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?
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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.

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.”

The North Korean government has always been of two minds when it comes to technology. Despite its guiding philosophy of “self-reliance” (juche), it has relied on neighbors to enable it to enter the information age. Its official YouTube videos, Twitter feed, and Facebook accounts are registered in China. Until the late 1990s, all international phone calls were routed through Beijing or Moscow. And what few connections to the Internet the country does have come via a cross-border link to China’s Unicom.

No more than a few thousand North Korean researchers and high officials have access to the Internet. Most North Korean citizens must settle instead for the Kwangmyong (“Bright Star”) intranet portal, which provides access to censored news and official documents and has a rudimentary e-mail service. Launched in 2000, Kwangmyong is based on a Japanese version of Microsoft Windows. It can be accessed at universities and in government offices, as well as in the hundred or so cyber cafés where young people in the country’s largest cities go to play games and watch videos.

Owning computers is legal, although they must be registered with the local authorities. Most computers, which generally run on pirated Microsoft software, come from China. The country’s only computer-manufacturing company, Morning Panda, produces barely 10,000 a year. If computers are rare, printers are even more so. They are closely monitored because of their potential for spreading anti-regime documents. Similarly, citizens are forbidden to own fax machines, which can be found only in national post offices and in business offices. Sending a fax requires the approval of a high-level employer. Cell phones, both legal and illegal, have become a fact of life only during the past five years.

Radio is the chief technology through which the regime communicates with its citizens and is, for a variety of reasons that include patterns of historical use, the technology of choice for the exile-media outlets. A few target specific audiences. North Korea Reform Radio, founded in 2007, directs its free-market message at government bureaucrats (it recently aired a 44-episode series on China’s economic liberalization); North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, or NKIS, a hybrid think tank and news organization, concentrates on the intelligentsia (“The bottom of the population are too ignorant and brainwashed, and the elites are too hardline,” says its founder, Kim Heung Kwang).

Much of the programming has a distinct social-media character. Free North Korea Radio’s Voices of the People features man-on-the-street interviews with North Koreans, their voices digitally distorted before being broadcast back into their country. NK Reform Radio interviews defectors now living in South Korea. Some are unable to fit into South Korean society, and their ambivalence about their new home comes through in their comments—itself evidence of their newfound freedom of speech.

The subject that most interests North Koreans is the country’s ruling dynasty: founder Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, and his presumed heir, Kim Jong Un. Most of their subjects know little more than the idealized history of the Kims churned out by the state’s propaganda mill. They are shocked to learn that Kim Jong Il was born in Russia, and not on the mythic Mount Paektu; Koreans are quite socially conservative and are aghast that he has fathered several children with women other than his wives.

Editors have wasted no time creating a suite of Kim-centric programs. Open Radio North Korea broadcasts an original serial drama called 2012, whose title refers to the much-anticipated 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. It starts with the premise that Kim Jong Il has been incapacitated by a second stroke, and imagines what North Korea might be like in the near future. Radio Free Chosun has dramatized several memoirs about the ruling family, including one by Kim Jong Il’s chef. And even NK Reform Radio is getting in on the action with an original drama called What Did Kim Jong Il Eat During the Famine?

The bet is that a mix of entertainment and news is more compelling than broadcasts that focus on famine or human-rights abuses (things most North Koreans are well aware of). The evidence suggests that such programs work. In their surveys of North Korean refugees, Haggard and Noland found a clear correlation between the “consumption of foreign media” and “more negative assessments of the regime and its intentions.” Kim Seong Min, the founder of Free North Korea Radio, credits his own political awakening to shortwave-radio programs. As a North Korean propaganda officer, he sometimes listened to the illegal radios he confiscated. One night he heard a South Korean program that contradicted a number of the myths surrounding the Kim family. After a little research, he discovered that the broadcasts were true. Was everything he’d been taught a lie, he wondered? It wasn’t long before he defected.

Without a doubt, North Korea Intellectual Solidarity is the organization that has thought most about the role of technology. Its reporters are equipped with South Korean, rather than Chinese, cell phones, because NKIS technicians believe their encoded protocol is more difficult for North Korean intelligence to track. Not content to buy voice and video recorders off the shelf, NKIS uses customized devices, whose battery life and recording times are reputedly superior. My request to see one is (pleasantly) denied.

The group’s technical emphasis comes from its founder, Kim Heung Kwang. Kim was a professor of computer science at Hamhung University of Technology, a branch of the North Korean military. He looks a decade older than his 51 years, and has the haggard mien of someone who has fallen afoul of the authorities. In North Korea, he was training students for careers as engineers or soldiers. The best were recruited by the army’s elite hacker units, which reportedly disrupted South Korean and U.S. government Web sites in 2009. Two of his former students defected recently, and now work with him at NKIS.

Kim’s facility with technology got him into trouble in the North. “I had several e-books, which I got from China. The national security force arrested me for possessing them,” he tells me. The books were pretty innocuous fare, mostly motivational titles like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. “These weren’t anti-regime books, so why was this a crime?” he asks bitterly. “I saw that there wasn’t any hope for the North Korean system. I started to dream of going somewhere where I had the freedom to read what I wanted.” Kim defected in 2003 and arrived in South Korea a year later.

One of the first things Kim’s team created was an e-book called Window to the Global Village. A 204-page primer about South Korea and the rest of the world, it is loaded with embedded video, music, photos, and voice files. The three-gigabyte thumb drive had extra space, so he added a math program for children, a fortune-telling program for adults, games, and a bunch of computer tools.

Kim reaches into his pocket and shows me one of his specially programmed thumb drives. It will read “empty” when it is plugged in to a computer, just in case it falls into the hands of a border guard. When the savvy (or unsuspecting) user double-clicks on the logo, the program launches, and installs a file called “Welcome World” on his computer. (Some funders object to these surreptitious distribution techniques, fearing they might endanger innocent people.) Then there is the self-destruct option. “We set it to erase itself after a month, or after a certain number of downloads,” Kim explains, holding up one of the thumb drives. “Even if you are caught reading the e-book, the national security police won’t be able to trace it. After all, you can say that when you got it, you thought it was empty!”

Given the grip that the North Korean regime retains on information, the mission of these subversive organizations can seem quixotic—an act of faith as much as it is journalism. Of all the narrowcasters tenaciously targeting North Korea, the narrowest is Shiokaze (“sea breeze,” in Japanese), a station created by the Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea, or COMJAN. In the late 1970s, North Korea began randomly abducting Japanese citizens from beaches and parks, and holding them captive in Pyongyang for the next quarter century. Their families assumed they had either eloped or died. Precisely why they were abducted has never been clear, although it most likely has to do with training spies. Even the exact number of abductees isn’t known. At a 2002 summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Kim Jong Il confessed to having taken 13 Japanese, five of whom were still alive (and were soon returned to Japan). The Japanese government insists that at least 17 were kidnapped, and refuses to believe that the others have died. From the third floor of a less-than-spiffy apartment building near Tokyo’s Iidabashi railway station, COMJAN advocates on behalf of abductees not officially recognized by the Japanese government, and hopes to reach them with its radio broadcasts.

On the day I visit, Araki Kazuhiro, a professor of Korean studies and COMJAN’s chairman, is sitting in the tiny, makeshift plywood radio booth, reading news about recent nuclear-arms negotiations for one of Shiokaze’s twice-daily shortwave broadcasts. After he finishes, we sit at a conference table and have some tea. Araki says he believes that more than 400 Japanese have been abducted, and that the kidnappings continue even today. As with many of the other shortwave broadcasts, North Korea often jams Shiokaze’s signal. Shiokaze regularly switches frequencies, but the North quickly locates the new one, and jams it.

While the Daily NK and other outlets occasionally interact with their listeners, Shiokaze operates in a virtual void. Other than the five Japanese released in 2002, no abductee has ever been heard from. I reluctantly broach the subject: Does Araki have any evidence that anyone in North Korea—abductee or not—has ever heard the broadcast?

Araki and his producer consult with each other. “Well, we once heard about a high-school student who was able to pick up the program in Pyongyang, but we’re not sure about that,” he says. After more tea, Araki excuses himself and returns to the booth. It is almost noon, and he needs to finish one more Korean-language segment before the afternoon program is beamed across the sea and into North Korea.

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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