to see the inclusion of pictures and video amongst the news for the first time. After relying for years on a purely text based service at its Japanese sister site, KCNA.kp’s new media output was quick to spawn a broad selection of fans. Youtube channels, the Kim Jong Il “looking at things” Tumblr account, and a series of social media assets all soon popped up making full use of the new content.
But while the new pictures and videos proved instantly popular, researchers and academics were left frustrated due to a bizarre problem: the impossible nature of them linking directly to KCNA articles. Fast-forward two years to the update and despite the new look, it’s still impossible for readers to share articles in the way they would with the average website. We spoke to the NK NEWS developers to find out more about the logic behind KCNA’s news engine:
A final other development is the slightly better positioning of the actual news categories, which are now listed above the content in a conventional menu system. In previous iterations of the site, users had to navigate to the depths of individual pages to find these category listings. Also added to the menu system are buttons which allow viewers to conveniently access video and photo sections, a very minor improvement on the past.
Since registering its .kp internet domain in 2010, North Korea has been rapidly expanding its online footprint. Having had an almost non-existent online presence for many years, North Korea’s increased online activity has unfortunately not yet been met by any significant increase in domestic internet penetration. Unfortunately, following news of the problems encountered on the new Air Koryo website which appeared in October, it appears North Korea’s programmers still have long way to go in providing the ultimate user-experience.
NK NEWS would like to thank Steve Salloom in helping with this article.