North Korea-born YouTubers offer peek into lives in homeland

North Korean refugee Jang Myung-jin films himself in a demonstration of his YouTube broadcast during an interview at his house in Seoul

Wearing a fedora, Jang Myung-jin shouts “Hello, comrades!” as he starts his YouTube broadcast, titled “A North Korean man, Tango.” Then, he talks about whether North Koreans raise pet dogs, what type of profanity they use and whether there are any transgender people in the country.
The 32-year-old Jang is among a handful of young North Korean refugees in South Korea who have launched YouTube channels that offer a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of people in North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive and repressive countries.
While mainstream outside media reports on North Korea focus on heavy subjects like the North’s nuclear program or its internal power hierarchy, these young YouTubers feed a growing demand for softer news related to daily life in their former home country.
Their rise comes amid increased public attention to North Korea, whose young leader, Kim Jong Un, has made global headlines with a provocative run of weapons tests and high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Donald Trump.
“There are people who yearn for real scenes showing how people in North Korea live. There is a niche market for that,” said Jeon Young-sun, a research professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University. “Simply speaking, some people are curious about what beer North Koreans drink and what cookies they eat.”
Jang uses his Samsung smartphone to film himself at his small Seoul apartment, and sometimes invites fellow North Korean refugees as guests and has friends shoot him when he ventures out. He often appears with his trademark dark fedora, but sometimes with a colorful wig, a false mustache or even a Kim Jong Un mask.
Video clips uploaded on Jang’s 2-year-old channel showed him saying that ordinary North Koreans usually raise dogs, rabbits, pigs and chickens, but to either eat or sell to markets. He said that calling someone “a baby born by a young female slave” is considered a profanity in North Korea, and that people there say “Do you want to have the order of your ribs revolutionarily reorganized?” when trying to intimidate others.
He also said he never heard about the existence of transgender people in North Korea, though he heard about gays in the country.
Jang, who has about 7,000 subscribers to his channel, said he does manual labor and delivers fried chicken as a means of living because his YouTube-related income is too small. But he feels it’s worth it to keep his YouTube career going because some subscribers have left messages saying his broadcasts helped resolve their misunderstandings of North Korea.
“They cheer me up and make me be positive. They are the reasons why I shoot YouTube videos today and tomorrow,” Jang said, petting his Maltese.
He said the term “Tango” in his channel’s title is an abbreviation of Korean words meaning “a plump cat,” a reference to his friends joking that the round-faced Jang has a cat-looking face. Although he knew that tango in English is a type of dance, he decided to go ahead with that word because the liveliness of the dance matches what he seeks from his channel.
Other North Korea-born YouTubers talk about why they left their homeland and the experiences they’ve had in South Korea. Some also broadcast themselves putting on North Korean-style makeup or eating foods from the country.
The young YouTubers are mostly stylish, contrary to the stereotype of North Korean refugees as being rough and unsophisticated. About 32,000 North Koreans have fled to the South over the past two decades to avoid poverty and political repression. Hyung-Jin Kim, Seoul, AP

Categories Asia-Pacific