After North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on the Fourth of July, the Korean Central News Agency released a statement from Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
“We should send them gifts once in a while to help break their boredom,” Kim declared, referring, obviously, to the United States. Kim then described the the Hwasong-14 missile, which analysts believe has the potential to reach Alaska, as “handsome as a good-looking boy.”
Tuesday’s ICBM launch was the “final step” toward North Korea’s goal of being a “confident and powerful nuclear state that can strike anywhere on Earth,” declared the country’s Academy of Defence Science.
At 7:36 Tuesday evening (1:06 Wednesday morning in North Korea, accounting for its unique GMT+08:30 time zone), the DPRK News Service took to social media, posting a GIF of an undated joint U.S.-South Korean missile test denouncing the Americans as rank imbeciles.
“On Twitter early Wednesday, the North Korean government belittled the joint exercise as ‘demonstrating near total ignorance of ballistic science,’” The New York Times reported on its website a short time later.
The problem was, the North Korean government tweeted nothing of the sort. As numerous other outlets have learned the hard way, the DPRK News Service is not actually the DPRK’s news service.
The line was removed from the article about 45 minutes later, and a correction followed roughly an hour after that:
“Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article attributed incorrectly a Twitter statement to the North Korean government. The North Korean government did not belittle a joint American-South Korean military exercise as ‘demonstrating near total ignorance of ballistic science,’ that statement was from the DPRK News Service, a parody Twitter account.”
In fact, the DPRK News Service, which first tweeted in July 2009, is the work of a West Coast data analyst and a North Carolina attorney who also blog at Popehat.com, a self-described “group complaint about law, liberty, and leisure” started in 2004 by former federal prosecutor Ken White. The pair, Derrick (data analyst) and Patrick (attorney), prefer not to reveal their last names publicly, going by, variously, Patrick Popehat, Derrick Popehat, Patrick Nonwhite, @NonWhiteHat, and @NinjaDerrick. They shared their thoughts on this latest episode with The Daily Beast, via email.
The Daily Beast: Media outlets that have reported on the DPRK News Service Twitter feed as actually speaking for the North Korean government: Newsweek, Fox News, BuzzFeed (twice), Washington Post, a Norwegian TV network, The Verge, Roll Call, and now The New York Times. What was your reaction when you found out about this latest episode, and why does this keep happening?
Derrick: “Our reactions to events such as this are initially congratulatory and then a bit incredulous. I firmly believe that if the NYT didn’t fire all their copy editors, this wouldn’t have happened. But seriously, one Google search reveals us instantly.
“To be honest, I have no idea why the media keeps falling for it at this point, outside of the obvious answer of ‘lack of fact-checking.’ Getting quoted in the media is very amusing, but it’s no longer the goal of the account and hasn’t been for nearly two years.
“My own personal goal isn’t to ‘get’ any publications; it’s to get into a flame war with a public figure (I have a list of targets). Now I feel like I’ve jinxed myself.”
Patrick: “You can add USA Today twice in the past six months to that list, quoting us on Texas as a state ‘for its production of tacos and bumpkins,’ and calling John McCain an ‘infantile lunatic.’
“As for the Times, I was rather surprised because they seem to put more work into getting things right than most, but I’m guessing the pressure of breaking news, a major holiday, and laying off so many editors as they’ve done recently combined for a perfect storm. Since we were interviewed by the Washington Post last year, I no longer try to fool the press since the cat seems to be out of the bag. The account is just a vehicle for dark comedy now.
“As for why this keeps happening, I’d attribute it to the pressure on journalists to produce more content, faster than ever before, a problem that’s only going to get worse as the news moves from paper and television to digital media.”
TDB: More than what this latest incident with the NYT reporting one of your tweets as news says about the state of fact-checking in the media today, what does it say about the state of reporting on North Korea?
Derrick: “I think we need to make a distinction between print and online. As far as I know, we’ve never made it into print.
“It feels like all online media outlets have prioritized being First rather than Right, like it’s some sort of Scoop Race. As mentioned before, a cursory Google search will reveal us instantly, or even a cursory look at other tweets should reveal some level of incredulity. I imagine when some poor journalist is banging out some listicle or whatever on the 10 Ways North Korea is a Horrific Nightmare of Human Rights Abuses, they’re not going to really question things if some twitter account with a sizeable follower count blurts out something that fits within the context of the article.
“But we need also should make a distinction on the state of reporting on North Korea, which overall I feel is very good. I believe those who closely observe the country aren’t fooled (and never were). In fact, quite a few follow the account (WaPo and WSJ in particular) and we have exchanged cordial notes. It’s a small relief that while we’ve certainly taken in some news publications, there are individual reporters who work the beat who viewed us with skepticism/humor immediately.”
Patrick: “That journalism school graduates in the New York and Washington Bureau shouldn’t be reporting on an alien land that mystifies experts? Through the parody account I’ve had the chance to chat with Tokyo and Seoul correspondents for major newspapers, defense experts, and a well-regarded congressman on the House Intelligence Committee. These are people who speak fluent Korean (which I don’t) or who have been to Pyongyang multiple times. They’re often in the dark about what’s going on in the DPRK, so confusion must be worse for a reporter in New York who’s probably just quoting the English translation of South Korea’s Yonhap news site.
“I don’t trust half the news I read about North Korea and many of the stories we’re told (for instance, of people being fed to dogs) turn out to be exaggerations or simply untrue. I’d advise anyone reading news about North Korea to do so skeptically.”
TDB: The Coelecanth Coreanicus tweet [posted yesterday] was hilarious. Are there any other governments that could be satirized so effectively? What is it about North Korea that makes this work so well?
Derrick: “Any government can be satirized; just need to find the right approach that'll resonate.”
Patrick: “Even by communist standards the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family is extreme. I’ve read contemporary Soviet propaganda about Stalin that makes his accomplishments seem modest compared to what North Korea claims for Kim Jong Un. Probably the only other government on Earth that produces propaganda so ‘over the top’ is Zimbabwe’s, for Robert Mugabe. If anyone is interested, the definitive Zimbabwean government parody on Twitter has yet to be created.”
TDB: Have both of you had a longtime interest in North Korea, or did it begin with this account? In the time since you started the DPRK News Service Twitter feed, what have some of your favorite (real) KCNA headlines/moments been?
Derrick: “I believe neither of us had any interest in North Korea specifically. For me, it began with this account, and mostly as a vehicle to entertain my friends and myself.
“KCNA’s article criticizing Obama through the voice of Abraham Lincoln was weird as shit. KCNA actually churns out pretty boring stuff (maybe they upped thing, I haven’t read their stuff in a while. I browse Rodong Sinmun every now and then). KJU goes here to dispense ‘field advice.’ Some factory makes goods of a high quality. Some school does some elaborate thing. Our tweets easily surpass KCNA in terms of wackiness. But that Lincoln article was a huge outlier.”
Patrick: “In college I read the Pyongyang Times on paper, but my actual study was Russian language and Soviet era literature, which branches into this sort of thing. That’s where my inspiration for starting the account came from. I barely read KCNA now, but I’ve always enjoyed stories in which Kim or his father go on ‘field inspections’ of farms, mines, or chemical plants where they to experts in agriculture, engineering, and science how they should go about doing their jobs.”
TDB: Imagining KCNA joining Twitter and following the blend of accounts you follow—from Shaq, which seems to be the first, to the NSA, Slayer, Charlie Rose, DMX, the NSA, CDC, Associated Press, Hardee’s, and... Bobby McFerrin—makes me laugh every time. It’s a great detail in the overall gag. How do you decide who to follow, and do you still add to the list?
Derrick: “It’s totally random. We maintained the list as a private joke in the beginning. How could people believe the account is legit when they follow silly stuff like ‘Soulja Boy Tell ’Em’? It makes for an interesting timeline. First we get some serious Asia news, then Piers Morgan decides to yell at some dude and brag about his follower count.”
Patrick: “I'll adopt Derrick’s answer, and add that some of the accounts (Bob Dole, Bobby McFerrin) almost never tweet, and a millennial might not know who they are. We want the list to look as though it was compiled by someone who understands almost nothing about the western world.”
TDB: Most unusual/memorable interaction on Twitter?
“We started making fun of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, basically calling him an idiot and referring to him as ‘President.’ And that’s when we discovered Indian Twitter and the hardcore fans known as ‘bhakts.’ It was an interesting look into a subculture in which I had no reference or connection. And as they reacted with unrestrained internet anger, what was once just a few throwaway tweets became a long running series where we just kept needling the fans of Indian President Narendra Modi.
“For April Fools this year, Patrick and I decided to post ‘real news’ on the account:
- – Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un likely mediocre athlete
- – DPRK bombastic attempts at propaganda often backfires, making international diplomacy efforts difficult
“Stuff like that, and people HATED it. Some people caught on but the vast majority thought we were hacked. We killed the tweets on April 2, to maintain kayfabe.”
Patrick: “Our first big media mention, in which Greta Van Susteren, then at Fox and now at MSNBC, quoted us in her Fox blog as proof that North Korea was behind the hacking of Sony Pictures at the time The Interview was released. Plenty of people, including me through another account, told her she might be wrong about this, then she doubled down by stating that while ‘some say’ the account is a parody, she believed it to be true. Then I predicted what the account would tweet ten minutes in the future. My prediction was correct. She took the blog post down and sent it to the memory hole. (I should add Ms. Van Susteren is a very nice person.)”
TDB: Derrick, in a 2016 interview with the Washington Post, you described your favorite “spoof” moment as having been “when Patrick killed a tweet I wrote about the Korea National Insurance Company, for being unrealistic.” What are the parameters you set for yourselves, and can you tell us what it said?
Derrick: “This was early on in our partnership, in which we held ourselves to a pretty rigorous standard (I actually only posted during Pyongyang daytime hours, nowadays we’ll post whenever). I can’t recall the specific tweet, but I was announcing financial results for the Korea National Insurance Company, and used a ridiculous financial metric (Insurance companies don’t exist in Stalinist economies). However, the KNIC does exist; they crashed a helicopter in Pyongyang a decade or so ago, in an attempt to commit reinsurance fraud.
“I wouldn’t say we have strict parameters now, but I’d say we have a few guidelines:
1) No tweets on human rights abuses.
2) No tweets making fun of the North Korean people in general (the devastating floods last year were right out).
3) No replies, retweets (though we’ve we’ve done that a few times), no mentions.
Patrick: “The only absolute parameter I have is that I’ll never tweet about kidnapped or jailed foreigners in North Korea. I’ve read enough tweets from people who believe the account is real asking about, for instance, releasing Otto Warmbier, that I’d hate to imagine some prisoner’s mother taking the account seriously.”
TDB: Will you ever reveal your last names, and is this a security precaution? Do you think North Korea’s reach might actually extend inside the U.S.?
Derrick: “Quoting something Patrick said, ‘Out of general caution, because the internet is a strange place.’”
Patrick: “I will reveal my last name to anyone who wishes to pay me to write comedy. Otherwise there’s no point in doing so on an internet that’s infested with weirdos.”