Why Web Design Matters for North Korea

A revamped design breathes new life into one of the world’s online views of North Korea.

The flag of North Korea is portrayed in a photo of a “card stunt” during the Arirang Mass Games in a screen capture from http://www.korea-dpr.com.

This new one is not actually the official website of the DPRK—that’s naenara.com.kp, which exhibits credentials as the official portal of North Korea by its possession of the top-level domain “.kp” that was officially granted to North Korea in 2007 by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (although the use of the commercial domain signifier “.com” within the URL is curious, it has nothing to do with where the site is actually hosted). “Naenara” means, roughly, “my country.”

Korea-dpr.com, on the other hand, has the familiar “dot-com” ending to it and is hosted on a Spanish server, making it clear that it does not represent a direct connection to North Korea. In fact, the site is run by the Korean Friendship Association, which is headed up by a Spaniard but operated under the auspices of the DPRK’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.

Even though it is not an official government portal, Korea-dpr.com’s new design represents a welcome digital makeover for the general online presence surrounding North Korea, and may help spread interest in the technologically underdeveloped country.

The new webpage of the Korean Friendship Association is shown in a screen capture from http://www.korea-dpr.com.

For years this group’s face to the world on the Internet was a primitive relic of pre-millennial web design with bubble buttons for a menu bar, grainy graphics of flags and national symbols, static images, and an Arial-dominated typeface. It contained such gems as the following from the section on reunification: “Only a few people in the world know that Korea is divided by a huge concrete wall on the 38th parallel.”

Even in the new website the gems abide (in the location section, for instance, we find that “the density of the watercourses of the country is high in the world”), but they sparkle in a fresh, modern setting with Flash billboards, a responsive menu bar, and stylish font choices. It isn’t optimized for mobile browsing—we’ll probably have to wait a few more years for that—but it certainly looks more like the modern web pages users have come to expect.

The main feature of the homepage is a gorgeous rotating Flash billboard. It cleverly conjures the “card stunts” of the Arirang Mass Games, in which tens of thousands of North Koreans produce stunning images using individual flip-cards in stadium bleachers, and presents us with several beautifully composed images of temples, performances, Kim Il Sung, and even the Arirang Mass Games themselves.

A mural of Kim Il Sung “flips” to a picture of a military marching band in a screen capture from http://www.korea-dpr.com.

Incidentally—but perhaps not coincidentally?—billboards are a big feature in the physical world of North Korea, at least in Pyongyang:

Kim Il Sung smiles from a billboard in North Korea. (Photo credit WorldIsRound / Shon Ellerton).

Web magazine Kotaku has pointed out that the website appears to be based on a $15 template. Though the template (authored by a web designer from Southern California) has built-in social media engagement for Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, Flickr, and so on, they are absent from the KFA’s version.

The new website is certainly an interesting facet of North Korea for readers of this blog to experience. But what effect might this little website have on the world at large? Since the vast majority of North Korea’s citizens lack access to the Internet, the site is certainly not for them. It’s clearly not aimed at South Korean audiences either, since the website is entirely in English, not Korean.

Still, English is the language of the web for the rest of the world, and it’s pretty clear that one of the best ways to get people—especially youths— interested in a cause is to have a strong Internet, mobile, or social aspect to it. The Ministry of Unification—South Korea’s government office for North Korean affairs and the sponsor of this blog—knows this, and has a deep presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites. They even have a neat new “Unification Jar” campaign (www.unijar.kr), which collects online support for Unification.

This new design for www.korea-dpr.com is a good step toward making North Korea more compelling to the world’s English-speaking and Internet-savvy youth; if it does, and if other sites follow suit, we can look for more interest, new perspectives, and hopefully more understanding and support for eventual peaceful unification on the Korean peninsula.

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