North Korea’s Digital Underground

To smuggle facts into or out of North Korea is to risk imprisonment and even execution. Yet today, aided by a half-dozen stealthy media organizations outside the country, citizen-journalists are using technologies new and old to break the regime’s iron grip on information. Will the truth set a nation free?
Tomas van Houtryve/VII Network

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the very archetype of a “closed society.” It ranks dead last—196th out of 196 countries—in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press index. Unlike the citizens of, say, Tunisia or Egypt, to name two countries whose populations recently tapped the power of social media to help upend the existing political order, few North Koreans have access to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. In fact, except for a tiny elite, the DPRK’s 25 million inhabitants are not connected to the Internet. Televisions are set to receive only government stations. International radio signals are routinely jammed, and electricity is unreliable. Freestanding radios are illegal. But every North Korean household and business is outfitted with a government-controlled radio hardwired to a central station. The speaker comes with a volume control, but no off switch. In a new media age awash in universally shared information—an age of planet-wide instant messaging and texted manifestos—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a stubborn holdout, a regime almost totally in control of its national narrative.

Given this isolation, it’s even more remarkable that since 2004, a half-dozen independent media organizations have been launched in Northeast Asia to communicate with North Koreans—to bring news out of the country as well as to get potentially destabilizing information in. These media insurgents have a two-pronged strategy, integrating Cold War methods (Voice of America–like shortwave broadcasts in; samizdat-like info out) and 21st-century hardware: SD chips, thumb drives, CDs, e-books, miniature recording devices, and cell phones. And as with all intelligence-gathering projects, their most valuable assets are human: a network of reporters in North Korea and China who dispatch a stream of reports, whether about the palace intrigue surrounding the choice of Kim Jong Il’s successor, or the price of flour in Wŏnsan.

Run on shoestring budgets by North Korean defectors and South Korean and Japanese activists, these groups walk a line between journalism and advocacy. The two Koreas are still at war, and neither side is above employing censorship, disinformation, and outright propaganda. South Korea, for example, blocks access to North Korean Web sites and broadcasts. Its National Security Law promises lengthy prison sentences for any activity or material that the government judges to be pro–North Korean. Last November, for example, its top court upheld a jail sentence for a woman convicted of possessing instrumental music with composition titles that praised the North. It would be naive to assume that these independent news organizations aren’t influenced by these pressures. But regardless of where they fit on the South Korean ideological spectrum or whether they fully support the hard line toward North Korea of South Korea’s current president, Lee Myung Bak, these new media organizations are helping to create something remarkable: a corps of North Korean citizen-journalists practicing real journalism inside the country.

Their work is illegal and extremely dangerous, and it is producing results. In December 2009, for example, one reporter for the Daily NK, a Web site based in Seoul, embarrassed Pyongyang by intercepting a copy of Kim Jong Il’s annual message, a critical document that sets the ideological tone for the year, before it appeared in North Korea’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. This past December, Open Radio North Korea, a broadcast-news organization, broke the story that a train headed for Pyongyang with gifts from China for Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent, was reportedly sabotaged and derailed, in one of several sporadic and mostly unreported acts of resistance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The sudden availability of so much timely information about what Donald Gregg, the former CIA chief and U.S. ambassador in Seoul, once called the world’s “longest-running intelligence failure” has shaken up the world of Pyongyang watchers. Until recently, experts could say more or less whatever they wanted about North Korea, because nobody could prove them wrong. Conventional wisdom, planted intelligence, and hoary rumors have long been the coin of the realm.

We’ve seen how serious the consequences of this uninformed punditry can be. Assured by North Korea experts in 2002 that the regime was “on the brink” of collapse, president George W. Bush saw no point in negotiating with Kim Jong Il, whom he loathed and wasn’t inclined to deal with in the first place. Not only did the regime not collapse, but in October 2006 it detonated its first nuclear weapon.

The impact of these new groups on journalism has been transformative. Hardly a story about North Korea appears in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post that hasn’t either originated in, or been confirmed by, outlets like the Daily NK or Open Radio North Korea. “The international media gets most of its information on North Korea from them,” says Kim Young Sam, an editor of South Korea’s oldest monthly magazine, the Chosun Monthly, whose sister publication, the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, regularly cites their stories. “Nobody else has the resources, contacts, and expertise.” Even agents from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (formerly the KCIA) sometimes contact the Daily NK and other such outlets to request information.

Not everyone is a fan. This spring, the North Korean government expressed its displeasure: “We have been entrusted with issuing a strict warning in the name of the Republic to those organizations which will be the first targets for severe punishment.” The announcement referred to the news organizations by name, and Pyongyang watchers noted that the phrase We have been entrusted indicates the message comes directly from Kim Jong Il. These were no idle threats. Last spring, two North Korean spies posing as defectors were sent to assassinate Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-level North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea. (Hwang died, peacefully, of a heart attack in October.) And in January 2010, a North Korean factory worker was publicly executed by firing squad for phoning news about the price of rice to someone in South Korea.

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Robert S. Boynton directs New York University’s Literary Reportage concentration and is writing a book about the Cold War in Northeast Asia.

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