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A song praising North’s leader Kim Jong Un is a surprise viral hit

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

South Korea's government has banned a new North Korean propaganda video on national security grounds. Now, the video itself isn't surprising - it features a song that praises the North's leader, Kim Jong Un. What is surprising is that this one went viral on TikTok. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROPAGANDA VIDEO, "DEAR FATHER")

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The nearly four-minute-long video first appeared on North Korean state television last month. Medal-bedecked veterans, beaming children, hazmat-suited ambulance crews, factory workers, athletes, musicians, soldiers, sailors and airmen jump for joy, pump their fists and wave flags as they sing the praises of Kim Jong Un. The tune is called "Dear Father."

(SOUNDBITE OF PROPAGANDA VIDEO, "DEAR FATHER")

KUHN: The over-the-top enthusiasm is by no means unusual in North Korean propaganda, but...

HA SEUNGHEE: (Through interpreter) What's unique is that there is a scene of North Korean people singing along and giving the thumbs-up gesture in a nonverbal expression of admiration for their leader.

KUHN: Ha Seunghee, an expert on North Korean media and propaganda at Dongguk University in Seoul, says North Koreans have not been seen before publicly giving their leader the thumbs-up.

HA: (Through interpreter) The staging of unadulterated emotional expression emphasizes an image of freedom and openness.

KUHN: The other thing that's different is the video went viral. Yee Jisun, an expert on North Korean media and propaganda at the Korean Institute for National Unification, explains.

YEE JISUN: (Through interpreter) It was first spread intentionally by pro-North Korean users. Then it clicked with TikTokers who coincidentally landed on the song, saw it as a kind of K-pop and found it fun.

KUHN: K-pop is generally associated with South Korea, not the North, but that didn't matter to TikTok users - who used the music to make their own dance videos, racking up millions of views.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROPAGANDA VIDEO, "DEAR FATHER")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Korean).

KUHN: Kim Jong Un has been trying for years to give his country's stiff and stuffy propaganda a makeover, partly to minimize the influence of South Korean information that is banned but smuggled into the North, but Yee Jisun says this is a special time for Kim.

YEE: (Through interpreter) As Kim Jong Un thinks about how North Korean history will write about him, this year - the year he turns 40 - is the optimal starting point to push ahead with his own style of rule.

KUHN: In recent years, North Korea has experimented with social media. On Twitter and YouTube, young North Korean video bloggers purported to offer unbiased news about North Koreans' free and happy lives. YouTube said it shut down these accounts to comply with U.S. sanctions on North Korea. Again, Yee Jisun.

YEE: (Through interpreter) All activities on online platforms, by what appear to be official North Korean accounts, have been suspended, but TikTok is an exception.

KUHN: TikTok is owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance. China is North Korea's main ally. Congress has passed a law forcing ByteDance to sell TikTok or be banned in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROPAGANDA VIDEO, "DEAR FATHER")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in Korean).

KUHN: Despite South Korea's ban, as of Thursday, the "Dear Father" videos were still accessible in South Korea on TikTok and YouTube. The ban has its critics. They argue that the music video poses no security threat and that censorship is not how a democracy should respond to authoritarian propaganda. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROPAGANDA VIDEO, "DEAR FATHER")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing in Korean). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.