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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korean TV and web properties are increasingly pixellating and blurring aspects of photo and video material, monitoring of state media by NK News indicates.
The obfuscation effort – typically focused on material in the background of the shot – appears designed to make it difficult to read or analyze content in an increasingly wide range of material published by state media.
While such visual alteration is nothing new – modern-style buildings in Seoul’s Gwanghwamoon were pixellated during 2016 protests against President Park Geun-hye – the range and frequency of the concealment has increased sharply over the past six months.
Foreign brand names are one regular example of material being blurred by state propagandists, though not always consistently.
Pictures of Hyon Song Wol riding her horse at Mount Paektu in December, for example, showed the brand name of her saddle blurred in some shots, but not in others.
Plaques, too, are often the target of state censors – but also on an inconsistent basis.
For example, an August 2019-dated upload by Sogwang.com blurred out a plaque revealing how often the Kims had visited a site, but precisely matching video material broadcast in May of 2019 by Korean Central Television (KCTV) did not include the obfuscation.
Inside factories, the computer screens of workers are now regularly blurred, preventing viewers from seeing maps or other technical material on their displays.
As a result, oftentimes large parts of a shot can be obfuscated, notably without any effort of explanation to viewers.
But the censorship effort now often extends to the mundane.
At this corn factory, for example, featured in a November 2 KCTV broadcast, some – but not all – parts of the background have been blurred deliberately by editors.
Likewise, NK News has seen video blurring at other seemingly non-sensitive sites, such as orchards, schools, and even facilities for tourists.
Furthermore, sometimes material appears to be censored for almost no apparent reason.
The windows of a trade fair and an apparent mezzanine observation area were blurred on one recent KCTV broadcast:
Another inexplicable example – window fixtures on the entrances of two buildings blurred in other recently captured material by NK News.
With state TV often considered a fount of primary source knowledge about a wide range of issues in North Korea, it appears, therefore, that a policy may have been recently enacted to minimize the risk that “internal information” might be unwittingly leaked to observers in the outside world.
And notably, even photos intended for online publication have also become a target of the widespread approach to image control.
Photos posted on January 2, 2020, for example, on the Sogwang.com state media website showed heavy pixellation on maps and computer screens.
One observer said the blurring was likely being added to prevent outsiders from learning about certain types of internal information.
“Most of this North Korean censorship seems to belong to three categories,” said Martin Weiser, a long-time observer of DPRK state media.
“Firstly, the Kim family and information on them, ranging from visits to a certain place to instructions.”
“Secondly, military information like those certifications on admission to the army,” he said. “Thirdly, information on North Korea’s intranet, including IP addresses but also some of the content shown on computer screens.”
Weiser said that “the inconsistency in censorship might be due to severe time pressure and poor editing skills.”
As a result, “sometimes only parts of sentences are obscured and sometimes censorship is applied differently the second time a background shows up in a video.”
“But sometimes it also might be due to several editors being involved like in the famous editing of Kim Jong Un’s 2019 new year speech.”
Colin Zwirko contributed to this report
Main picture: KCTV