The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Politics

April 11, 2013

Improbably, North Korea becomes an online sensation

SEOUL — North Korea — the reclusive, impoverished state that denies Internet access to all but a handful of its citizens — has, improbably, become an online sensation.

With its chubby dictator, campy propaganda videos and near-daily threats of attack against its neighbors and the United States, the secretive police state has never been more searched for, tweeted or discussed. Some semi-chagrined analysts say the North, for the first time, has gone viral.

Although Pyongyang tries every few years to drive up regional tensions and win political concessions, this latest saber-rattling has more forcefully captured global attention, in part because the mysterious and potentially dangerous North so perfectly feeds the appetites of the Internet and social media.

In recent days, Google search interest in North Korea has spiked: Seven times more people searched for information about North Korea in March than at the previous high point of interest, October 2006, when the state successfully completed a nuclear test. Within the United States, North Korea was Twitter's No. 3 trending topic for the week ending April 4, behind Easter and Good Friday.

Analysts say the surging interest plays into North Korea's hands, amplifying the sense of crisis on the Korean peninsula. The North caters to the Web by using social media and updating its state-run news agency Web site several times a day — fresh rhetoric for every news cycle, in what South Korea's national security chief called a "headline campaign."

"In tension-building, North Korea is succeeding beyond expectations," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. "This is the most publicity North Korea has gotten in 30 years, and perhaps since the Korean War."

In recent weeks, the North's rhetoric and belligerent activity has been particularly intense. North Korea nullified the armistice that ended the Korean War, threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Washington, announced the restart of a reactor that generates weapons-grade plutonium, and shuttered an industrial complex that it had operated jointly with South Korea. Thursday, it claimed "powerful striking means" were on standby ahead of an expected midrange missile test.

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