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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Internet Loves Kim Jong-un Gags, but What Does North Korea’s Propaganda Mean

As my colleague Choe Sang-Hun reports, North Korea’s state news agency released the latest in a series of saber-rattling images on Friday, this time showing the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, studying what the agency called “plans to strike the mainland U.S.”

Since mocking North Korean propaganda featuring Mr. Kim has become something of a reflex for his peers in the West, the Internet’s attention was quickly focused on the comic possibilities of a military chart behind the young leader in the photograph, tracing what appeared to be trajectories of North Korean missiles aimed at major cities in the United States.

After one blogger’s detailed analysis of the image suggested that the unlikely target of Austin, Texas was in the firing line, Twitter lit up with a spate of “Why Austin” jokes, as Max Fisher of The Washington Post explained.

When pondering what all this means, it is easy, perhaps too easy, to focus on the accidental comedy in these photographs of North Korea’s unimposing young leader, and in the series often-bizarre propaganda videos and poorly Photoshopped images of war games that preceded them.

A recent North Korean propaganda video, posted online by The Telegraph.

To find out what an expert on North Korean propaganda made of the current campaign, The Lede contacted B.R. Myers, a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University in the South Korean port city of Busan. Mr. Myers, who spent eight years studying the nation’s propaganda for his book, “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters,” answered questions from The Lede on Friday via Gchat. Below is a transcript of the complete conversation, edited for clarity (with links to related articles added to some of Mr. Myers’s answers).


We are wondering, essentially, what you make of these recent videos flowing from North Korea. Is this really some sort of escalation in rhetoric for them or has the Internet just woken up a bit more to the phenomenon


The rhetoric itself has not escalated significantly over last year. And it’s been almost 20 years since North Korea first talked of turning Seoul into a sea of fire. I get the feeling that North Korea’s long-range missile launch and the nuclear test have both lent a new force to the old rhetoric.

Video from North Korean state television of a military parade this week, posted online by The Telegraph.


Is the impression we get via these Web videos similar to what they broadcast on television, and what you see in other forms, or are we in the news business guilty of hyping the most inflammatory material do you think


That’s a good question. We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked. The North says “If the U.S. or South Korea dare infringe on our territory we will reduce their territory to ashes,” and Seoul responds by saying it will retaliate by bombing Kim Il-sung statues. And so it goes. I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences. And I have to say from watching North Korea’s evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think. The announcers spend the first ten minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.

The regime is exploiting the tension to motivate the masses to work harder on various big first-economy projects, especially the land-reclamation drive now underway on the east coast. Workers are shown with clenched fists, spluttering at the U.S. and South Korea, and vowing to work extra hard as a way of venting their rage.

It is all very similar to last year’s sustained vilification of South Korea’s then-president Lee Myung-bak, when you had miners saying that they imagined Lee’s face on the rocks they were breaking, and so on. The regime can no longer fire up people with any coherent or credible vision of a socialist future, so it tries to cast the entire workforce â€" much as other countries do in times of actual war â€" as an adjunct to the military. Work places are “battlegrounds,” and all labor strengthens the country for the final victory of unification, etc.

A recent North Korean news report posted online by a supporter of the government.


That’s very interesting â€" I have to say we don’t even see the South Korean threats…. Are regular TV transmissions from the North blocked in the South, over the airwaves


Yes, they are blocked as a rule. After a relaxation of the rules governing access to North Korean materials during the “Sunshine Policy” years, the government here has again become quite strict about such things.


A few final questions. First, does it seem to you that there has been any observable change in the propaganda since the change at the top Second, what did you make of that strange episode with the U.S. TV crew bringing Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang Was that a sign of a potential opening or just the sort of event that has gone on for years with visitors less well-known to Americans And finally, are you at all concerned that our coverage of the propaganda in the western media as something wacky and sort of comic is inappropriate, in that it shifts focus away from the hard realities of life in North Korea


To answer the first question, I think that the international press exaggerated the extent to which Kim Jong-un departed from the leadership style of his father. He has a Kim Il-sung haircut, and the propaganda apparatus is happy to play up the resemblance, but from the start of the hype in 2008-2009, he was presented to the masses as a taejang or four-star general. That was years before he was officially promoted to that rank, by the way. And the first documentary about his life played up his military-first credentials, portraying him as an even more exclusively military figure than his father had been. Kim Jong-il, after all, spent his first decade or so of public life posing as an expert on film and ideology.

When Kim Jong-un took his wife around with him, the West was quick to see this as a sign of Gorbachev-like tendencies, when in fact Kim Jong-il had taken his second wife (the current leader’s mother) around with him on public visits; even though her presence wasn’t broadcast, it’s clear from the video footage of those visits that has since become public that the North Korean people knew who she was and accepted her as a kind of first lady. In any case, one of the main slogans of the propaganda is “Kim Jong-un is Kim Jong-il.” He’s compared to his father much more often than to his grandfather. And he is certainly continuing on the same military-first path.


Fascinating â€" we’ve previously quoted your explanation of the state’s military-first nature.


Second, the Dennis Rodman affair was very similar to the New York Philharmonic affair of 2008. In both cases the North Koreans were able to convey the impression of openness to the wishfully thinking West while at the same time showing to their own people the international appeal of their leader. All visitors to the country are treated in the media as pilgrims or as penitents.

As for your third question, I think the media underestimates the extent to which North Korea reads its own press. This is why you have Americans pleading in op-ed pages for “subversive engagement” with Pyongyang, as if the North Koreans would not think of actually reading one of our newspapers. And all the ridicule naturally poses a problem to a regime that derives almost all its legitimacy and popular support from the perception of its strength and worldwide renown. That doesn’t mean we need to censor ourselves the way the South Korean press did during the “Sunshine Policy” years, but we do need to realize how serious the situation is.

In a North Korean “historical” novel published last year, “Oseongsan,” a general looks at a twenty-year old Kim Jong-un and says, “That’s the man who’s going to lead the holy war of unification.” I have a hard time just chuckling about things like that.

Can I mention one more thing


Absolutely, yes.


One of the few things that has restrained the North Koreans over the decades has been Pyongyang’s reluctance to alienate the South Korean left. I wonder now if, after two successive elections of the more hardline presidential candidate (the current president having been elected with an absolute majority of votes), the North may have given up on South Korean public opinion altogether.

The rapid aging of the South Korean electorate certainly does not bode well for the prospect of another “Sunshine Policy” in the near future. This may be one reason why the propaganda apparatus’ denigrated President Park as a “skirt” â€" a clear indication, by the way, that we are not dealing with a far-left regime up there but a far-right one. And I notice from the TV broadcasts that many of the people in the man-on-the-street interviews talk of how they would love to give the “sea of fire” treatment to Seoul and Washington almost as if they were the same enemy territory. If the regime has given up on winning over the South Korean electorate, things could get much more dangerous than they already are.

Ex-Soldier Accused of Joining Terrorist Group in Syria Left Trail of Videos

Video posted online shows former U.S. soldier Eric Harroun with Syrian rebel fighters.YouTube Video posted online shows former U.S. soldier Eric Harroun with Syrian rebel fighters.

As my colleague Scott Shane reports, a former American soldier was charged on Thursday with fighting alongside a rebel group linked to Al Qaeda on the battlefields of the Syrian civil war.

Eric Harroun, 30, was arrested on Wednesday after arriving at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., and charged in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday with “conspiring to use a destructive device outside the United States.”

He is accused of entering Syria in January and fighting alongside the Nusra Front, which was designated a terrorist organization in December 2012 and is accused of ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq. It is one of hundreds of rebel militias that have emerged over the last two years to battle the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. The conflict has so far claimed more than 70,000 lives.

Mr. Harroun, a Phoenix native who served in the United States armed forces from 2000 until 2003, has been far from discrete about his activities in Syria, posting at least two videos of himself with Nusra fighters to YouTube and speaking with two journalists based in Israel for Foreign Policy magazine.

The authors of the Foreign Policy article, Ilan Ben Zion and Greg Tepper, wrote that in online communications with Mr. Harroun, “he seemed paranoid about being tracked by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies” and referred to the men with anti-Semitic slurs. He also frequently changed his story.

During conversations on March 4 and March 16, Harroun said that Jabhat al-Nusra “picked [him] up” after the rebel group he had been traveling with was largely wiped out in a firefight with Assad forces. On March 16, however, he denied that he was a member of the organization, insisting that he was only a member of a rebel group that was part of the mainstream [Free Syrian Army].

Nevertheless, that retraction didn’t stop Harroun from bragging, unprompted, that he had met Jabhat al-Nusra’s elusive leader, known by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammed al-Julani. He said that the two had met twice in January at an unspecified location near the Syrian-Iraqi border, and described the terrorist leader merely as a “humble man of few words.” He refused to describe Julani’s reaction to meeting an American fighter in the FSA.

In a video posted to YouTube on Jan. 15, Mr. Harroun appears to be reclining into the arms of a Syrian rebel as several more crowd around him, smiling and stroking their beards as he delivers a brief threatening statement to Mr. Assad and pro-government paramilitaries known as the shabiha.

The title of the video refers to Mr. Harroun as a “U.S. mujahid,” or holy warrior. If the accusation that Mr. Harroun entered Syria in January is true, that means the video was recorded very soon after he arrived in the country.

Video posted online shows Mr. Harroun surrounded by rebel fighters threatening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

“Bashar al-Assad, your days are numbered,” said Mr. Harroun in the video, as rebel fighters around him looked on. Some appear amused by him, others confused or unsure of what to make of the American fighter in their midst. “You’re going down in flames. You should just quit now while you can and leave. You’re gonna die no matter what. Where you go, we will find you and kill you. Do you understand And your shabiha is going to die also with you.”

In another video posted online in February, Mr. Harroun can be seen driving in a jeep down a narrow dirt road through fields toward a crashed military helicopter. Several rebel fighters ride with him in the car, whose windshield bears the emblem of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel coalition that receives aid from the United States and which pointedly does not include the Nusra Front.

Video posted online shows Mr. Harroun driving towards a downed military helicopter in a jeep with rebel fighters.

Mr. Harroun spoke with his companions in a mix of broken Arabic and English, and also occasionally addressed the camera. “Let’s blast these fools,” he said. “We’re gonna smoke ‘em. Every day, all day.” He then lead the rebels in a call-and-response religious victory chant, screaming “takbeer!” The fighters responded, “God is great!”

“Bashar al-Assad this is what’s left of your airforce,” said Mr. Harroun as they approached the crashed aircraft. He then switched back into Arabic to curse Mr. Assad’s mother and the mothers of his supporters. Due to his broken Arabic, he also accidentally cursed God’s mother.

When they arrived at the crashed aircraft, it’s cockpit was splattered with blood but it’s pilot and crew were nowhere to be seen.

A third video posted online shows Mr. Harroun and the same driver, with whom he appeared to be friends, in a jeep in the desert near another downed aircraft. The video contains several expletives in both Arabic and English.

A video posted online shows Mr. Harroun celebrating near a downed Syrian military helicopter.

“We smoked” them “didn’t we” Mr. Harroun asked the driver of the jeep. “Hell yeah. We smoked ‘em out. I don’t know, ten Twenty”

The driver simply flashes a broad, happy grin and gives Mr. Harroun two thumbs up.

Shoe Tossed at Musharraf Misses Mark, Video Shows

Pakistan’s former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, narrowly escaped being struck in the head by a shoe hurled at him outside a courtroom in Karachi on Friday, video of the incident showed.

The footage, broadcast in a loop on Pakistani television, showed the shoe passing just in front of General Musharraf’s face as he made his way through the court building, surrounded by a scrum of security officers, journalists and protesters.

A video report from Pakistan’s Geo TV showed a protester hurling a shoe at the country’s former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, on Friday outside a courtroom in Karachi.

An analysis of the footage from Geo News, which slowed the video down and traced the path of the shoe in forensic detail, suggested that the attacker, standing behind photographers jostling for a shot of the former ruler, was forced to make an awkward throw, raising the projectile high overhead before flinging it down at the general.

Quoting witnesses, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that the shoe had come from a group of about 20 lawyers who “had gathered to protest against the former military ruler at the Sindh High Court building, shouting, ‘He’s a dictator and he should be hanged.’”

General Musharraf was in court to obtain an extension of pre-trial bail in several legal cases filed against him for his actions after he took power in a coup in 1999. He returned to the country from exile this week, hoping to make a political comeback in the nation’s upcoming elections.

A Euronews video report on the incident showed protesting lawyers inside the court building, and explained the charges against General Musharraf.

A Eurnoews report on the failed shoe attack on Pakistan’s former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Protesters outside the court building also waved their shoes in the air during the general’s bail hearing. As Omar Waraich, a journalist who covers Pakistan for Time magazine noted on Twitter, being shown or struck with the sole of a shoe is a form of insult pioneered in the Muslim world.

However, the meme has spread rapidly across the globe in recent years, since an Iraqi journalist hurled two shoes at President George W. Bush in 2008. Last month in Cairo, an attacker hurled a shoe at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during the Iranian president’s visit.

The attack was condemned by several Pakistani journalists and commentators not know for their sympathy for the general.

The general made no mention of the near miss on his Twitter feed, where he thanked the court for extending his bail and mentioned “posing for pictures with excited fans.”

Earlier in the week, General Musharraf took some flak on the social network for posting a photograph of himself working out in a gym after his return to Pakistan. Some saw the image as an effort to show that the 69-year-old was still vital, as he heads into an election in competition with, among others, Imran Khan, the trim former captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, who is a decade younger.

One on One: Jerry Weissman, Silicon Valley’s Storyteller

Jerry Weissman may produce more revenue than almost any director in history. His big successes haven’t been plays or movies, though. For more than two decades, Mr. Weissman, a former television and stage director, has coached the executives of technology companies on the theater of the initial public offering.

Mr. Weissman’s company, Power Presentations, works with chief executives on the “roadshow,” a major step toward a stock offering. The presentations consist of speeches, slide shows and question-and-answer sessions with prospective investors. Getting that story right builds enthusiasm for a company’s shares, sending initial stock prices higher.

His clients have included Intuit, eBay, Cisco, Dolby, Netflix and most recently Trulia, the real estate Web site. His clients also include executives at established companies like Microsoft, where he helps with other kinds of presentations, like conference speeches and product marketing.

Mr. Weissman, who is based in Burlingame, Calif., has written several books on his craft, the most recent of which is “Winning Strategies for Power Presentations.” I caught up with him recently, in between client meetings.


How different is an I.P.O. pitch from a conference presentation


I have worked on I.P.O.’s, private placements, product launches, board meetings, keynotes, conference talks and partner meetings. The goal is always the same: Tell a crisp, clean story; make sure your PowerPoint doesn’t become “death by PowerPoint” by cluttering things up or confusing the audience; show poise and confidence; and show you can handle tough questions.


If it’s that easy, how do you stay employed


They’ve been selling stuff to a different audience, people who want to buy software or computers. They have to rotate the benefit of their product to a different audience. If the audience is potential investors, those people have only two interests: return on investment and risk management.

Most of my clients come at the task of telling their story like engineers, in a logical fashion. But they assign six slides to Tom, eight points from Dick and four items from Harry, and that creates a patchwork of ideas that don’t flow and ideas that don’t match each other. Then they see the audience squirm at what they’ve done, and that raises their discomfort level, which the audience feels. After that, it’s lost.

They need to merge the logic with the art, and that goes back 2,300 years, to Aristotle. Give things a beginning, a middle and an end.


How do you do that


You set the context by defining who the audience is and what you want to achieve by talking to them. Then you let the ideas flow about what you can say, you brainstorm like crazy without throwing out anything. You distill that into four or five key ideas. Then you put it into a logical flow that is meaningful for what the audience wants.


How long have you been doing this


It will be 25 years on Sept. 1.


What has changed


My specialty is I.P.O.’s. The biggest change there is NetRoadshow, which is a Web site where people post a video of their pitch. That means they have to put something tight into the can. Then they go on the road, and if they’re good, it’s 90 percent audience questions about investing. If it’s not good, it’s all about how people didn’t understand what they were talking about. So, I train them to make a video, then I train them for a Q.&A. session that is tougher than anything they’ll face on the road.

The other change is that sometimes people just post slides on the Web, and get on the phone and talk. Either way, the new media means they have to learn to tell stories without making eye contact. It’s even more important that you have a clear story that flows. In the questions, you listen to make sure you understand the key issues. You paraphrase the question to level the playing field for the rest of the audience, and to make sure it addresses the question. And you pitch yourself, so you can end up saying “…and that’s why we are the best.”


How is the I.P.O. market doing


It is smaller, compared with 10 years ago, but there is lots of other kinds of work. If I’m a bellwether, though, I’d say I have more companies knocking on my door for I.P.O. training this year than last, and more last year than the year before.

Facebook to Introduce Its Own Flavor of Android for Smartphones

Facebook next week will introduce a special version of Google’s Android software system modified to put the social network front and center on a smartphone. The software will debut on a handset made by HTC, said a Facebook employee who has been briefed on the product.

Facebook on Thursday evening sent invitations to members of the media for an event on April 4 at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. A person who works at Facebook, but asked not be named because he was not authorized to talk about the company’s plans, said the company would introduce a version of Android that makes Facebook’s software more prominent.

For instance, when the device is turned on, it will immediately display a Facebook user’s home screen, the source said, a fact earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal. Facebook’s camera and messaging apps will be the default apps for the core functions of the phone, the Facebook employee also said.

Derick Mains, a Facebook spokesman declined to comment on what would be unveiled at the event. But he said it would be a “significant mobile-focused announcement.”

The Facebook employee said that the company’s portfolio of mobile apps has been the vanguard of the Android-based Facebook operating system. Over the past two and a half years Facebook has been creating standalone mobile applications. For example, this year the company introduced Poke, a private messaging app as a standalone app. Last year, it released a camera app that specialized in tagging and uploading photos to Facebook. And in 2011, it introduced Messenger, an app for free text messaging, which was later expanded to include free voice calls.

Amazon has also modified Android, for its Kindle Fire tablets.

Facebook has been exploring making its own smartphone for the past two years, but the project, which was codenamed “Buffy,” kept stalling internally as the company could not determine whether to make its own hardware or partner with a phone maker.

Facebook has recruited engineers who specialized in mobile phone development, including former Apple engineers who worked on the development of the Apple iPhone.

Can Line’s Messaging App Crack the American Market

Line, the mobile messaging application that has built up more than 110 million customers around the world, particularly in Asia, is hoping to make similar inroads in the United States.

The company, which is headquartered in South Korea, set up an outpost in San Francisco at the end of last year.

“People are really taking to this new way of communicating,” said Jeanie Han, the chief executive of the American offices. “We realize that this could translate over to the Western part of the world.”

Cracking the American market will be tricky.

The iPhone, which has its own free message service called iMessage, is the most popular smartphone among customers of the two largest phone carriers in the United States.
Plus, Line will have difficulty competing with other applications like Snapchat, WhatsApp, GroupMe and Kik that are already popular among people who are looking for inexpensive and easy ways to send free messages to their friends.

Ms. Han declined to share information on what portion of Line’s pool of users is based in the United States other than to say it is “growing nicely.’

In addition to offering free messaging, Line sells games and virtual stickers, which have been very lucrative sources of revenue for the company, says Ms Han. Although virtual stickers are still a new concept to most Americans, Ms. Han says the suite of games her company offers have been extremely popular among Line’s small base of American customers.

“People spend more here in the States than any other top territory relative to the user base,” she said, adding that the United States is a “high priority.”

When Line wanted to build up its customer base in Spain, where text messaging is expensive and data is still relatively cheap, the company introduced a mass-media marketing campaign, airing commercials on local television stations for a month. Ms. Han said those efforts worked, and now Spain is one of Line’s fastest new markets.

To appeal to American audiences, Ms. Han said that Line is working to establish partnerships with local brands, toy companies and movie studios to get customized games and content that American users will recognize and gravitate towards. Right now, most of Line’s games and stickers are steeped in Asian pop culture and feature manga-style characters.

“We want to really really localize our content offering,” she said.

Ms. Han, who has a decade of experience under her belt working in the movie industry, believes that the key to Line’s success in the United States will come from introducing it as a cool social activity, not as a way to save money on messaging.

“I see Line not as a tech company, but as an entertainment company,” she said. “We bring fun to people lives. That I know how to do really well.”

Amazon to Buy Social Site Dedicated to Sharing Books

Amazon to Buy Social Site Dedicated to Sharing Books

Amazon, the dominant online bookseller, said late Thursday that it would buy Goodreads, the most visited social media site built around sharing books. The companies did not disclose a purchase price or other conditions of the sale, which will close in the next quarter.

The founders of Goodreads, Elizabeth Khuri Chandler and her husband, Otis Chandler, in their office in San Francisco.

With bookstores closing, Internet sites have become critical places for telling readers about books they might be interested in. This deal further consolidates Amazon’s power to determine which authors get exposure for their work.

Until the purchase, Goodreads was a rival to Amazon as a place for discovering books. Goodreads, which is based on networks of friends sharing reviews, was building a reputation as a reliably independent source of recommendations. It was also of great interest to publishers because members routinely shared their lists of books to be read.

By contrast, Amazon had several well-publicized cases involving writers buying or manipulating their reviews on its site. As a result, authors said Amazon was deleting reviews from its site at the end of 2012 as a way of cracking down.

The deal is made more significant because Amazon already owned part or all of Goodreads’ competitors, Shelfari and LibraryThing. It bought Shelfari in 2008. It also owns a portion of LibraryThing as a result of buying companies that already owned a stake in the site. Both are much smaller and have grown much more slowly than Goodreads.

Otis Chandler, a founder of Goodreads, said his management team would remain in place to guard the reviewing process that had made the site attractive to its 16 million members. “Amazon has a real history of building independent brands and running them as independent companies,” he said in a phone interview.

Reaction online, however, was swift and laced with skepticism. “Say hello to a world in which Amazon targets you based on your Goodreads reviews,” Edward Champion, a writer and editor, posted on Twitter. “No company should have this power.”

The deal did get some support from Hugh Howey, whose book “Wool” was originally self-published on Amazon and promoted through Goodreads and became a best seller. “The best place to discuss books is joining up with the best place to buy books â€" to-be-read piles everywhere must be groaning in anticipation,” he said in the companies’ news release.

Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president for Kindle content, said the integration of the companies was beneficial. For example, it will make it “super easy,” he said, for authors that self-publish through Kindle “to promote their books on Goodreads.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 29, 2013, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Amazon to Buy Social Site Dedicated to Sharing Books.