About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
UPDATE 01 MAY NOON: Wired.com have now corrected and amended the original article. Thanks to Editor Noah for taking the time to do so.
UPDATE 30 APRIL 2 1.55PM EST: Please retweet this article and help correct the torrent of articles now repeating the original and false Wired.com one!
UPDATE 30 APRIL 10:30AM EST: Just as the norm for “bizarre” stories on North Korea, this Wired.com piece has now been reproduced in differing forms by a number of other reputable news websites : LA Times, Mashable, Slate and many more. After the first “reputable” website runs a story on North Korea, it seems that all follow – seemingly with no effort in checking the original stories credibility. Is this common practice in other topic areas?
Often while scouring articles to aggregate into NK News, I come across poorly fact-checked articles which take cheap shots on North Korea for “entertainment” purposes. It seems that when creating content, some journalists benefit from the low standards their editors take when writing on North Korea. Indeed, “The country is ‘closed’ therefore we can’t check the facts”, seems to be the line that some take on the matter. And when poorly researched articles on North Korea go viral online, they merely reinforce traditional and often incorrect stereotypes about the country and its people.
On April 18 an article surfaced at popular technology magazine Wired about North Korea’s “official” website, Korea-dpr.com that was shared over one thousand times on Facebook and Twitter respectively. The author, Spencer Ackerman, cited a Fordham University student’s research which correctly showed that the Korea-DPR website was developed using a commercially produced website template, available at vendor ThemeForest for just $15. This gave the editors the catchy headline, “North Korea Spent a Whole $15 Making its Website“.
However, the reality is that this is not North Korea’s official website nor is it something most North Koreans would probably want to be associated with. Korea-dpr.com is in fact run and hosted by Spanish national Alejandro Cao de Benos de Les y Pérez, who heads up the controversial Korea Friendship Association, an organization with somewhat dubious regard. And although Alejandro’s site purports to be the “official webpage of the DPRK,” it is in reality much like the “official” Air Koryo Facebook page, an unofficial platform that is nothing more than a “fan club” style website run by foreigners. The KFA website is “official” only so far as that his sycophantic group is marginally recognized by North Korea’s cultural relations bureau, Taemun (more to come on this later).
All official North Korea websites are hosted at the .kp domain, with Naenara (“My Country”) being the closest resemblance to an official national website. A little bit of research shows that there are several other websites hosted on North Korean servers, none of them being the one which Spencer Ackerman wrote about in his recent article. Attempting to inform Ackerman of the mistake, NK News emailed him directly on Wednesday but to no avail. And in true North Korean style, remarks left by NK News left in the comment stream explaining the factual error in the article were deleted by Wired.com’s comment moderator.
So why make a stink about this here now? Two reasons. Firstly, even if this story was true, it was arguably only considered newsworthy by the editors because North Korea was involved in it. The type of commercial themes that Ackerman wrote about are used on hundreds of thousands of websites worldwide, enabling those without web design skills to build attractive websites quickly and cheaply. And if North Korea was “cheap” for using such templates, why has Wired.com not featured similar stories about the UK Government’s very real usage of a a commercial template to power their high profile Civil Service Gateway website, which uses the “Striking” template (available from Themeforest for $40) ? Short answer: because “Team America” North Korea gets plenty of cheap laughs and shares on social media platforms that a “normal” country like the UK would not, generating much wanted traffic (and advertising revenue) for the publishers.
Secondly, Wired’s attitude in dealing with the factual error when raised by NK News was not what one would expect from such a high profile outfit. Ackerman’s decision to ignore my email was surprising when you consider he won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Reporting in Digital Media. And Wired.com’s choice to censor comments left beneath the article regarding the error spoke volumes. I’ve seen many journalists correct articles as a result of comments and emails, so was rather surprised at these two issues. And importantly – part of the reason I founded NK News, was to highlight and take on poor reporting like this on North Korea.
As mentioned, Ackerman and the Wired.com editorial team were probably fooled by Korea-dpr.com’s assertion that the site is the “official” of North Korea. They weren’t the first and probably won’t be the last to think the website is official, with the KFA saying, “since 2000, this webpage has been the primary site for the country.” But there are many obvious reasons to question this. The Korea-dpr.com website has no Korean translation, is based on a Spanish server, and features an e-Commerce platform run by a company in enemy territory, the United States (through their Cafepress shop). Other pages make the external position of the website even clearer, “The KFA was founded with the purpose of building international ties with the DPRK”.
As a result of the KFA’s effort to wilfully mislead visitors to Korea-dpr.com, often journalists and editors reach out to the organization when North Korea is in the news for official comment. This is something that needs to stop – the next time there is a nuclear test, or a rocket launch, do not try and contact the website. And do not attribute anything there as being “official” comment from North Korea. As mentioned, it is official only in so far as it is loosely affiliated with “Taemun”, of which Curtis Melvin of NKEconwatch.com does a good job in explaining:
“Taemun, or the North Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries is a copy of a Soviet agency called “BOKC”. On the surface they were about promoting cultural exchanges, particularly with countries that did not enjoy formal diplomatic relations. However, BOKC and Taemun both carried out a number of subversive tactics as well, such as creating friendly constituencies in foreign countries to agitate on behalf of the communist governments and to provide alternate channels of information to the North Korean leadership. They also provided the North Korean government with “useful idiots” who could be used in domestic propaganda campaigns.”
Alejandro’s outfit already receives far too much media attention than it deserves and it is important that journalists stop connecting him and his followers directly with North Korea. Watch “Friends of Kim” for an insight into the bizarre and paranoid workings of Alejandro’s mindset and you will understand why even many North Koreans find him an enigma. Alternatively, read David Scofield”s fantastic article, “Kim Jong-ils useful idiots in the West,” in which he explains:
“The group’s activities include “information” seminars where the enlightened benevolence of Kim’s rule is championed, all part of its “alternative” view of the North. The ragged wretched displays of poverty and starvation are edited out and the voice of North Koreans not in the direct employ of Kim Jong-il are conspicuously absent. In place of uncomfortable reality, the KFA offers vacation photos of “their” North Korea taken during recent, state supported visits, complete with bowling, golf, amusement parks and Karaoke with young female party members. Members write glowing pieces, oblations celebrating Kim Jong-il’s wise rule. No starving people, torture, summary execution, penury or despair in the Korean Friendship Association’s North Korea. Just golf, great meals and evenings in the company of Kim Jong-il’s beauties”
There is already more than enough evidence available online to expose both the KFA and Korea-dpr.com for what they really are – lonely social outcasts who want to feel important for their “work” venerating the Pyongyang regime. Individuals who importantly are not official spokespersons for Pyongyang. Don’t associate these individuals with the people of North Korea, many of whom would be highly embarrassed to be associated with the KFA. Unfortunately, articles like “North Korea Spent a Whole $15 Making its Website“ do just this, crediting Alejandro’s outfit with far more worth than it deserves. And if journalists really want to write articles that take cheap shots at North Korea for entertainment purposes, then there is already more than enough material on real websites like KCNA and Naenara.
Please retweet this article and counter the torrent of incorrect articles!
If you are interested in learning more about Pro North Korea organizations, see the excellent ‘Useful Idiots’? The curious case of Britain’s pro-North Korean Community