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?

Housed on the second floor of a dingy commercial building that anyone can find, on a small, winding street just blocks from Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace, the Daily NK looks more like a call center than a bustling international news organization. Editors sit in 17 gray cubicles encircling the room. Phones ring and are answered with a grunt, hung up, and then redialed—the paper’s routine for communicating with its reporters.

One of the Daily NK’s founders, Park In Ho, spends much of his time recruiting and training reporters on the North Korean border with China. Published in Korean, Chinese, English, and Japanese, the site receives 150,000 visits a month. Like most of the other independent news organizations, it receives funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as other NGOs and private donors. The Daily NK, like its peers, pays its North Korean correspondents small monthly retainers (more for scoops), and additional funds that they can use to bribe their way out of difficult situations.

Park tells me about recruiting one of his reporters. “I met him in China through an NGO. He was a graduate of Kim Il Sung University, so was destined to become a member of the elite. The first thing he asked me was to help him get some dynamite, so that he could blow up Kim Jong Il. He thought that everything in North Korea would change if he killed him.” They spent three months together, talking and reading books about the history of Northeast Asia. “I wanted him to understand the situation in the region, and persuade him not only that terrorism was wrong, but that it wouldn’t change anything.” The man is now a trader inside North Korea, and because his work requires constant travel, he has become one of the Daily NK’s most valuable correspondents.

There have been a number of close calls. In 2008, a security officer caught one of the Daily NK’s reporters as he was crossing the river into China. The reporter had been surreptitiously recording conversations with party officials, and was carrying three memory cards filled with audio files. North Korea had recently launched several test missiles; the reporter and his contacts were discussing the international reaction.

As he had rehearsed with Park, the reporter told the officer that he was only a cog in a larger operation. He was delivering the cards to a relative in China, who then would sell the information to journalists and give him a cut. You can bribe your way around virtually anything in North Korea, it seems, unless it involves either South Korea or religious materials. If the officer discovered that the reporter was working for the Daily NK, he would be sent to a labor camp, or even executed. The reporter suggested that the officer call his relative in China to confirm his story.

Park works according to a strict protocol. He carries several cell phones, each assigned to a different reporter, and they agree to communicate only at certain times on certain days. Any unscheduled call is cause for suspicion. So when his phone rang, Park answered in his best Chinese-Korean accent. The officer assumed he was speaking to the reporter’s relative and demanded $5,000 to release him. After several calls back and forth, the bribe was paid and the reporter freed (though without the memory cards). However, the officer sensed that he was onto a good thing, and tried to enlist Park as a business partner. “He called me every day for a month, like a stalker. He wanted to deal North Korean drugs. He’d send them to me, I’d sell them, and we’d divide the profit,” Park says.

Another of Park’s sources of high-level intelligence is the widow of a party official who she believes was unjustly purged. She is bitter and gives the information she learns from her children—many of whom have government jobs—to Park during trips she takes to China. She lives near the Yellow Sea and sometimes gets a ride across with local fishermen. During one journey, the fishing boat was boarded by a North Korean naval patrol. The only place for her to hide was among the layers of fish and ice stored in the bowels of the ship. She escaped undetected, but with a bad case of frostbite. Park paid for a two-month stay in a Chinese hospital, where she recovered. “Don’t worry about me,” she assured him. “I’m too old to remarry, so my looks don’t matter.”

In the late 1990s, a daring strategy emerged for using video to supplement information collected through interviews in North Korea. To learn about this, I travel to Osaka, Japan, to meet Ishimaru Jiro, 48, a diminutive, serious man with a neatly trimmed goatee, who works for Asia Press International, a consortium of freelance journalists famous for its coverage of war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East. During the past 12 years, its reporters in North Korea have shot some of the most dramatic footage ever to emerge from the country.

Ishimaru began making trips to the China–North Korea border in the ’90s, interviewing refugees, shooting video, and writing. Twice, he crossed into North Korea legally, and another time he used a forged Chinese passport. One day in 1998, Ahn Chul, one of the young men who moved back and forth over the border, made an extraordinary proposal: “Why are you putting yourself in such danger by shooting video here?” he asked. “Give me a camera, and I’ll shoot video inside North Korea.”

Ishimaru gave him some rudimentary training in video photography and a camera hidden in a shopping bag. They set a date to meet three months later. The footage Ahn brought out was shocking: filthy, barefoot children scavenging for food, picking kernels of corn from cow manure. Glassy-eyed, the children told the interviewer that their parents had died and they were homeless and alone. The footage was beamed around the world.

The experiment was so successful that Ishimaru started training other aspiring reporters, using crowded Chinese markets to teach them how to film secretly. Now Ishimaru meets in China with his North Korea–based reporters every few months to pick up and help edit their tapes.

How did a country so closed become porous enough to support such news-gathering by watchers in the South? The answer goes back to the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s, which deprived North Korea of the Eastern Bloc subsidies it had long relied on to sustain its people. In the mid-1990s, a series of floods obliterated several harvests and ushered in a famine that ultimately killed an estimated 1 million North Koreans, or nearly 5 percent of the population. The government food-distribution system collapsed, and people who had relied on it for 50 years didn’t know what to do. Many starved. Others, despite great peril, crossed into China in search of food. The number of defectors who traveled through China to South Korea—previously never more than a few each year—increased tenfold between 1998 and 2002.

Once these North Korean defectors made it across the Yalu or Tumen River, they were startled to discover that even the poorest Chinese had higher living standards than they did. Food was abundant. If anything, the Chinese were growing wealthier.

The famine encouraged the spread of open-air markets throughout North Korea. They had begun appearing after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. People lucky enough to farm small plots of land sold their extra produce. Riots broke out when the police tried to shut the markets down, so the government decided to look the other way. As the markets spread, they soon became places where one could buy not only rice, but also bootlegged South Korean soap operas and used electronics.

The spread of such trading gave Ishimaru another idea. Could market forces be used not just to get information out but to smuggle footage in? He and his colleagues started with a video about the Kim Il Sung era. Its ideological content was subtle: by praising the decades when life was good and food was plentiful, it was implicitly criticizing the current Kim Jong Il era, in which neither is the case. The video was edited in Japan and sent to China, where a few hundred copies were burned. Traders on the border were eager to get free merchandise, and within days the discs were being bought and sold in markets throughout the country.

Across the border, as the Chinese got richer, they were trading in their Walkmans and cheap computers for iPods and computers with larger hard drives and DVD burners. And what do a billion Chinese do with their old stuff? Sell it to their poor neighbors. (A 2009 survey found that 58 percent of North Koreans had regular access to a cassette recorder with radio, and 21 percent watched videos on video-compact-disc players.) The confluence of these developments created a remarkable journalistic opening: just as defectors in unprecedented numbers were bringing more information out of North Korea, the spread of markets and secondhand technology was creating a conduit for getting more information in. As the North Korea experts Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland report in a recent study based on their surveys of refugees, “Not only is foreign media becoming more widely available, inhibitions on its consumption are declining as well.”

Presented by

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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