North Korea-born YouTubers offer peek into lives in homeland

Hyung-jin Kim

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Wearing a fedora, Jang Myung-jin shouts “Hello, comrades!” as he starts his YouTube broadcast, titled “A North Korean man, Tango”.

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 programme 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 United States 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 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 colourful wig, a false mustache or even a Kim Jong Un mask.

Kang Na-ra adjusts lighting as she prepares her YouTube programme. PHOTO: AP

Jang said he does manual labour 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.

Other North Korea-born YouTubers talk about why they left their homeland and the experiences they’ve had in South Korea.

Kang Na-ra, a North Korean escapee who regularly appears on two YouTube channels and two TV programmes, is called ‘Princess Na-ra’ by her fans. The 22-year-old with long, brown-dyed hair said she has a 200-member fan club that has sent her a cake topped with a mini-Kang doll on her birthday for the past three years.

When Kang, dressed in a North Korean military uniform, showed how to put on North Korean-style makeup on her YouTube channel, her subscribers wrote, “You are so pretty even without makeup” and “You’re such a beauty”.

“I like communicating with people by posting responses to the messages that they put on my channel,” said Kang. “I want to let the people know about North Korean culture and show more about how I am living in South Korea.”

The YouTubers, however, also have anti-fans who often vent their anger at them when North Korea does something provocative like conduct a weapons test.

Kang said she feels a “little sad” when she reads malicious messages from people such as “Go back to your country” and “Why does a Red live here?”