The Internet has an almost unhealthy obsession with North Korea, which just might reveal a lot about what young people think of the small, but news-grabbing country. In the last month, North Korea has successfully launched a washing machine-sized satellite into orbit. Yet, from viewing the numerous news feeds on Facebook, I could have thought the only recent news story about North Korea was that a Chinese newspaper picked up a satirical article from The Onion that named Kim Jong-un as last year’s Sexiest Man Alive.
The bizarre story of North Korea cropping up on the Internet has been the successful campaign to get Kim Jong-un voted Person of the Year in Time Magazine‘s online reader poll. The campaign was launched where so many are – on the notoriously offensive image board of the website 4chan—and was executed with the help of automated vote spamming. This isn’t the first time that 4chan users have manipulated a Time reader poll. In 2009, they were able to use the same tactics to vote 4chan creator Christopher Poole to the top spot. But the promotion of Christopher Poole has a much more obvious motive than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. So why exactly did netizens expend so much time and effort on this prank?
The simple answer is that North Korea’s Kim family tends to be an easy target for mockery. The absurdity of the propaganda that comes out of the country can often make them more of an entertainment piece than an actual news story. All this surely contributes to the fact that many young Americans don’t fear North Korea or its militaristic aspirations. People don’t take Kim Jong-un seriously; pop culture portrays him as a ridiculous little fat man who happens to be in charge of a country. And this is why it would be comical if he were to win Person of the Year.
More specifically, it seems to be the personality cult surrounding the Kim family that is being lampooned. The logic being that if Kim Jong-un really is the great and charismatic leader that he tries to portray himself as, he could surely be chosen as Person of the Year by popular vote. Furthermore, the online vote could easily have real world significance and become the joke that keeps on giving because North Korean news agencies are known to publish these types of stories as legitimate. In fact, that’s exactly what happened – The Korean Central News Agency reported that “politicians, business owners, artists, athletes and broadcasters” nominated Kim for the honor. Whether or not the North Korean news media truly believed the poll is debatable, but for netizens, the fact that it was reported was surely a win.
The more nefarious reason for North Korea being the subject of this campaign is that it is almost sure to offend people. Human rights abuses in North Korea are well-known in the U.S., so the idea of an abusive authoritarian leader being voted for Person of the Year will undoubtedly upset certain people. The campaign escalated when it was decided to spell out “KJU GAS CHAMBERS” with first letters of each candidate’s name. Someone affiliated with the plan wrote to the media anonymously stating that “there really is nothing too exciting about the meaning…Furthermore, if there was any overt justification for why we chose gas chambers, it’s because we wanted to reference Hitler, who’s [sic] gas chamber antics are always offensive to people.”
But for some, there is more to this story than just a practical joke. The campaign was co-opted by amorphous hacktivist group, Anonymous with the goal of drawing attention to prison camps so that people will “realize that the regime in North Korea is nothing but barbaric.”
It’s difficult to say that anything good, bad, or even particularly meaningful came out of this stunt. However, the fact that Kim Jong-un was chosen as the subject of the campaign does shine a light on people’s conceptions of North Korea.