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 conducted 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 have been particularly intense. North Korea nullified the armistice that ended the Korean War, threatened a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States, announced the restart of a reactor that generates weapons-grade plutonium, and shuttered an industrial complex that it had operated jointly with South Korea. On Thursday, it claimed that “powerful striking means” were on standby ahead of an expected midrange missile test.
With Secretary of State John F. Kerry due to arrive in South Korea on Friday for previously scheduled meetings, Seoul deployed three naval destroyers, an early-warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system to help it detect the potential launch, a Defense Ministry official told the Associated Press.
About 36 percent of Americans say they are tracking North Korea-related news, making it the most closely followed foreign news story of the year, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.
The Web popularity is notable, in part, because the North’s leaders — fearful of any tool that could spread dissent — have tried to seal off their nation from the Internet, limiting access to only a few hundred people. Those elites, largely members of the North’s propaganda department, use the Web strictly for state-sanctioned purposes, crafting messages that portray the North as an imperiled but determined fighter, under threat from U.S. imperialists, united under its peerless leader.