Peering into the Hermit Kingdom: Technology is revolutionizing reporting on North Korea
Long before the world finally got a glimpse last September of Kim Jong Un, heir apparent to the Hermit Kingdom, the plump autocrat-in-waiting had been tipped for the top.
Newspapers and TV reporters around the world had already built up sketchy profiles of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, including accounts of his posh Swiss education, his alpha-male personality and his fondness for the movies of Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The profiles were almost invariably illustrated with a now well-known photo of the 11-year-old Kim junior sporting a pudding-bowl haircut, taken by Kenji Fujimoto, Kim senior’s former personal chef and one of the only reliable sources for what little we know about North Korea’s first family.
So Jong-un’s official induction into the halls of official military and political power can be seen in hindsight as a vindication of diligent, careful reporting – except for the string of reporting misfires that preceded it. Many journalists, including myself, had at one time or another profiled all three Kim sons as possible heirs.
North Korea is famously one of the world’s deepest journalistic black holes, a vast sealed experiment in information control. According to Reporters Without Borders, just 4 percent of the population have access to the country’s heavily censored Internet, which is completely under state control, along with all newspapers, radio and television. Visitors must surrender cell phones and mobile transmitters at the border.
Naturally, that makes verifying the scant information that trickles out a vexing matter. “You could write a book – or at least a doctoral dissertation – on the lies that have been written about North Korea,” says Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia correspondent for the London Times.
For years, says Lloyd Parry, it was assumed that Kim Jong Il was mentally ill, or an alcoholic, a sex maniac or a psychopath. “Then during the Inter-Korea forum in 2000, there he was on TV, obviously fond of a drink but making sense and in control of the situation.”
Over the years reporters have used strategy, ingenuity and plain subterfuge to get an accurate picture of life inside the country. Some have piggybacked in with government-level visitors, or visited in the guise of tourists. LA Times correspondent Barbara Demick two years ago elevated another approach – interviewing defectors – into something of a high art in her book Nothing to Envy.
SMALLER, SMARTER TECH = NEW SOURCES
Until recently, employing North Koreans as reporters was considered far-fetched, even revolutionary. But technological developments in the last few years have made that a possibility. Mobile phones, mini-cameras and recording devices are increasingly being smuggled out, and the dissenting voices of North Koreans themselves broadcast back in.
The implications are potentially profound, says long-time Pyongyang watcher Bradley K. Martin: “A stepped-up campaign of providing accurate news about their own country and the rest of the world to a people who are no longer hermetically sealed off from such news could over time threaten the regime’s domestic control.”
That’s certainly the goal in life of Kim Seong-Min, a defector who now runs Free North Korea Radio (FNKR) in Seoul. He wants to bring democracy to his former homeland, one person at a time. “The world would be a better place without Kim Jong Il, of course. But the most important thing is not him, it’s the people he rules.”
Kim pays 10 freelance journalists inside North Korea – including a university professor, a teacher and at least two soldiers – a retainer of about $100 a month to file reports. FNKR provides them with small digital recorders for recording interviews, and mobile phones with signals that work across the Chinese border, since Pyongyang’s fledgling mobile-phone system was bought from Egypt and is incompatible with the South Korean network.
The recordings are spirited across the Chinese border and transported back to Seoul via a network of spies. The results detonate on air during Voices of the People, where the raw views of the North’s citizens – electronically distorted – are broadcast back into their own country. Kim Jong Il’s wealth comes from “the sweat and blood of the people,” says one. Another vows to protest government policies. A defector interviewed by the station once vowed to shoot the Dear Leader.
The aim of the clandestine recordings is simple, says Kim: Changing the consciousness of ordinary North Koreans ahead of the generational transition of power. “When power moved from Kim Il-sung [father of the nation] to Kim Jong Il, it was considered a natural development. But people know far more about the outside world now and they’re more skeptical of the leadership, so anything could happen.”
Another defector, Choi Jin I, runs six reporters and four assistants inside North Korea, and at least three more across the border in China from his tiny office in Seoul. Over the last three years, the reporters have filmed over 200 hours of video footage, which is smuggled out on tiny SD cards and has ended up on TV screens in South Korea, Japan and much of the rest of the world. Stills from the reporting are printed in the bimonthly magazine Rimjingang, published in Korean and Japanese.
“The thing is, digital media have completely transformed how we gather information,” says Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Rimjingang in Japan. “A decade ago if you gave a North Korean a video camera they wouldn’t know what it was. Now, cameras are small and anyone can use them.”
The footage can be copied and even edited inside the North, he explains. “People have their own PCs. It’s printer drivers that are banned, to stop distribution.” He says that mobile phones can now be used to send text and possibly more. “We’re very close to being able to send photos.”
REVELATIONS AT A PRICE
The dangers of such clandestine reporting are obvious: Rimjingang’s journalists live in fear of being discovered. In 2007 many of FNKR’s original team of stringers were caught and tried as spies, then sent to labor camps – or perhaps executed. “We don’t know what happened to them exactly,” says Kim, adding that their capture “devastated” him.
Web-based publishers and blogs are also helping to build a picture of life inside the North. NK News, run by Washington-based researcher Tad Farrell, aggregates articles, opinion pieces and travelogues from outside Pyongyang. It gets about 500 hits a day and claims to have been the first outlet to break the news that Pyongyang’s famous traffic girls had been retired. News website Daily NK, overseen by Park In Ho, publishes translated propaganda and has been sourcing stories from stringers and defectors since 2004, with some correspondents working along the border with China.
Money is a headache for all these outlets. “It’s a major struggle,” admits Ishimaru of Rimjingang, which sells its footage to the big TV stations, especially in Japan, where ¥3-4 million for an exclusive is not uncommon. “Our policy is to maintain strict editorial independence,” he explains. “For the networks, the advantage is that there is little or no risk to them.” NK News runs on a minuscule budget of perhaps $1,000 a year, but is searching for more regular support; Daily NK relies on fundraisers, donations and subscriptions. Much of the money that keeps North Korea Free Radio on air comes from the U.S. State Department – but at no cost to editorial independence, insists Kim.
“I’m asked about interference a lot, but it’s not an issue. There has been just one clash. We ran a program carrying testimony by defectors who spoke of their treatment – being beaten by guards at the Chinese border and so on. One defector said he was going to shoot Kim Jong Il. The Americans told us to delete that program or they wouldn’t pay.”
CAN WE BE OBJECTIVE HERE?
This spate of new outlets has added detail to what we know about the North, but how reliable are they? Lloyd Parry says: “We all perhaps share the desire to see an end to the government, but some of the North Korea news sites have very stark and obvious agendas – their whole raison d’etre is to bring down Kim Jong Il.” But he accepts that websites and blogs increasingly supplement the knowledge of reporters working the North Korea beat.
“The science of Pyongyang-ology largely depends on the scouring of official propaganda, and looking at photos,” he notes. “Even if you had time to immerse yourself in all that, it’s difficult to get hold of the material. (The new media mean) it’s easier to be a Pyongyang-ologist, to access information that used to be the preserve of a few experts.”
He cites the example of a Times reader who recently analyzed propaganda photos of post-stroke Kim Jong Il and in the newspaper’s comments section, described how they were faked.
But Farrell doubts that the new media will replace print or broadcast TV. “I don’t agree that old media is in decline, because people are essentially using NK News as a portal for old media’s online presence – and, I hope, for our own content from time to time as well.”
Ishimaru also believes his organization plays a niche role – for now. “They just don’t have people like us working in the big Japanese TV stations. In that sense, we’re unique and very useful to them.” ❶
David McNeill is the Japan/Korea correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education and also writes regularly for The Irish Times and The Independent newspapers. He teaches at Sophia University and is a coordinator of the e-journal www.japanfocus.org.