Conflict & Justice

Telling Kim Jong Un's 'secrets'

SEOUL, South Korea — If North Korea's government had its way, the world would know nothing about what really happens within the country's borders.

Journalism is essentially forbidden. Those who dare ask hard questions do so at the risk of torture and imprisonment.

News nonetheless gets out, ranging from the hermit kingdom's quirky fashion crazes to controversial policy measures that may threaten dictator Kim Jong Un's rule.

Much of that information emerges due to the hard and risky work performed by two determined editors who were former sympathizers of the regime.

One is Jang Jin Sung, North Korea’s former poet laureate and chief propagandist who met the now-deceased dictator, Kim Jong Il.

Jang fled to China and then South Korea in 2004. In Seoul, he opened New Focus International, a news website with a nimble staff of three North Korean defectors and three South Korean journalists who gather reports from inside the secretive country. 

On Wednesday, the North Korean government demonstrated that it does indeed read the site. It announced that it would "remove" the "human scum" who told New Focus International that Kim Jong Un handed out copies of Hitler's Mein Kampf on his birthday.

The second editor is Shin Joo-hyun, an erstwhile radical who protested the American military presence in South Korea during the 1980s. He once sympathized with the North Korean state ideology called Juche, a term that roughly means self-reliance against foreign domination.

In the 1990s, Shin repented from his far-left convictions. He’s now the editor-in-chief of DailyNK, a nonprofit website staffed by 20 reporters and translators and despised by North Korea.

These editors lead two of a growing number of media outlets that are lifting the veil from the secretive nation.

Correspondents spend hours every day combing through gossip on political prison camps, black market trading, diplomacy, and everyday life in the garrison state. They take in chatter by phone, email and in person from regime officials, defectors, missionaries, and traders in China and North Korea.

After cross-checking allegations, the stories go online, Jang said.

“We rely on a lot of citizen reporters,” he added, declining to cite the exact number in China and North Korea for security reasons. “In fact, we try to tap into all the 25,000 or so defectors who have come to South Korea.”

The work can be perilous. North Korean agents and Chinese police scour the region near the North Korean-Chinese border for reporters, missionaries and other possible troublemakers. Since famine struck in the 1990s, tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled through this region, home to all sorts of Christian activist groups and black-market peddlers.

To glean the latest from North Korea, teams of stringers trek in secret, covering their tracks by alternating taxi-cabs and buses. If they’re caught by Chinese authorities, they could be jailed and deported.

In July 2012, plainclothes Chinese police nabbed DailyNK correspondent Lee Sang-yong when he arrived at the port city of Dalian, along with a prominent South Korean activist and two other men.

He was put in a cramped prison cell and tortured for four months — much to the protest of South Korean diplomats.

“Ever since that incident, the work environment has been getting difficult,” said Shin, the DailyNK editor-in-chief.

Often, the system of getting information is complicated: government workers and residents in Pyongyang call from mobile phones when they travel near the Chinese border, giving them some distance from eavesdropping by North Korean authorities.

The clever use of technology has allowed DailyNK, New Focus International, and Open Radio North Korea to pursue prescient stories that have rippled across the globe.

In 2009, for example, DailyNK broke news of a currency reevaluation that wiped out the savings of many North Koreans. The Pyongyang government issued a rare public apology in response to the debacle.

Other reporters tell tales of everyday life in the nation. New Focus International wrote on June 14 about how the residents of Chongjin, a city to the far north, are setting the fashion trends of North Korea.

The government thinks the second-hand clothes, imported from Japan and sold on the underground market, constitute a national security threat, the website says.

This style of local reporting fits into a growing tendency among non-profits to document the lives of North Korean people, moving away from only high politics.

International headlines tend to peddle stories about the country’s nuclear program and its hermetic leadership under Kim Jong Un. These websites fills a much-needed gap, experts say.

“The situation is improving, and it’s better than five or 10 years ago,” said Nathaniel Kretchun, a researcher at InterMedia, a Washington DC-based research firm.

“The process of breaking stories, getting sources, and confirming them is herculean, but these websites seem to have the resources to get it done,” he said.