North Korea’s Use of YouTube as a Tool for Cognitive Warfare
Special Report | April 17, 2023
Professor at Gachon University
Minwoo Yun, a professor at Gachon University, informs that North Korea’s use of YouTube as a tool for cognitive warfare poses a critical threat to liberal democracies worldwide. He believes that North Korea’s YuMi and Song A channels, which portray the daily lives of young women and girls in North Korea, are part of Pyongyang’s attempt to counterbalance its negative image, including its aggressive nuclear threat, and potentially sway public opinion in its favor. Professor Yun analyzes that viewers may unconsciously associate the characters in the videos with North Korea, leading to the development of generally positive sentiments towards the country. He cautions that this, in turn, can result in negative attitudes towards messages from their own government, international community, and mainstream media on North Korean issues, perpetuating conspiracy biases and attitudes.
It is well-known that North Korea’s nuclear missiles and torpedoes pose critical threats to the liberal democratic world, including South Korea. However, another threat from North Korea exists and operates in a different dimension. North Korea is engaging in cognitive warfare that utilizes YouTube against liberal democratic societies such as South Korea, the United States, and Europe. While the former poses a threat through hard power, the latter is perceived as a threat through soft power.
Recently, YouTube content featuring “mukbang (meaning eating broadcasting)” and daily life in North Korea by North Korean YouTubers such as YuMi and Song A has garnered significant worldwide attention. They have amassed more than 10,000 views and subscribers, in addition to an abundance of comments. For example, YuMi’s YouTube channel, created on January 27th, 2022, currently boasts 2.53 million subscribers and 1,865,377 views.
North Korea’s use of YouTube reflects how the nation has shifted its strategy for external influence. North Korea’s internet environment is monitored extensively and is completely isolated from the outside world. Therefore, it is impossible for individuals to voluntarily operate vlogs on YouTube that are accessible to the outside world without being controlled by government authorities. As such, it is reasonable to assume that YouTube content from North Korea, which currently exists in the form of personal YouTube vlogs, is directed under the strategic direction and goals of the North Korean government.
The “Human Domain” has emerged as a new domain for war, following land, sea, sky, space, and cyber. The attacks and defenses taken to dominate this human domain are defined as cognitive warfare. The Human Domain consists of public sentiment, perception, perspective, decision-making, and behavior. The Human Domain Operation (HDO) concept refers to approaches to human emotions, thoughts, or psychological states that are necessary to achieve strategic military purposes and can produce lasting effects in current and future operational environments.
Weaponized narratives are crucial means of cognitive warfare used to dominate the human domain, as narratives can influence emotional states, belief systems, behavior patterns, perceptions, and responses to surroundings. Recently, various state or non-state attackers, including those from North Korea, have used them strategically to convey information and persuade target audiences. The ultimate goal is to induce changes in perceptions and actions by dominating the minds and thoughts of these target audiences. Weaponized narratives have evolved into powerful and destructive tools, especially as individuals are hyper-connected beyond spatial and temporal limits due to the revolution of information and communication technology and the emergence of cyberspace.
In recent years, North Korea’s spy agencies have started using YouTube to target South Korean and international audiences in an external cognitive war. In attempting to influence them, North Korea uses YouTube because it is the primary communication medium for a new type of storytelling technique in the 21st century and is recognized as a significant means of communication today. YouTube allows producers to express their stories or intentions through voice, video, and visuals while utilizing storytelling techniques to deliver messages to the audience.
From this perspective, a YouTube account becomes a combat platform for conducting cognitive battles, comparable to tanks in ground warfare, Aegis ships in naval warfare, and stealth fighters in air warfare. The narrative, as a weapon, is hidden in the content and delivered to the target audience in the form of strategic communication through YouTube.
North Korea's recent use of YouTube suggests that the country has recognized the importance of weaponized narratives and has begun to perceive YouTube as a strategic means of communication. This behavior allows us to predict the future direction of North Korea’s cyber operations against South Korea or the West. Comparable to Russia’s information-psychological war and China’s unrestricted war, North Korea’s recent changes may be an outcome of benchmarking from these countries. Perhaps otherwise, it is a result of self-evolution coincidently resembling the cases of Russia and China. In any case, it is reasonable to assume that the level and destructive power of North Korea’s cognitive warfare or influence operations will mature in the future.
Narratives are powerful tools. Humans are natural-born storytellers, and narratives bring meaning to human life and the world around them, forming individuals’ personal, collective, and cultural identities. Narratives connect audiences with messages and generate emotional responses more effortlessly than other types of communication. They are known to affect the attitude and behavior of the audience, lowering the motivation for resistance or dissent. Therefore, narratives are an effective tool of persuasion.
The narrative transformation model explains how narratives influence the human brain. Audiences who listen to narratives experience “lockdown” or “immersion” experiences where they fall into the world of the stories they hear. The audience reacts personally and emotionally to the events in the story, and this cognitive and emotional transfer affects humans. As a result, changes occur in the target audience’s behavior, attitude, and cognition.
Empirical studies have identified specific factors that make narratives more effective at generating narrative transformation. These factors include having a main character that the audience can sympathize with, eliciting psychological and emotional responses from the audience, providing an imaginative storyline (though it need not be true), basing the narrative on familiar content, and including conspiracies or rumors that support the target audience’s unresolved suspicions or distrust.
By analyzing North Korea’s YouTube content in light of the utility, characteristics, and factors of weaponized narratives, it is possible to estimate the dangers and efficacy of North Korean YouTube channels such as those belonging to YuMi and Song A in a cognitive war. These vlogs are believed to be operated by the propaganda department targeting South Korea, which is under the Cultural Exchange Bureau of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of North Korea.
YuMi and Song A’s vlogs target international audiences, including the Korean diaspora or Korean nationals living in North America and Europe, and elsewhere, as well as audiences in the West such as Europe and the United States, Latin America, and Russia. This can be inferred from the comments left by viewers on their YouTube channels.
A closer analysis of YuMi and Song A’s YouTube content reveals that they aim to enhance North Korea’s image and promote the country by showcasing the lives of young women and girls in North Korea. North Korea’s YouTube cultural operation strategy appears to be related to its intention to stimulate tourism demand, improve its image, and spread and develop North Korean influence in South Korea and internationally. By featuring young, beautiful women and female children on YouTube, North Korea aims to dilute and offset its usual “beast-like” image and create favorable public opinions about the country. Therefore, the narratives, characters, and main stories emphasize soft, daily themes associated with peace, nonviolence, purity, sophistication, coolness, freedom, and prosperity.
North Korean YouTube seems to be taking advantage of the Korean Wave, or South Korea's cultural influence, by benchmarking and imitating the content and narratives of South Korean YouTube to some extent. North Korea may be closely monitoring South Korea’s YouTube content and strategically utilizing it. For example, in line with authentic South Korean content, YuMi’s YouTube channel has the personality of either a fictitious Hallyu idol or a South Korean YouTuber. YuMi is reminiscent of a popular idol in South Korea, further indicating that North Korean authorities carefully selected the character intentionally and directed her appearances, such as her makeup and hairstyle. This suggests that North Korean authorities have a good understanding of the power of K-culture, including K-pop, and research and analyze South Korea’s current idol culture, YouTube culture of the young generation, such as “mukbang,” and the phenomenon of international fandoms of South Korean idols.
North Korea’s infusion of European images, styles, and lifestyles into its YouTube content appears to be related to the pro-European tendency acquired by Kim Yo-jong, who seems to be in charge of North Korea’s propaganda incitement, and her experience in Switzerland. For example, the surrounding scenery, cities, and buildings in Pyongyang and the decorations, tables, and chairs of cafes, residential spaces, and restaurants that YuMi filmed on YouTube have a strong touch reminiscent of European cities and lifestyles. This reflects the North Korean Propaganda Bureau’s intention to convey the image of North Korea as a sophisticated European-like place, contrasting existing North Korean propaganda content.
North Korea’s YouTube content can have a strong narrative-based influence in several aspects. First, YuMi and Song A’s characters are familiar to the audience, and the narratives of the content are similarly familiar to audiences in Korean and Western countries, making it easier for them to imagine. By piggybacking off the familiar images and content of videos that are part of the Korean Wave, North Korea can reach international and South Korean domestic audiences and spread its influence on the audience more smoothly by lowering their resistance to North Korean videos. Additionally, because YuMi’s daily life is not very different from that of young women in South Korea and Western countries, it can be accepted and absorbed in familiarity without resistance. As a result, the audience is more likely to be exposed to the narratives of the video for a longer time and engage with the main character through the events and emotions in the story, thus increasing the possibility of accepting YuMi’s narratives as accurate.
The narratives in North Korean YouTube content have a potentially significant impact, especially when conspiracy theories or rumors are involved. While the influence of North Korean YouTube on most audiences in South Korea or Western countries is limited, it can be dangerous for particularly vulnerable groups who are already pro-North Korea, left-wing, anti-government, or susceptible to conspiracy theories. These groups include some people in South Korea, ethnic Koreans living abroad, and foreigners in the United States, Europe, South America, and Russia. For these audiences, narratives reinforcing existing doubts or mistrust are more likely to have a narrative transformative effect.
YuMi and Song A’s YouTube content actively promotes conspiracy theories that support beliefs such as North Korea being a habitable country, unfairly isolated, and unfairly criticized by South Korea and the U.S., mainstream media, and international society. By unconsciously associating YuMi and Song A, presented as beautiful, kind, and seemingly ordinary, with North Korea, North Korea is perceived as a victim, thereby diluting its aggression and barbarism. Such narratives may strengthen beliefs in conspiracy theories and cynicism, which can ultimately lead to an overall favorable attitude towards North Korea and negative perceptions towards messages and reports from the South Korean and U.S. governments, mainstream media, and international society.
When individuals become more inclined towards conspiracy theories, their affinity for YuMi and Song A can intensify their cynical attitudes and perceptions. As they become immersed in the content of YuMi and Song A, they may develop generally positive sentiments towards North Korea while exhibiting negative attitudes towards messages and reports from the South Korean and U.S. governments, the international community, and mainstream media, which can lead to the expansion of their conspiracy biases and attitudes across various areas and issues. These may include conspiracy theories related to nuclear power, the Sewol ferry, and the ROKS Cheonan, even though these events are unrelated to North Korea. These may include other episodes such as risk of nuclear power, the Sewol ferry sinking, and the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan sinking which were instigated by conspiracy-driven explanations. Such attitudes can also increase the risk of developing anti-government attitudes and perceptions in addition to cynicism. Simultaneously, domestic and international audiences may further strengthen their existing fantasies about North Korea and become instigated to adopt irrational, emotional, and fantastical tendencies toward reunification with North Korea. For instance, they may develop emotional attitudes that consider the possibility of creating peace and reunification with North Korea by avoiding military confrontational reality and naively and irrationally approaching them because they often unconsciously associate the images of YuMi and Song A with North Korean authorities like Kim Jong Un when thinking of North Korea.
 Casey Hester. Ronald Schleifer, 2016. “Enhancing physician empathy: optimizing learner potential for narrative transportation.” Enthymema: International Journal of Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, and Philosophy of Literature 16: 105-118.
 Christopher Paul., et al. 2019. “Fighting Against, With, and Through Narrative: Developing the Reasons Why We Are There.” Marine Corps Gazette 103(3): 80-87; Victoria Romero. 2014. “Deterrence via narrative: The role of narrative transportation in creating persuasive messages.” In Leveraging Neuroscientific and Neurotechnological (Neuro S&T) Developments with Focus on Influence and Deterrence in a Networked World, ed. Hrir Cabayan., et al. 49. US Department of Defense.
■ Minwoo Yun received the first Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the College of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University, USA and the second Ph.D. in International Politics from the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, Seoul National University, ROK. Previously, he taught at Wheeling Jesuit University, USA as an Assistant Professor. He now teaches in the Department of Police Science & Security Studies at Gachon University, ROK as a Full Professor. He has also served as a consultant and advisor for various agencies and institutions including National Intelligence Service, Defense Counterintelligence Command, and other government agencies and military branches. He has published over 120 research articles, books, book chapters, and government policy reports. His research works include counterterrorism, transnational organized crime, cyber security and cyber psychological warfare, future warfare, military affairs, intelligence, national security and diplomatic policies.
■ Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate; Che Yeon Kim, Intern
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