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We investigated the mysterious death of North Korea's YouTube channels

by David Gilbert
Sep 16 2017, 8:46am

Experts who study North Korea say that Google dealt them a “crippling blow” recently by shutting down two YouTube channels that broadcast the Hermit Kingdom’s propaganda, but a source inside the tech giant says the company’s “hands were tied” by U.S. sanctions.

The first channel to disappear on September 8 was Uriminzokkiri, which many analysts believe is a state-run operation out of China. A short message on YouTube says it was “terminated due to a legal complaint.” The second channel, Tonpomail, believed to be controlled by ethnic Koreans based in Japan, was finally taken down on September 12 “for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines.”

Publicly, Google has cited violations of its community guidelines and terms of service. Privately, sources at Google and YouTube who were briefed on the takedowns told VICE News the move was related to sanctions imposed by the U.S. government.

Analysts who work with the U.S. government say these channels were a vital window into the hidden world of North Korea, especially their missile development program, which in recent months has caused rising tensions between Pyongyang, Seoul, Tokyo, and especially Washington. Researchers say shutting them down could undermine U.S. national security.

“This action deals a grave setback to the work of open-source researchers focused on North Korea’s leadership, economy, military, and human rights situation,” said Curtis Melvin, who runs the blog North Korea Economy Watch blog and works at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

For more than a decade, U.S. policy toward North Korea has relied on a mixture of unilateral and UN Security Council sanctions designed to punish and isolate Pyongyang for its repeated missile launches and nuclear tests. The latest wave of sanctions, which were issued in response to North Korea’s September 3 nuclear test, place further restrictions on gas and oil imports, and prevent any country from giving new work permits to North Koreans.

It remains unclear what sanctions in particular have forced Google to take action, but it appears unrelated to restrictions on doing business with North Korea. Many experts suspected the channels were shut down because the North Korean government may have been directly or indirectly earning money from ad revenue, but neither of the removed channels were running ads.

Officially at least, Google isn’t clearing things up. “We must comply with the law,” a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement to VICE News. “We disable accounts that repeatedly violate our Community Guidelines or Terms of Service and when we are required by law to do so.”

The U.S. Treasury Department, which handles sanctions enforcement, declined to comment on the YouTube case specifically, but pointed out that it generally does not regulate information and informational materials.

“We’re still guessing until YouTube gives us an explanation that isn’t complete garbage, but it sounds like they’re just being stupid about this, and this has only the vaguest connection to sanctions,” said Joshua Stanton, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who drafted the legislation that later became the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016. “Unless these videos threaten to harm people or make money that supports censorship inside North Korea, I doubt that the government would want YouTube to take them down. YouTube could probably get a license from the Treasury Department if it bothered to ask for one.”

Stanton also pointed out that YouTube’s decision was even stranger given that Associated Press has an agreement with the Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean propaganda outlet, to disseminate official images — especially given that KCNA was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury earlier this month.

Sources inside YouTube and Google who have been briefed on the decision but were not authorized to speak on the record told VICE News that the channels were shut down because an unknown party filed a complaint. Just a single complaint can trigger an investigation internally at YouTube, and in these particular cases, the decision was made to shut down the channels.

The YouTube source said that when there is reasonable evidence a channel is “directly or indirectly” owned by North Korea, it must be taken down, and that even if it is not monetizing its content, it can still be in violation of U.S. laws.

The reason for the decision, according to one source at Google, was “purely legal” and based on U.S. sanctions — but they would not specify to which sanctions the decision pertained.

Another source at Google said the company felt its “hands were tied” and it did not have any other option but to take the content offline. They added that Google is aware of the value of these channels to researchers, but warned that any appeal to have them reinstated would have to be made on a legal basis.

The shutdown of the channels has led to an outcry among the analyst community who have seen a vital research tool disappear overnight.

Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, called the move “a crippling blow” for the research he and others conduct, which has in the past helped track the development of the arms industry in North Korea, finding evidence of possible sanctions evasion and identifying the location of where it manufactures its missile launchers.

The channels show news broadcasts from the Korean Central Television, giving viewers updates on what the regime’s leaders are doing, and in some cases even revealing items that have been imported in violation of sanctions.

The U.S. government also works with researchers like Pollack to help get a better understanding of what is happening inside North Korea, meaning their work influences national security decisions. “A fair amount of what we do is U.S. government sponsored, so evidentially there are offices in the government who get some value out of this work,” Pollack said.

In an open letter to Google, Melvin said: “Seven years of data tracking the end of Kim Jong Il and the rise of Kim Jong Un have simply vanished. Please restore these data sources as soon as possible.”

“The lesson here,” Melvin said, “is that if you find North Korean content on the Internet, copy it and don’t make it public for fear that it falls under U.S. jurisdiction in some way and can be deleted under threatened/actual legal action.”

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