Monday, January 24, 2011
Reporting in North Korea: Journalism that carries the death penalty
The only publication written by North Koreans, about North Korea, for consumption by the outside world, is named after a river that flows from the North to South Korea and into the Yellow Sea. Rimjingang’s eight reporters are dotted about the totalitarian state; their backgrounds range from factory work to the civil service. In China they were trained in undercover recording techniques. And then they went home to begin their work. If caught, they surely face death.
Their reports are smuggled back into China, and then to Japan, where the magazine’s publisher, Asiapress, is based.
Rimjingang produced a shocking video (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newsvideo/8113817/Inside-North-Korea-exclusive-footage.html) late last year of a homeless young woman, her face blackened with dirt, foraging on a mountainside. Images of the woman, who may have died soon after, went around the world.
Rimjingang is emblematic of the challenges to the regime of Kim Jong Il posed by technology. Reports can be carried across the border on memory sticks, or transmitted via Chinese mobile phones that pick up signals on the North Korean side of the Yalu river.
Rimjingang, and a publication about North Korean conditions by a Buddhist aid group, Good Friends, have been exceptions. Most of the information that flows is inward, from outsiders countering state propaganda and hoping to foment anti-regime sentiment. Open Radio for North Korea, founded five years ago in America, combines Korean pop with human-rights information.
Open Radio, though, is starting to find ways to work in both directions. A month ago, the station broke the story that a train bound for Pyongyang containing gifts from China for Kim Jong Un, the heir-apparent, was sabotaged and derailed. The source was apparently an official from North Pyongan province, the region in which the incident occurred. Last March Free North Korea Radio claimed to have equipped three North Koreans with satellite phones, which offer a lower risk of detection.
Perhaps the greatest force for change remains pirated DVDs from China. Though not a part of any deliberate effort to subvert the system, they mean that nearly everyone has seen South Korean soap operas and knows how prosperous Seoul really looks. “Fear still rules,” says a defector. “But people know more about the world than you might think.” ◦