The statements that come out of the North Korean propaganda machine often seem like parody, with denunciations of “imperialist puppets” and “running dogs” and threats to turn enemy countries into a “nuclear sea of fire.”
That means that many people fall for the outlandish statements put out by DPRK News Service, a satirical Twitter account with an uncanny ability to replicate the tone and peculiar vocabulary of Pyongyang’s agitprop department. (DPRK is the abbreviation of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) A bunch of media outlets have also fallen for the account, including Newsweek, Fox News, BuzzFeed and, ahem, The Washington Post.
Many of its most popular tweets involve Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader whose miraculous feats are extolled on a daily basis in the state media outlets. Like this one:
Some of the tweets are a sharp commentary on events in the United States, such as this nod to the recent case of a U.C. Berkeley student who was thrown off a flight for speaking Arabic: "Three English-speaking passengers ejected from Air Koryo flight from Beijing for suspicious behavior and terrorizing flight crew."
And this one (a moral issue where North Korea and North Carolina have similar views): "Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea halts non-essential travel, trade, and cultural exchanges with North Carolina due to anti-sodomite law."
DPRK News is run by two American guys: Patrick, a lawyer, and Derrick, a data analyst. They also run the “Popehat” account, which tweets from the perspective of, well, the pope’s hat.
We talked to them about their North Korean account. They’ve asked us to withhold their last names — they don’t want the North Koreans to be able to find them — so we’re calling them Patrick Popehat and Derrick Popehat.
Washington Post: Your DPRK News tweets are so spot-on that you've tricked a lot of people and some serious news organizations, too. What's the most surprising spoof tweet people have fallen for?
Patrick Popehat: Without a doubt, the first. On the first day of the account's existence, when Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korea's present leader, was still in power, Cyprus detained a North Korean ship caught smuggling cigarettes. I tweeted that the DPRK was threatening Cyprus with war over the ship. How the People's Navy would reach Cyprus was another question. In any case, that tweet was flagged by the Web-based arm of a Norwegian television network, and turned into a news story about the coming war. I shut down the account for a year (after boasting about the prank at my blog) after that tweet.
Derrick Popehat: Depends what you mean by "fallen." It's difficult to determine if someone is retweeting something because he/she thinks its "real," amusing or both. In this case, I would define "fallen" as "a major media outlet reported as fact." I figured after this, there wouldn't be any more. A simple Google search for the Twitter handle would not only reveal that article but several others covering the same material. So, waking up one morning and finding out this happened nearly nine months later was a little disconcerting.
At this point, Patrick and I haven't really been trying to "spoof" news outlets, so it was surprising that one made it in. That was the last major hit, I think. My favorite "spoof" moment was when Patrick killed a tweet I wrote about the Korea National Insurance Company, for being unrealistic. It actually exists, mostly as [an alleged] front for reinsurance fraud.
WP: What's the best tweet you've written? Your favorite tweet?
PP: Boasts about Kim Jong Un and his omnipotence are always fun, and not too far from what North Korea's news services actually report. This is the most popular tweet we've written:
Many of our messages are actually social criticism of America and the West that North Koreans wouldn't be informed enough to make. We're both over 35, so our millennial nieces and nephews are a favorite target:
DP: My favorite series of tweets is our continuing coverage of the Pyongyang Zoo.
I feel my single best tweet was the one where the Ministry of Culture banned sarcasm. Simple, clean, ridiculous: The replies were wonderful.
WP: Why did you start this Twitter account? Did you set out to trick people?
PP: I started it out of boredom, while home from work with a broken ankle. Initially it was just a writing exercise to see how well I could imitate Communist propaganda I'd read while studying Russian in college. That people took the account as genuine was a surprise.
DP: The Twitter account's first and primary purpose will always be the amusement of its two authors.
WP: Do you have concerns that you're contributing to this idea that North Korea is a joke, rather than a place where really serious human rights abuses are taking place?
PP: Well, North Korea is something of a joke, but it's very black humor indeed. I believe that most readers, whether they're in on the parody or not, understand that the Kim dynasty rules over the worst-oppressed people on Earth. Mel Brooks has said that he makes comedy from Hitler and Nazism because the best way to fight such people, and to prevent their return, is to mock them and expose them as ridiculous. I agree that all totalitarians should be mocked and am glad to have that privilege. (This isn't to suggest we're remotely as funny as Mr. Brooks.)
DP: Isn't it both? North Korea is a colossally brutal and truly evil regime, but they've also done some ridiculous things. But I don't feel that the account distracts from the barbarity of the regime; if anything it puts an uncomfortable spotlight on it. The account gets quite a few messages showing anger toward the regime and how it treats its citizens. And, of course, it gets more than its fair share of really bad, racist jokes and mediocre-to-okay fat jokes. Like, a LOT of fat jokes.
WP: We know you also run PopeHat and that you don't want to reveal your last names. You’re sometimes described as “libertarian lawyers.” Tell us what you can about yourselves.
PP: I helped found Popehat but don't write there as often as I once did. About every other month I'll write something, but it's generally longer-form literary parody concerning politics, rather than law, which is the blog's main focus today. I am an attorney in North Carolina. My co-blogger Derrick, who shares the DPRK Twitter account with me, is in an allied profession that works with lawyers. I became interested in communist propaganda while studying Russian literature in college in the declining days of the Soviet Union. I still have a great affection for Russian literature and humor and am sad to see the country sliding back into what seems to be a kinder, gentler Soviet Union, albeit with more consumer goods and nationalism replacing Communism. Garry Kasparov remains a personal hero.
DP: I currently work on the West Coast as a data analyst. I didn't study Soviet Lit or anything noteworthy in college, but I have an MBA, so I am pretty good at writing nonsense. I'd like to note that, politically, Patrick leans right and I lean left. And yet we both get along and rip on all political candidates equally in the account. That's what America is about, people!
WP: How did you manage to perfect this North Korean propangandese?
PP: I read a lot of bad writing from fellow lawyers. That helps. Combine it with the belligerent style of Soviet newspapers like Pravda and Izvestia, and you're getting close. I occasionally read Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the Korean Workers Party, in translation, but that's more for subject matter than writing inspiration.
DP: Practice. Starting out I would read the KCNA newsfeed (the site has since disappeared and reappeared, and I've found Rodong Sinmun to be more reliable). And my tweets would follow those items pretty religiously. Read enough of their official media, you can get the tone down (the 140 character limit helps). That has since changed. Now I usually scour rural newspapers for inspiration and don't edit my tweets for grammar. I think our big key for capturing the tone is our discipline; we generally refuse to break character or respond to people (with limited exceptions). We also strive to stay away from the easy jokes. No [Dennis] Rodman, no racial stereotypes, no Pulgasari, no StarCraft. As Patrick once told me, "Less Rodman, more giant carrots."
WP: Have you ever been to North Korea? Would you want to go?
PP: I haven't had the pleasure of visiting South Korea, though someday I'd like to go. As for the DPRK, any Westerner who visits without diplomatic immunity or the protection of a major news organization is taking a serious risk. We occasionally receive messages on Twitter from people who believe we're genuine, asking why North Korea has imprisoned some Westerner for distributing Bibles or on some other excuse. We never respond, but the answer is that the DPRK takes hostages for economic gain and to receive attention from prestigious people such as Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, both of whom I admire for their work in freeing such victims.
As for citizens of North Korea who are imprisoned for trivial reasons, no one important is looking out for them. There are organizations that help ordinary North Koreans to defect, and they're doing great work but need more help.
DP: No. No.
WP: As we were preparing this piece, The Washington Post got a special shout-out from the DPRK News folks. For the record, this one was parody: