Tag Archive | "media"

Rodman and Rogen Have Made the Same Mistake on North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz 

Dennis Rodman and Seth Rogen have made the same mistake on North Korea. Both have mistakenly viewed North Korea as a helpless entity. Rodman viewed North Korea as so helpless that all it needed was someone to talk to, play basketball with, and sing “Happy Birthday” to its leader. Rogen saw North Korea so incapable that it couldn’t possibly get upset or respond to the movie where its current leader is targeted for assassination. These two instances have impaired possible engagement paths with North Korea. More disturbingly, the possibility of repeating this same mistake is higher than the possibility of learning from it.

For Dennis Rodman, the dramatic attention he received after actually meeting Kim Jong-un on his first trip conflated the misperceptions of North Korea’s helplessness and Rodman’s actual influence. Upon his initial return home, Rodman repeated Kim Jong-un’s message to President Obama to call him. For Rodman, a phone call about basketball was all that was needed. However, President Obama understood that North Korea is more complex and dangerous to U.S. interests. Before his next visit to North Korea, the complexities began to mount for Rodman as he was constantly asked about Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen detained in North Korea at the time, was having difficulty finding players for his delegation, and was trying to demonstrate that the return trip to North Korea was more than a propaganda gift for Kim Jong-un’s birthday. In the end, there was no talk of Kenneth Bae, no basketball clinic with kids, no return visits, and U.S.-North Korea relations are still strained.

While some of the actions and reports out of North Korea may seem outlandish and perfect for comedic movies, the outcomes are not. What is actually happening inside North Korea is more serious. The North Korean regime does need to be offended, but if that was the goal of Rogen and Sony, they needed to be much more prepared for the public relations attention and actual responses from North Korea. The misperception that North Korea is helplessly isolated contributed to The Interview team only talking to a few experts on North Korea, not having coordinated talking points about the purpose of the movie, lack of coordination against a North Korean response, and lack of cohesion in going forward with the movie once it was approved to be made.

Unfortunately, mistakes by Rodman and Rogen have damaged two avenues of engagement that would actually be worthwhile pursuing. Basketball and sports diplomacy was a brilliant hook to attract a young leader who as a kid went to see an NBA exhibition in Paris. Moreover, his father was known to have taped NBA games, especially those featuring the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. This excellent opportunity has now been damaged by the fallout from the Dennis Rodman visits and will make it more difficult for U.S.-based organizations actually structured for international basketball exchanges, especially those geared toward the youth, to set up an operation with North Korea.

Movies and film are also a great way to engage North Korea, but this too is now tainted. North Korean media seemingly feels almost every branch and department in the U.S. government is connected with The Interview movie, potentially putting a larger stigma on any entity from the U.S. connected with the movie industry. This is unfortunate because Kim Jong-un’s father was a huge movie buff. Plus, British and Belgian filmmakers have already had some success in engaging through film, shooting three documentaries and one feature film inside North Korea. Granted, because the British and many European countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea, there is likely more flexibility than an American group pursuing similar projects, but the precedent is there. Yet disparaging the North Korean leader through a U.S.-made movie, the cyber attack on Sony Pictures believed to be from North Korea, and a potential retaliatory response by the U.S. government all suggest a path for U.S.-North Korea engagement through the movie industry will be blocked as a possibility for some time.

Worse, both Rodman’s visits and Rogen’s movie perpetuate this same mistake or perception. The lack of preparation, understanding, and messaging from both of these instances creates a dynamic where the attention falls back onto the U.S. players rather than North Korea. The Rodman visits spiraled into a farcical contest of who’s crazier, Rodman or Kim Jong-un. Rogen and those working on The Interview thought the subject of North Korea was a guaranteed laugh; instead, their misperceptions led to the guarantee that their moves and responses would be more scrutinized than North Korea’s. This refocusing on Rodman and Rogen means it is less likely that more information will be obtained by the general public about North Korea as the stories seemingly devolve into even wackier circumstances. Thus, the seriousness and gravity of attempting to solve the North Korean conundrum, even if it is just a small part in that effort, is lost.

Misperceiving North Korea as an isolated, helpless country that just requires friendship or won’t get upset about disparaging depictions of its country makes things worse for interaction between the U.S. and North Korea. The mistakes made by Dennis Rodman and Seth Rogen have caused the attention to be taken off North Korea and placed back on the U.S. participants and their roles, while at the same time increasing the tension between North Korea and the United States. Two excellent channels for possible U.S.-North Korea engagement have greatly diminished, and the potential for making these same mistakes again remains. North Korea continues to defy the odds against its survival and develop technologies like nuclear weapons, missiles, and cyber attacks to provoke the U.S. and its allies in part because many still refuse to believe that North Korean can do it.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Might a Proportional Response to North Korea’s Sony Hack Look Like?

By Troy Stangarone

North Korea’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment and the subsequent threats to target theaters that screened “The Interview” have had a chilling effect beyond Sony’s decision not to release it on Christmas day. The decision to withdraw “The Interview” from release has raised important questions regarding freedom of speech and how best to approach future cyber attacks by North Korea or other actors.

What We Know About the Hack

In October, hackers, unidentified at the time but suspected to be North Korean, attacked Sony’s computer network and stole a large trove of documents and released five movies on-line causing the studio financial harm and embarrassment as internal documents and e-mails were slowly leaked. At the time, other suspects included disgruntled former employees who had indicated that Sony was vulnerable to cyber attacks or that the Guardians of Peace, who claimed responsibility, could be an unknown group of hackers. However, an investigation into the evidence has now indicated otherwise. In his press conference on December 19, President Barack Obama confirmed that it was North Korea that engaged in the attack while the FBI announced that it had reached this conclusion based largely on the following information:

  • Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.
  • The FBI also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, the FBI discovered that several Internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.
  • Separately, the tools used in the SPE attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea.

The Fallout from the Hack

The fallout from the hack has been significant. On the financial side, Sony has likely lost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue from pulling “The Interview” and other films that have been released on-line. Shortly after Sony announced its decision, two other movie studies took similar actions. Paramount Pictures has pulled screenings of 2004’s Team America from theaters, while Fox has pulled the plug on the Steve Carrell movie “Pyongyang” which was set to start filming next year. The capitulation to North Korea’s threats have raised questions about freedom of speech and how best to respond to cyber attacks.

Green lighting a film that portrays the assassination of a sitting world leader was likely unwise from the beginning, even one from a regime with the human rights record of North Korea. North Korea has previously demonstrated a willingness to use cyber attacks against private entities that believes portray it unfairly. In 2013, it attacked South Korean TV networks who it had accused of covering it unfairly.

However, Sony’s subsequent decision to give into North Korean pressure after theaters began to pull out raises larger issues regarding free speech and cyber intimidation. As the President noted, what precedent does this now set for other leaders who do not like how they are portrayed in a documentary or in the news. Will studios and news agencies start self-censoring their films or reporting on controversial world leaders to avoid being the targets of attacks? Additionally, has Sony now signaled to other groups that cyber attacks on entertainment and news agencies could be an effective tool for achieving their goals? How this ultimately affects artists’ ability to express themselves and reporters’ ability to report stories accurately may be the biggest fallout from North Korea’s attacks.

What Would Be a Proportional Response?

President Obama in his press conference indicated that the United States will respond to this attack in a proportional manner at a time of the United States’ choosing. As the United States considers its options, there are likely a range of things that will come into consideration.

While we now know that North Korea conducted the attack, its attack was on a private institution rather than an attack on the government. Does that mean that any response should be proportionally less than if a government institution was attacked, which could be considered a direct act of war? In the age of cyber warfare, this is a gray area. The United States has not previously come to the defense of U.S. businesses that have been hacked through means other than law enforcement. Then there is the question of the nature of a cyber attack on a business. Is a cyber attack on a business the same as a kinetic attack on a business? As the administration draws up it plans, it will likely seek to demonstrate to North Korea and other potential attackers that there are costs for attacking private institutions as well as a direct attack on government institutions.

There is also the question of escalation. How does the United States design a response that extracts a cost from Pyongyang for its actions, but that does so in a manner that will not lead to an escalation of attacks? This means that a kinetic attack is likely off the table as it would come with a high probability of a response against the United States or one of its allies. More likely would be some combination of cyber attacks against North Korea, likely in ways that will not be publically noticeable, and increased pressure on banks to cut off North Korea’s finance. The United States will also likely privately pressure China to shut down North Korean cyber facilities operating inside Chinese territory.

Unlike many of the previous cyber attacks on U.S. businesses or websites of government or private institutions around the world that were designed to acquire financial resources or intellectual property, North Korea’s attacks on Sony are the most politically motivated since Russia’s suspected attacks on Estonia in 2007. They are in essence an attempt to change the policy of a company to one more liking to the regime in Pyongyang and we have already seen the chilling effect they could have on free speech. While Paramount may simply be trying to avoid controversy by cancelling showings of the previously released “Team America,” Fox’s decision to cancel the as yet filmed “Pyongyang” shows the potentially farther reaching implications. For this reason, it is appropriate that the United States take more direct action to discourage similar attempts by North Korea or other actors in the future.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Cristal’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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North Korea Allows Internet Access (For Foreigners)

By Chad O’Carroll

On Friday the Associated Press Pyongyang bureau reported that North Korean authorities will allow foreign visitors to access the internet using cellular devices from March 01. Predictably, the news was published with the caveat that access conditions will not change for local citizens, who will remain cut off from internet access and remain unable to make calls to foreign countries for the foreseeable future. As such, the news triggered skepticism in some quarters that the step was undertaken simply to encourage tourism and increase revenue for the North Korean government. But even if that is the case, there are nevertheless several reasons why we should be encouraging the relaxation in North Korean telecommunications.

Just four weeks ago, rules that prevented tourists bringing their cell phones in to North Korea were finally relaxed, a development that meant foreigners would no longer have to surrender their devices upon arrival in Pyongyang. Coming just weeks after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s recent trip to North Korea, many may now be wondering if his visit was behind the cellphone and internet access developments. But while some might see the recent news as evidence that Pyongyang took heed of Schmidt’s pronouncements, comments made by Orascom staff to Xinhua News suggest these changes had been long planned and were not consequently related to the Google trip.

Over the past four years Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Company has been working closely with North Korea to develop and expand the KoryoLink cell phone network. Run as a joint venture based on 75% Orascom and 25% North Korean ownership, the Cairo based tech firm put a strong focus on ensuring the DPRK cell network would use the latest 3G cell tower technology from the outset. As a result of this step, the North Korean network was always going to be ready for internet access, provided of course there was sufficient political will in Pyongyang. Now, with 92.9% of population areas covered by KoryoLink’s network, as a result of today’s news it seems that foreigners should be able to access the net wherever they go.

While only 30,000 tourists visit North Korea per year, their potential to access the internet could prove to be the first step towards a gradual opening up of the DPRK telecommunications infrastructure. North Koreans already comprise some two million KoryoLink subscribers, though currently they can only use their devices to communicate internally. However, some of these subscribers can already access limited domestic data services, to find weather reports or local news, for example. Looking to the medium to long-term future, it’s therefore quite possible that this latest move could pave the way for North Korea to roll out a limited internet service (perhaps similar to Iran) to its own citizens as a logical next step.  The same thing has already happened in Cuba, where tourist based access paved the way for increasing domestic access and even the emergence of blogs written by Cubans, but published via USB keys passed to foreigners who have net access in international class hotels.

Another benefit of foreigners being able to access the internet while in North Korea is that it could seriously catalyze the speed at which important world news gets to the country. While those coming into regular contact with foreigners tend to come from the top tiers of North Korean society, that foreigners will now theoretically be able to spread news as it happens means the development will lead to a new and credible addition to the country’s infamous “bush telegraph”. And though little is known about how the North Korean government intends to prevent local citizens from ever using approved devices to access the internet, we can bet that some will find a way. To be sure this will be a tiny fraction of people, but given North Korea’s history of an impermeable iron curtain, it is meaningful in any case.

It will be particularly interesting if foreigners will be able to access South Korean news and information websites through the KoryoLink infrastructure. Even if these and other websites do turn out to be blocked, it won’t take long for crafty visitors to get around the rules using VPN and other IP proxy technologies. As such, the only way Orascom will really ever be able to assure its North Korean hosts of absolute control will be to shut off access for everyone, completely.  Such a move can’t be discounted, with cell usage having been dramatically curtailed in a u-turn policy change on made by Pyongyang in 2004, the year an explosion took place allegedly near to Kim Jong Il’s passing train.

Another benefit of the move will be that it will be easier for visitors to share with the world the reality of life in North Korea. With photography having long been restricted and visitors subject to random photo deletions by over-zealous border guards, the latest development should theoretically allow foreigners to upload pictures straight to the internet, as quickly as they take them. Naturally, it is likely that access will be monitored to some degree, but the more widespread access becomes, the harder it will be for DPRK authorities to track use.

One potential hurdle to the above advantages relates to costs.  To date foreign residents and business people have been able to access the internet access using satellite technology, but the costs have been so exorbitant that it has significantly reduced the potential for the internet to have many of the positive effects described above.  Unfortunately, figures obtained by the Wall Street Journal suggest that for its part, the new mobile internet service will not be cheap, with a set up fee of around 150 EUROS for the SIM card, then data fees of around 150 euros for 2GB of bandwidth. Prices this high mean it will be expensive for people to get the type of access required to create the various impacts detailed above, but it’s a start nonetheless. And while the high fees reflect that access is currently aimed more at long term residents than tourists, a KoryoLink technician said that his team was working to persuade the North Korean government to get permission to introduce cheaper and short-term tourist focused services. Time will tell how significant Friday’s development is, but it seems clear that any opening, no matter how small, should be welcomed and encouraged vigorously.

Chad 0′Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from djking’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korea Loses its Place Atop the World’s Most Censured Nation’s Lists

By Chad 0’Carroll

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report which put Eritrea as the world’s leading censor of the media.  Eritrea sat on top of a list of ten countries which CPJ said had “dictatorial controls” on domestic media, followed closely by North Korea, Syria and Iran.  North Korea, which was long regarded as worse than Eritrea when it came to press freedom, seems to have improved its standing since the CJP’s last report in 2006. The improvement is also reflected in the work of Reporters Without Borders, who now rank North Korea as second to last when it comes to this year’s Press Freedom Index.  While there is still huge room for improvement, the shift is somewhat notable. But what is behind this change? Have things actually gotten better in North Korea or is the situation in Eritrea so bad now that North Korea’s position had to improve, albeit relatively?

Although Eritrea surfaces in the news a lot less than North Korea, there is no doubt that the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki has done much to limit press freedom. Having seized power in 1993, Afewerki promised elections to take place in 1997, but in the end they never happened. Fast forward to 2001 and responding to criticism from the private press about the lack of elections, Afewerki ordered the closure of all independent media and expelled all foreign journalists. Since 2001 there has been not one single foreign correspondent based in the country, with the case of Swedish correspondent Dawit Isaak, imprisoned for over a decade now, underlining the harsh conditions foreign journalists face in reporting on the country.

With media restricted now to three state-run newspapers, three radio stations and two television stations, the government controls nearly all media in Eritrea. Internet access is theoretically available but is highly monitored, with all foreign news sites blocked.  And while satellite TV is possible, only the affluent can afford the dishes required to receive outside broadcasts. In this environment even state media officials fear for their safety, and in 2009 the entire staff of Radio Bana, a small radio station based in the capital city that put out educational programs under the sponsorship of the education ministry, were all arrested without explanation.  As such in this environment it is not hard to understand why even government employed journalists regularly flee the country, fearful of provoking the wrath of their government employers.

From looking at the above facts, it looks clear that the situation in Eritrea has worsened significantly over the past decade or so. But have things really improved in North Korea, or did Eritrea’s situation become so dire that the CJP authors had little choice but to elevate the DPRK, even though little had changed?  In answering this question one must consider two factors; the internal and the external.

Internally there is not much evidence that the media environment of North Korea has changed much over the past decade. Citizens of the DPRK still receive nothing but state run media, forming principally of one nationwide TV station, three radio stations, and five newspapers. TVs and radios must be specially modified to receive only state authorized stations, and jamming is commonplace along the border areas. The internet continues to be banned for almost all citizens, but a highly controlled intranet system known as “Kwangmyong” has surfaced in recent years.  All North Korean media outlets continue to serve the government as both propaganda outlets and censors – only news and information that can be used to help bolster regime credentials or undermine adversaries is published. Whether or not there is the same degree of repression for government journalists as in Eritrea is unknown in North Korea, where it would be almost unthinkable to challenge the leadership in any media.

While nothing has changed in North Korea’s government run internal media environment, there has nevertheless been a “quiet opening” as far as the reach of foreign media is concerned.  New communications technologies have opened the country up to foreign news, information, and entertainment, through the import of DVDs, USB sticks, cell phones and radios. Recent research suggests that up to 48% of the population has viewed a foreign DVD, while foreign radio broadcasts are increasing in reach and helping to shape citizens’ views of the outside world more than ever before. The changes in how foreign media are handled  marks a stark change to over a decade ago, when punishments for watching foreign DVDs or listening to illegal radio broadcasts were harshly punished as a matter of course, and when communications technologies had not evolved to the point of facilitating easy and clandestine distribution.  But it is nevertheless important to remember that this development does not come with the blessing of the state.

Externally, North Korea does appear to have made some basic progress regarding improving its outward-facing media environment.  Unlike Eritrea, North Korea has for many decades allowed foreign media to operate bureaus in Pyongyang, although for long this had been restricted mainly to “friendly” countries like Russia or China.  However, with the opening of an Associated Press bureau in January 2012, headed by experienced journalist Jean H. Lee, Pyongyang appears to opening to Western media in ways not seen until this year.  AP now partners with KCNA and at their Pyongyang bureau both international and local journalists work side-by-side. As of yet the international reporters rely on North Korean officials to escort them around the country, which has sparked some strong debate about AP’s degree of reporting freedom. Joshua Stanton has spear-headed this criticism, blogging about his concerns several times over the past few months. However, in a recent interview with KoreAm, office Director Jean H. Lee countered this criticism, explaining that her team is neither censored nor told what to write about.  Whatever the reality, the presence of AP has led to some interesting new coverage from North Korea and Tweeting from Pyongyang that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. As such, in this author’s opinion it makes a welcome addition to the North Korea media environment, and one that with hope will lead to increased transparency in the traditionally closed off state.

The improvements in press freedom in North Korea are small, but should nevertheless be welcomed and do justify its small but noticeable improvement in international rankings. For its part, the situation in Eritrea has clearly become extremely dire and more attention should be focused on highlighting the brutal conditions imposed by President Afewerki.  While North Korea continues to regularly feature on international news broadcasts, the plight of millions of Eritreans is more or less left ignored by Western media.  Arguably, this is related to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons – so Eritrea’s new position as worst ranking in press freedom should be welcomed, helping cast much needed light on the countries dire situation.

Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

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The Growing Role of Social Media in South Korea

By Chad 0Carroll

Last week the hosts of the world’s most popular political podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, spoke to a packed audience in Washington DC as part of a tour that also took them to Boston, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  Focusing primarily on the satire of domestic South Korean politics, worldwide demand for the podcast is particularly noteworthy as the podcast now has six million listeners worldwide.  Their popularity is the latest evidence that younger South Koreans are using the internet more than ever before to explore their political views.  And as more of them do so, it will become increasingly important for political groups in South Korea to proactively communicate with younger generations online.

South Korea has emerged as the world leader in internet connectivity with nearly 95% of the population now having high-speed access.  This is the result of a significant investment in communications infrastructure, low cost access from intense competition in the market, and the ease of connecting South Korea’s high density population to the web.  But it’s not just households that are enjoying the internet; over twenty million smart phone users in South Korea (nearly half the population) now browse a highly personalized version of the internet on a daily basis.   Taken together, this is leading to fundamental changes in the way people communicate and receive information in South Korea.

Compared to the United States where Facebook remains the main forum for online communication, South Korea has long favored social media platforms that encourage an exchange of personal opinion over merely connecting with friends.   As a result, the ROK is home to one of the world’s largest blogging communities (second only to China), while its Twitter community has an active user rate that is some two times higher than the world average.  In addition, there is significant use of online forums and bulletin-board systems, with many designed specifically to debate politics and current affairs. Deep internet penetration and huge demand for social networking platforms can thus quickly propel issues of relative insignificance onto center stage in South Korea.

A look at recent history reveals some very interesting insights into the interplay between the internet and politics in South Korea.  In 2000, following the shocking defeat of Roh Moo-hyun in a National Assembly election, an online fan club emerged called “Rohsamo” (people who love Roh).  Conducting volunteer work, fundraising and even a viral SMS campaign on the day of the election, the Rohsamo may have played a key role in contributing to Roh’s dramatic 2002 election win.  Another very important contribution to Roh’s victory came from internet news service OhMyNews, a liberal-leaning news service originally built to provide an alternative news source for younger generations “disillusioned with the biased reporting of traditional media”.   It put Roh’s electoral campaign center stage in front of a politically motivated audience that helped draw attention to his candidacy through a number of advocacy activities.

If 2002 represented the start of South Korean social media activism, 2008 marked its evolution with the protests against a resumption of U.S. beef imports.  As the resumption of beef imports was being negotiated, rumor and speculation regarding potential exposure to Mad Cow disease started circulating online, receiving considerable attention even in the mainstream press.  Social media platforms soon mobilized hundreds of thousands throughout the country opposed to the resumption of U.S. beef imports to participate in candlelight vigils, marking the biggest anti-government protest in over twenty years.  Although the vigils’ didn’t end-up stopping the importation of U.S. beef, they did end up leading to a commercial agreement  putting some restrictions in place and a universal offer to resign from Lee Myung Bak’s cabinet.

This year has seen the convergence of social media and political interests continue, with a Twitter campaign being credited with higher than expected voter turnout during the during the April 2011 by-elections .  And in the recent Seoul mayoral elections, social media campaigning may have been the reason political-novice Park Won-soon received three times more votes from younger generations than his GNP rival.”

With presidential elections around the corner in South Korea, the growing convergence of social media and political activism suggests that we should expect significant political interest amongst younger voters in 2012.  While the emergence of an online forum for activists is difficult to control, politicians in South Korea can learn much from the team behind President Obama’s election in 2008.  Their embrace of social media and commitment to reach out to younger generations played a large role in helping propel President Obama’s promise of “change” to young people not just in the United States, but across the globe.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Image by Aslan Media

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KEI’s NK Couple Picture Gets Top Billing

The September 15 KEI-Woodrow Wilson Center program on my trip to North Korea with Charles Armstrong (Columbia University) and James Person (Wilson Center) received much Korean media attention.  The program showed over a hundred photos from the group’s 4000-5000 pictures taken of daily life in Pyongyang and other citiesin North Korea. Below are links to some of the coverage. According to one of the sites, the stylish North Korean couple holding hands photo which was circulated by Yonhap News made it to the top ten news item for the day.  Reading some of the netizens’ comments, some believe the picture was staged.  I assure you it was not!












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