This site started as a exercise in Web design/development. Basically, I was looking to sharpen my skills. I wanted to put up a cool website, a fun personal project that might also be useful as a prospective portfolio piece in pursuing freelance clients.
But what to make this site about? Home improvement? Barbed-wire collecting? Palmeranian grooming?
I was at a loss for both subject and content.
As a personal interest, I also follow current events, particularly news pertaining to North Korea and the Korean nuclear crisis. I’ve always found personality cults fascinating. (To study, not to join.) Whether it’s Stalin in Russia, Mao in China, the Kim dynasty, David Koresh or Jim Jones, I've often wondered: how does one person elevate himself to the level of a diety among thousands or even millions of people? And how do all those people lose their frikkin' minds? As a part of my little obsession, I would sometimes visit the website of the Korean Central News Agency, the official news outlet of North Korea and its voice to the outside world. Reading their articles was always good for a chortle or two, as well as some head-shaking. I suspect I'm not alone in that guilty pleasure.
While poking around the KCNA site one day, I realized there was no way to search through their articles. In fact, closer examination revealed that the articles are not stored in a database at allthey’re just thousands of static HTML pages stashed on a server somewhere. So there it was: subject and content, stored in a very primitive way, in a site that looks like it was designed in early ’94 (A.D., not Juche).
An idea was born.
On further reflection, I quickly realized all that North Korean propaganda was perfect for my purposes:
Construction commenced in early February 2005. I worked on it in my spare time. Several weeks later than anticipated, it was completed. (Note to self: stop under-estimating @#$*%^! project hours!)
Some thoughts on NK News’ place in the blogsphere
When I first heard of the phenomenon of blogging as a form of journalism, I was highly skeptical, particularly when the more arrogant among the bloggers suggested that they were going to replace big media. To me, at best it simply sounded like a bunch of narcissistic blowhards throwing up personal vanity sites and then leeching their “news” from major media organizations, where they would do little more than add their own opinions. I didn’t see any value to journalism beyond offering a sea of individual commentary.
Now, however, I do think that bloggers have a role to play in news reporting. Blogging will never replace big media and indeed depends upon it as a starting point, but it can serve as a supplement for those who seek more information on a specialized topic, first to help gather news on the topic in one convenient place, and second by possibly contributing additional information, in bits and pieces, not provided by big media (such as a database of the KCNA).
Through the database and XML feeds, NK News offers a unique (as far as I know) resource to the world, and for that I hope it is valuable to at least a few people. However, I’d like to think that there is a further significance, that this site also provides an example for the kind of service that only a blog would offer.
Most blogs aggregate data from friendly sources such as major news organizations and other blogs, all of which are quite happy to share their content in the most convenient format possible, lately through the RSS newsfeeds that are becoming so prolific. NK News, on the other hand, aggregates data from a source notorious for its hostility and extreme reluctance to give up information of any kind--in this case, the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In doing so, NK News fills a niche that perhaps only a blog ever would. Who else but a blogger would build a database of the KCNA? The North Korean government seems to lack the desire. Consumer-oriented companies would never do it. There’s no public or commercial demand for it. Major news organizations such as CNN and CBS News also lack an incentive to provide such a tool, either for their journalists or their audience. Journalists already have subscription access to proprietary news archives such as Lexis-Nexis, and again, the general public probably wouldn’t be interested enough. Scholars who focus on North Korea might be interested in a KCNA database, but lack the technical know-how and funding to build it. Intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA presumably have far better resources on the KCNA at their disposal, but they don’t share. Only some anonymous individual out there in cyberspace with a perverse interest in KCNA propaganda would ever bother to build a site like this.
Distilled to its essence, NK News is a publicly-available database of information gathered on an esoteric, somewhat hostile subject matter. In this way, blogs might become additional tools of investigative journalism by offering precisely such a service. For instance, if a corporation gets involved in some kind of scandal, bloggers can scrape the corporate website and then mine the data for potentially damming information, as well as allowing others to do the same. This also helps preserve such information before those under investigation can alter or destroy it. Looking beyond journalism for a moment, blogs might also warehouse information on historical or technical matters, such as by digitizing historical documents and placing them in a database. Again, a blog’s main advantage lies in dealing with highly specialized subject matter, where the information isn’t already available and not enough mainstream interest exists for any other media or organization to tackle the challenge. A blog is another step in the continuous democratization of information, allowing an individual or a small group of people, fueled mainly by a passion for their area of interest, to gather that information and present it in a useful manner to the public domain.
How others might do the same
On the technical side, NK News uses “screen-scraping” to retrieve data from the official KCNA website, a technique as old as the Web itself, in which an automated script, or “bot”, combs through external websites mining for data. Traditionally, screen-scraping has been viewed as ethically hazy, as it often involves stripping commercial sites of proprietary content to display as one’s own. In this case, however, it is being used more as a tool for academic research, commentary, and journalism. Screen-scraping an outside information source is more technically challenging than formatting one’s own data for output as an RSS feed, but there seem to be some off-the-shelf applications designed to for non-programmers. I haven’t tried any of them, but a quick first glance indicates that the user still has to at least know some HTML to use them.
Perhaps a group of open-source programmers might get together and make a very powerful, easy-to-use screen-scraper/database package for the blogsphere. But given the amount of time I’ve already spent on NK News, it ain’t gonna be me. Which leads to the next section...
...and finally, how the site affected my life
I supposed this page wouldn’t be complete without a personal touch, a reflection on where this site has lead its author in the Journey of Life.
After putting my professional and personal goals virtually on hold for two months to chisel away at this site in my spare time, I found myself wondering occasionally about my own sanity. This would occasionally be confirmed by friends and relatives:
Them: So, what’cha been up to lately?
Me: Oh, nothing much. Just building an online database of North Korean propaganda.
(Long silence, followed by inevitable joke about Homeland Security dragging me off in the middle of the night.)
Halfway through this project, it also occurred to me that in my attempt to chase those capitalist freelance dollars, perhaps North Korean propaganda was not the best subject matter to use as a showcase. I hope any prospective future clients have a properly warped sense of humor.
As for the propaganda itself, I used to feel sorry for people who grew up under Stalinist regimes because of the oppression, poverty and lack of freedom. Now, I feel even more sympathetic knowing they have to put up with this crap all the time. I’m not sure which would be worse—to suffer from oppression and starvation living in North Korea, or to have to listen to the KCNA as my only form of news. In the process of building this site, enough Stalinist propaganda has passed my eyeballs to last me about six lifetimes. Sometimes I think if I read one more KCNA article, I’ll either have to slit a wrist or defect. But then I find something truly outrageous within the database, and my interest piques again.
I also discovered that in building a site that satirizes the propaganda of a Third World dictator’s socialist regime, I found myself becoming a bit more like the very thing I was satirizing. Allow me to explain:
First, since this site is politically opposed to the Kim Jong Il regime and tries to convince others of the same, that makes it something of an exercise in propaganda itself. Perahps most people outside of North Korea already share that view, but its propaganda nonetheless, and therefore I have become something of a propagandist.
Second, since the site is non-commercial and was put up in part as a service to the general public, I guess that makes me a socialist as well.
Third, like many in Web design/development, I often have to work with others on commercial projects, during which there’s the usual amount of compromise and give-and-take. It goes with the territory, and it’s probably for the best. Still, like others I get frustrated at design-by-committee and not getting my own way all the time. But since NK News is my own personal project, within its narrow domain I could go on a power-hungry ego trip. Don’t like the color scheme? That’s too bad. Think the site needs a certain feature added? I’ll do it when I damn well please...IF I damn well please. Aaaahahahahahaha! (Wiping saliva from lips.) In other words, this site allowed me to get in touch with my own inner Kim Jong Il.
And so in building this site, I myself have become a propagandist, a socialist, and a dictator. Unfortunately, I seem to be lacking an armored train stocked with expensive liquor and beautiful women, so I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Anyway, that’s the full story behind NK News. After I clean up a few things, I’m going to push away from this site for a good long time and go get a life. I may return to it this fall, when the weather gets bad again (and assuming anyone cares).
Hope you enjoy this site!
-- The author