May 18, 2021

Ukraine Breaking News

Ukraine Breaking News | The Latest News In Ukraine

On YouTube, North Korean refugees chase fame, profit and understanding

On YouTube, North Korean refugees chase fame, profit and understanding

With her hair pulled back into a careless ponytail and a GoPro camera following her every step of the way, Seok Hyeon Ju wanders with a kitchen knife across an empty cornfield littered with fallen stalks.

She’s on the hunt for naengi, a spring green known as a shepherd’s purse that grows in the toughest soil, which she fed years ago as a hungry child in the mountains of North Korea. He picks up some and then lets out a delighted shriek when he sees a shriveled ear of corn left over from last year’s crop.

Seok Hyeon Ju finds a leftover corn cob and documents it for his YouTube channel in Inje, South Korea.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

He turns to the camera – and around 9,000 of his YouTube subscribers – and says such a discovery would have been incredibly lucky when he experienced a devastating famine before heading south to a new life.

“We were so, so hungry when we were young,” says the 33-year-old, putting a hard core in her mouth, before saying, “Not delicious.”

Seok, who calls himself “Bukhan Aeminai,” North Korean slang for girl, is part of a burgeoning subgenre of YouTube channels where North Korean refugees talk about their trials. They tell how they escaped from the authoritarian government. They compare North Korean and South Korean makeup styles, tell what it was like to fit in in a capitalist country or – something that would have been unthinkable at home – criticize the North Korean government. They cook and eat, prank passers-by on the street or react to Cardi B.

Two women select a field while a camera records

North Korean YouTubers Seok Hyeon Ju, left, and Sim Ha Yoon search for the shepherd’s purse in an empty cornfield.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Anyone who has left the brave and secret nation of North Korea has, by default, a dramatic life story under totalitarian rule, escape and survival. Seok foresees a two-and-a-half-year term in a Pyongyang prison when she was 17 for crossing the border into China, passed out in the freezing waters of the Tumen River while a soldier held her at gunpoint, and sold as a bride to an illiterate in China.

As refugees have emerged from dictatorship over the past two decades, some have shared their stories through journalists, talk shows and speeches to a global audience curious about life in a nuclear-weapon land ruled by a third-generation personality cult. But most of the fugitives chose to live under the radar, fearing the fate of the family left behind that they would be punished in their place, and unable to shake the thrill of living in a society where expressing one’s opinion could result in. prison or worse. .

Sim Ha Yoon, left, and Seok Hyeon Ju, right, hold strawberries at a picnic

Sim Ha Yoon, left, and Seok Hyeon Ju document their afternoon together as they prepare food and picnic by a river in Inje, South Korea.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

At the same time, the young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had increasingly kidnapped the world, presiding over missile tests and parades, galloping through the snowy fields on a white stallion, having his brother murdered so as to spy romance and make friends. with former Dennis Rodman, and later Donald Trump.

But in recent years those images have been at least partially eclipsed by refugees like Seok who discovered YouTube – and the power, popularity and profitability of their own stories.

The number of North Korean refugees running their own YouTube channels increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, as opportunities and revenue decreased from speeches, conferences or performances. What had been a couple of dozen YouTube channels run by talbukmin, as North Korean refugees are known here, has grown to more than 100, many of them with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Among them is a 33-year-old who said he left North Korea in November 2019 and launched his YouTube channel a few months after arriving in the south.

North Korean YouTubers

North Korean YouTubers Seok Hyeon Ju, left, and Yoon Seol Mi shoot a video at Yoon’s house.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Many of which feature lively, stylish and attractive young refugee men and women, the videos are revamping for South Korean audiences the portrait of some 33,000 North Koreans living among them, which was once dominated by traumatic tales of hardship. Some are filmed or subtitled in English for viewers overseas. Voice of North Korea, run by Yeonmi Park, who now lives in the United States, has nearly half a million subscribers.

“YouTube really feels like the most direct and intimate way to communicate with people,” said Kang Eun Jeong, a 34-year-old radio host who left North Korea in 2008 and has 105,000 subscribers. “People seem interested in the mundane daily life of North Koreans, more than their powerful elite.”

Column one

A showcase for the gripping storytelling of the Los Angeles Times.

Kang’s channel – simply called Kang Eun Jeong Television – focuses primarily on conversations with her parents comparing life in North Korea to life in the South. Her most popular video, with more than a million views, is she talking to her father about visiting a farm in South Korea and how he marveled at automation, as opposed to the laborious ways of getting home. in southern Pyongan province.

“In the past, North Koreans were embarrassed by the lives they had led and kept away from talking about painful memories,” said Kang, who posts about three videos a week. “Now, everyone is opening up on YouTube.”

North Korean YouTubers

North Korean YouTuber Jang Jung Hyuk, left, practices mixed martial arts moves with his training partner, Sim Min Seop, at a gym in Seoul.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Jang Jung Hyuk, 23, opened his YouTube channel a couple of years ago to post highlights from his matches as a budding MMA fighter.

Fans became curious about his life story just as the pandemic was starting to cancel his games. With more time on his hands, he began recording videos for YouTube on a regular basis. With his mother appearing as a guest star, Jang eats delicious meals – “Capitalist Mukbang”, as he captioned a video – reacts to South Korea’s high-speed trains and visits the tallest building in the country, the 123-high Lotte Tower. plans.

One fighter subdues another during a workout

Jang Jung Hyuk holds his training partner, Sim Min Seop, dressed in gray, at a gym in Seoul.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“The first is that I want to show the reality of North Korea. The second is earning a modest pocket money, “Jang said, explaining why he makes the videos, but adding that the ad revenue from his channel has been underwhelming about $ 400 in the past few months.” I have so many stories to tell, I love being able to tell them freely as I want, with my colors. “

Making the videos also made him feel closer to his mother. In conversations they filmed for YouTube, she told many detailed stories she had previously glossed over, not wanting to subject him to painful memories, including the conditions she was in when she was incarcerated in North Korea after being captured in China. .

Choi Kum Young, 39, a mother of two who now lives in Brisbane, Australia with her South Korean husband, said some of the responses to her YouTube videos reassured her that South Koreans would embrace North Koreans if the two countries merged. one day.

Although some commentators have accused her of selling out her home country for profit, or told her to return to North Korea, the vast majority have been curious, understanding and auspicious, said Choi, who does to call “Aoji Unni” on YouTube after the coal mine where his father was exiled and forced to work for decades for his grandfather’s ties to Japan.

“The more North Korean voices there are, the better,” he said. “It’s raw, it’s real.”

Seok closed a pool hall he ran last April to embark as a full-time YouTuber. Building on the strengths of her whimsical and resourceful teenage years in North Korea, her canal displays her mountains to scale to collect wild mushrooms, pluck fish from a stream with your bare hands, or chop firewood with a ‘ ax more than half of its height.

A woman cuts firewood in front of a camera

Seok Hyeon Ju chops firewood before cooking a meal in his backyard in Hongcheon, South Korea, as his cameraman Kim Mi Ran documents it for the Seok Canal. His videos showcase Seok’s survival and cooking skills.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

On the not-quite-spring day he was looking for the shepherd’s purse, Seok prepared a North Korean-style corn noodle feast for a guest, fellow North Korean YouTuber Sim Ha Yoon (59,400 followers). The two talked about makeup and fashion in North and South Korea.

“I lived for two and a half years with just one piece of clothing, the uniform for prisoner # 416,” he said.

Two women make food outdoors

Seok Hyeon Ju, from left, Kim Mi Ran and Sim Ha Yoon document their afternoon preparing food and picnicking.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In biweekly live streaming, he answers questions about life in North Korea, his family, his new life in the South and his dreams: opening his restaurant at 40. In one, she got a call from her brother in North Korea – who called her illegally with a Chinese SIM card – and talked about the requests for money she receives from family members. In another, he frankly discussed the revenue from his YouTube channel – around $ 400 to $ 450 per month – and the fact that it wasn’t the livelihood he had hoped for.

But his fan base is growing. The torment of his youth has earned his loyal followers cheering for his success. How long YouTube’s fame will last is uncertain. But no matter what happens, this young woman carrying a knife across an overgrown field in a foster land, ready to spot the first green of spring, a camera in tow, will survive.


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