SEOUL, South Korea — A well-dressed young woman toured a shiny, brightly lit grocery store in Pyongyang, where high-heeled women browsed shelves and refrigerators filled with beverages, chocolates, candies and other snacks.
International reports of possible panic buying in North Korea had surfaced, and she was there to find the truth. She asked shoppers and clerks if any goods were out of stock; they weren’t. She asked if prices were rising; just imported products, which North Koreans shunned anyway.
“I think the fake news is the last thing we need in such a fierce battle time with Covid-19,” she told her 32,900 viewers in English on her YouTube channel, Echo of Truth.
The young woman, Un A, is the new face of North Korean propaganda, an attempt to create a more benign and modern image of an isolated dictatorship most associated with famines, human rights abuses and nuclear stockpiles.
Designed for a global audience in the social media era, the state-sponsored message in the high quality, slickly produced videos is simple: North Koreans, they’re just like everyone else. They play sports in their free time. They scream on roller coasters. They shop in malls and eat pizza.
It is the highly curated and deeply misleading version of North Korea that its leader, Kim Jong-un, wants the world to see as he pushes his agenda at home and abroad. Mr. Kim has repeatedly called on his people to aspire to more “international” and “modern” standards, while at the same time trying to persuade other nations that North Korea can live in peace, as long as they let it keep its nuclear weapons.
The social media campaign is a far cry from the old, grainy propaganda footage of his father and grandfather’s generation where North Koreans toiled under red flags or cheered at military parades filled with anti-American slogans. Its official propaganda at home has long helped cement an image of an all-powerful regime ready to take on its rivals, replete with patriotic songs, xenophobic diatribes and images of goose-stepping soldiers and missiles soaring through smoke and flame.
The best-known practitioner in the genre is the North’s legendary anchorwoman, Ri Chun-hee, a “labor hero.” She melts with emotions while delivering news about Mr. Kim and his forebears who ruled before him, but can launch into strident spiels when attacking her nation’s enemies with what North Koreans call her “steel-grinding voice.”
Despite the new, upbeat packaging, it still has the undercurrent of reverence to the regime. The women, smartly dressed in crisp blazers with the air of television journalists, usually wear the lapel pin — featuring images of Mr. Kim’s father and grandfather — that all North Koreans must wear to show their loyalty.
In an episode uploaded last Friday, young people celebrate “Youth Day” in Pyongyang, dancing and singing along in an outdoor concert. Under blinding beams of light that call to mind western rock concerts, performers display K-pop dance moves as they sing about “the fatherland” and “our dear general,” Mr. Kim.
“The idea is to create North Korea’s image as a normal country, make foreigners believe that it is another country where people live ordinary lives,” said Kang Dong-wan, an expert on the North Korean media at Dong-A University in South Korea.
The new propaganda follows Mr. Kim’s efforts to modernize his country and operate on the world stage with leaders like President Trump. Abandoning tradition, Mr. Kim ditched the Mao jacket and the rostrum and delivered his annual New Year’s address last year from a club chair in his book-lined study, wearing a Western suit and tie. Two months later, he instructed his propagandists to stop “mystifying” him, saying that he wanted to appeal to his people as “a human” and “comrade.”
Mr. Kim has also diverged from his predecessors in leadership style, encouraging more commercial activities to nurture a small and burgeoning middle class. For the new moneyed class, smartphones have become a must-have, although they are not connected to the global internet. They shop in modern department stores and take their children to water parks, ski resorts, horse tracks and dolphin aquariums. Many live in high-rise apartments.
North Korean state television has also become much livelier.
Not long after he took power, Mr. Kim was shown on state TV giving a thumbs up to an arts performance by the Moranbong Band. The country’s premier music group is usually known for its panegyric operas dedicated to the “great leaders” from his family. This time, a girl group, sporting mini skirts and electric guitars, played the theme song from the Rocky movies while characters who looked like Mickey and Minnie Mouse pranced on the platform.
Mr. Kim’s changing propaganda strategy is also driven by the invasion of outside news and entertainment — mainly South Korean movies and TV dramas that have become increasingly popular despite the government’s crackdown on such shows. In recent years, human rights activists and North Korean defectors living in South Korea have found ways to get USBs filled with programs across the border by smuggling them or flying them in balloons.
“In the past, the North Korean strategy was to establish layers of so-called mosquito nets around its society, letting in what it needed but keeping out unwanted outside news,” Mr. Kang said. “Now, Kim Jong-un favors a more aggressive approach, creating contents that can compete with outside entertainment.”
The new spin is the product of the Propaganda and Agitation Department.
The department controls all propaganda to shore up the personality cult surrounding Mr. Kim. It is also the regime’s enforcer of an Orwellian control of information, censoring what is printed or broadcast at home while blocking its people from the global internet.
During a party meeting in December, Ri Il-hwan, one of a new generation of officials favored by Mr. Kim, was promoted to head the department. Mr. Ri has since begun deploying “tailor-made propaganda” for foreign audiences, including episodes on Un A’s Echo of Truth, said Kim Byung-kee, a South Korean lawmaker, who was briefed by the National Intelligence Service last month.
Until recently, North Korea’s main mouthpiece to the outside world had been its Korean Central News Agency. North Korea created a modest batch of government-run websites, but their reach was largely confined to analysts, journalists and other North Korea aficionados.
Now, social media is giving North Korea a “low-cost and effective means” to disseminate its propaganda, said Cheong Seong-chang, a longtime North Korea researcher at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Dozens of channels on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other social media, as well as on Chinese platforms like Weibo and Bilibili, carry North Korean propaganda footage. Many of the channels are thought to be operated by Mr. Ri’s department. In the Twitter account linked to the Echo of Truth YouTube channel, (and later banned), Un A portrays herself as an “antiwar, peace advocate” who provides “unbiased news” about North Korea.
These channels dutifully replay old propaganda footage made for the home audience in the North, like the online version of the memoirs of Kim Il-sung, Mr. Kim’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea. But they also provided rare peeks into how Mr. Kim’s modernization drive has changed the lifestyle and cityscape of Pyongyang. The elites living there visit Western-style cafes and fast-food restaurants, perusing menus on electronic tablets. They pay with cash cards and use home-delivery services.
In recent years, Google has shut down some of these propaganda sites on YouTube, citing sanctions rules. Washington has blacklisted the North’s propaganda department since 2016.
But new channels quickly pop up carrying similar content, like Echo of Truth. Created in 2017, the channel now has 24,800 subscribers.
Her videos are as much about what is left unsaid about North Korea.
In an episode last November, she visited the Taesong Department Store while on her way home after work, perusing domestic brands of kimchi instant noodles and soju, a Korean liquor. She filled her cart with chocolate and cheese-flavored cookies and yogurt — a popular breakfast for young Pyongyang workers late for work.
“I really enjoyed shopping,” she said, walking out of the store, where some prices were blurred out.
Such abundance isn’t available outside the capital. The United States estimates that about 60 percent of North Koreans don’t have enough to eat this year.
In My Hero, a segment about Un A’s grandfather, a veteran of the 1950-53 Korean War, she identifies herself as “an ordinary Korean girl from an ordinary family.”
Then she launches into a monologue hewing relentlessly to the grand theme of all North Korean propaganda — how the Kim family liberated Koreans from the yoke of Japanese colonialists, repelled American invaders in the Korean War and made North Koreans safe once and for all by developing a nuclear deterrent.
“We don’t have to wander around in search for a shelter, we don’t have to bend knees pleading for peace, and we don’t have to run from gunfire,” she says.
She does not mention that the war was started by the North’s invasion of South Korea and was halted in a stalemate after costing millions of lives.
“She is another parrot repeating the messages from the Workers’ Party,” said Shim Jin-sup, a retired psychological warfare officer of the South Korean military.