Instagrams Of The Fiery Tyrant: How 3G Networking Could Chip Away At North Korea’s Power

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In the 1940s, DC Comics gave Superman a new enemy. After WWII, the Ku Klux Klan was rising to power. They were gaining adherents in the south and the mystery and mayhem of their secret society was wildly frightening.

A writer named Stetson Kennedy had been researching the Klan and prepared a dossier on its wild hierarchy, passing it on to the writers of the Superman radio show. Over the course of two weeks, Superman took on bigots of all stripes, revealing Klan secrets and code words to the world. A short while later, folks would show up at Klan meetings just to laugh at the Grand Cyclops.

In short, sunlight (and Superman) reversed the darkness.

That’s happening now in North Korea. I won’t pretend that a club of goofy bigots is as dangerous as a nuclear tyrannical state, but the concept is at least congruent. At the risk of sounding like the Fake Jeff Jarvis, I will say that something is cracking in the North Korean facade and when it finally tumbles it won’t be pretty.

Jen H. Lee is the Korea bureau chief for the AP and spends time in Pyongyang. She now has access to a foreigners-only 3G network when she is in North Korea and has been tweeting and posting pictures from inside the country. I’d wager she is doing some of the most important strategic tweeting in the world right now. A sample:

She is tweeting the mundanity of real life out of a country that is seen in the media as an iron-clad box filled with dynamite. She is proving that North Koreans are just like us, regardless of their failed ideology. It’s clear North Korea needs to be seen as less like the crazy man of Asia and more like a burgeoning third world economy. What better way to prove this than offer even a stab at true freedom to those most important members of the international community – foreign traders.

Her service costs over $70 a trip for a SIM card and 3G activation, so it’s not cheap. However, now Lee can bring her own phone and send data right out of the the country almost instantly. She wrote in a great essay:

Koreans, North and South, love gadgets.

Not all North Koreans have local cellphones. Those who do use them to call colleagues to arrange work meetings, phone and text friends to set up dinner dates and ring home to check in on their babies. They snap photos with their phones and swap MP3s. They read North Korean books and the Workers’ Party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on their phones.

But they cannot surf the “international” Internet, as they call it. The World Wide Web remains strictly off limits for most North Koreans. North Korean universities have their own fairly sophisticated Intranet system, though the material posted to it is closely vetted by authorities and hews to propaganda. Students say they can email one another, but they can’t send emails outside the country.

There is nothing here that says North Korea isn’t watching these phones with a gimlet eye and is attempting to use the data collected for its own ends. They most decidedly are. But when the denizens of a country that ham-handedly steals blast footage from a video game to spread wonky propaganda are shown making a happy face in a cappuccino and walking morosely along a dead highway, perceptions change. Politicians can no longer pretend that this blustering mini-dump is more than a Potemkin village. We can finally appreciate that real people are dying in real gulags… real people who, one moment could be squirting an extra bit of mocha into your coffee and the next minute get trundled off to frozen wastes.

The easiest political ploy is to dehumanize your enemy. North Korea, in popular media, is seen not as a confusion of voices clamoring to survive – it’s is seen as a steel-eyed vulture intent on slamming missiles onto our shores. The more we see North Korea as a place of potential the more we can appreciate its place in the world – and work to ensure that the edicts of madmen don’t impinge on human dignity.