Some of the most recent — and widely shared — images and videos portray North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. Kim's image is heavily stage-managed, but it's the stage of a movie villain. Kim, who is believed to be 30 years old, brandishes weapons, smokes cigarettes in spacious rocket-control rooms, or hunches in front of Soviet-era machinery. In one recently released video, Kim, wearing a dark Mao suit, sat at a spacious desk, surrounded by four older generals, discussing a "U.S. mainland strike plan."
"If they are doing this for the YouTube hits, they're playing it well and showing a certain amount of sophistication in understanding what will get a viral response," Martyn Williams, a journalist who operates a blog about North Korean technology, said in an e-mail. "But if they are really sophisticated, they'd understand this bluster ultimately doesn't really affect the opinion of the average Western viewer."
Many scholars who have devoted their careers to North Korea embrace its occasional dark comedy. But they also worry that the hysteria about the North's international intentions distracts from a more fundamental issue — how the country treats its people.
When David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, gives public speeches, he includes a slide show of images few see on the Internet. The photos are ordinary: a couple holding hands, people on cellphones, children walking down a street.
"And I take 10 minutes and just show photos of North Korean people," Kang said. "Because it's so easy to forget about them. We kind of think, 'Oh, they're brainwashed. Or they're robots.' They're human beings. And they didn't choose to be born in North Korea. They're just trying to get through the day."