North Korea embarks on Internet purge of executed official

State-run websites have removed references to Jang Song Thaek, who was executed Thursday

By , IDG News Service |  Internet

Jang Song Thaek

Honor guards holding guns parade past North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek (C) as he attends a commemoration event at the Cemetery of Fallen Fighters of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in Pyongyang, July 25, 2013. North Korea said on December 13, 2013 that Jang, previously considered the second most powerful man in the secretive state, has been executed for treason, the biggest upheaval since the death of Kim's father two years ago.

Image credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

The North Korean state propaganda machine has edited and deleted hundreds of news articles that mention Jang Song Thaek, the former top government and party official who was executed Thursday.

The action, which appears to have taken place at all state-run websites, amounts to an attempt by the regime to delete Jang from the country's official history.

Jang was one of the most powerful men in North Korea and uncle to leader Kim Jong Un. But earlier this week, he was arrested in front of hundreds of senior members of the ruling Worker's Party of Korea and denounced for numerous alleged acts against the state and Kim Jong Un. From arrest to trial to death took only four days and the unprecedented fall from grace is widely being interpreted as an attempt by Kim Jong Un to keep officials loyal and scared.

For several hours after the execution of Jang was announced, previously published articles about him were available on the website of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state-run news mouthpiece of the North Korean regime.

But then the website become inaccessible. For at least an hour, attempts to connect to it and other North Korean sites returned errors.

It's unclear if the outage -- and another that occurred right before the execution of Jang was announced -- were related to his arrest and execution, and the subsequent removal of references to him from websites. North Korea's entire publicly accessible Internet only consists of a handful of websites connected to the rest of the world via a single link through China.

That connection has been down 11 times in 2013, according to data from Internet monitoring company Renesys. That included a 46 minute outage Thursday and a 16 minute outage Friday, said Doug Madory, an analyst at the company.

When the site came back, articles that centered on Jang were gone and several hundred other articles that mentioned him in passing had been edited to remove references to him, said Frank Feinstein, a New Zealand-based researcher who runs the KCNA Watch service.

For example, an Oct. 5 story mentioned Jang as part of a delegation that accompanied Kim Jong Un on an inspection of the construction of a new hospital.

The final paragraph of the story read, "He personally named it "Okryu Children's Hospital" as it is situated in the area of Munsu where the clean water of the River Taedong flows. He was accompanied by Jang Song Thaek, member of the Political Bureau of the C.C., the WPK and vice-chairman of the NDC, and Pak Chun Hong, Ma Won Chun and Ho Hwan Chol, vice department directors of the C.C., the WPK."

The revised version of the article on the KCNA website excludes the final sentence that mentioned Jang and the other officials.

The changes mirror those over the weekend when state TV repeated a documentary about Kim Jong Un that had featured images and video of Jang alongside the leader. The scenes showing Jang had been edited to either cut him out of the frame or, in some cases, he had been digitally deleted from pictures.

The same thing hasn't happened so far at a website carrying KCNA news operated by a North Korean association in Japan. The site was the primary Internet source for KCNA articles for years before the agency opened its own website and is not under the direct control of government propagandists. It remains to be seen if articles on that site will be edited and deleted.

Even if that happens, people like Feinstein maintain a back-up of all KCNA news articles and images so the stories won't be lost.

As the rest of the world knows, the Internet never forgets.

But for North Koreans, there is no Internet access. The country is tightly controlled and all media outlets are run by the state, private media is not permitted, phones cannot make or receive overseas calls and reception of foreign radio broadcasts is banned, although it happens in secret.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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