Excerpts

From Chapter 2:
Look for a Building With a Cross on It

When Joseph reached the other side of the Tumen River, he scrambled up the bank and lay very still for a few minutes, his face pressed against the frozen ground. He waited to hear boots come crashing toward him and feel hands grab him under the shoulders, wrench him to his feet and haul him off to a police station. But nothing happened. No boots, no hands, no police. Everything was quiet. Once his heart finally stopped pounding, he lifted his head, looked around and scrutinized the Chinese village he had observed from the North Korean side of the river. He decided to go there to beg for food.

Eventually he pulled himself to his feet and set off toward the nearest house. He knocked on the door, forced himself to smile and made his pitch to the woman who answered. She shook her head and shut the door. He continued to the next house and then the next, each time receiving the same reply: We can’t help you. After being turned away from a dozen houses, Joseph finally found a welcome. A man opened his door wide, invited him inside and gave him a meal. Joseph noticed that despite his generosity, the man did not appear to be any richer than the villagers who had turned him away. The man spoke Korean, and in the course of conversation he told Joseph that he was a Christian.

As Joseph was departing, the Good Samaritan advised him to walk along the bank of the Tumen River until he came to a bigger town, where, the Christian said, he would be more likely to find help. Joseph set off for the town, but night was falling and he stepped off the path and into the woods, looking for a dry place to lie down and rest. He slept for a few hours stretched out on the ground near a fire he lit with matches he fortunately had happened to bring with him. He reached the town the next afternoon and poked around until he discovered an abandoned house. The house became his home for the next three weeks. He hid there during the day, slept on the floor of a closet at night, and ventured outside in the morning and evening to beg for food. On one of his begging missions, he met an old woman who spoke Korean. If you need help, she said, go to a church. Church people help North Koreans.

“What’s a church?” Joseph asked.

“Look for a building with a cross on it,” the woman told him.

From Chapter 16:
Invading North Korea

An invasion of North Korea has already begun. No soldiers or tanks are involved, and not a single bullet will be fired. Rather, the weapons are cellphones, radios, flash drives, DVDs, and videotapes. It is an information invasion, not a military one, and the strategic objectives are far-reaching: Open the country to information from the outside world, nurture dissent, destroy the Kim family regime.

North Korea long has been the most closed nation on earth and its people the least informed about the world outside its borders. It is the world’s worst media environment. As noted earlier, radio, television, cellphones, and the Internet are all tightly controlled by the state. Radios are fixed to state-run radio stations and must be registered with the government. Only government-approved shows are broadcast on television. Cellphones are configured so as to be limited to domestic calls, and a user would be safe to assume his line is tapped. Computer users—about 3 percent of the population—may access only the government-run Intranet, and even then they must receive special clearance by the state. Access to the Web is reserved for a tiny super-elite.

The international media organization, Reporters Without Borders, routinely ranks North Korea at the bottom of its annual index of global press freedom, in the company of Sudan, Syria, Burma, Iran, and Turkmenistan and other totalitarian states. One report from Reporters Without Borders neatly describes the job of the North Korean journalist as “feeding the public mind-numbing propaganda.” It characterizes the journalist’s job description as publicizing the greatness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, demonstrating the superiority of North Korean socialism, and criticizing the imperialist actions of the United States, South Korea, and Japan. At least forty North Korean journalists had been sent to prison for crimes such as misspelling a senior official’s name or questioning the official version of Korea’s history.

So controlled are the media that when the state-run television network broadcast the British-made soccer film Bend It Like Beckham, in December 2010, the event made international headlines. According to the British government, which arranged for the film to air in honor of the tenth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between London and Pyongyang, this was the first time that a Western movie had been shown on television in North Korea. Even so, the North Korean censors did not permit viewers to see the film in its entirety. The network broadcast a bowdlerized version, minus the bits on religion, interracial marriage, and homosexuality. These subjects are taboo in North Korea.

Much has been written about the liberating power of information technology. The world saw its effect in Beijing in 1989, when democracy activists used facsimile machines to tell the outside world what was happening in Tiananmen Square, an event that prompted the late American strategic thinker Albert Wohlstetter to quip, “the fax shall make you free.” The Buddhist monks who led a push for freedom in Burma in 2007 communicated with each other and the outside world through text messaging. A few years later, the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan rebels who overthrew their country’s longstanding authoritarian leaders became friends on Facebook, micro-blogged on Twitter, and posted video and photographs on YouTube.

None of that could happen North Korea — yet. In information-technology terms, North Korea is locked in a time warp. It is Ground Hog’s Day 1953 over and over again. Founder Kim Il Sung understood the power of information, and after the Korean War ended, he made sure that his regime had a monopoly on it. It was a lesson that the late Kim Jong Il also learned and that he appears to have handed down to his son and heir, Kim Jong Eun, who has taken steps to seal off the border with China. None of the modern technologies that connect us to each other and the world at large are available in North Korea. There is no text messaging, no email, no photo sharing, no social networking.

Even a low-tech form of information technology — the mail service — is highly restricted. North Korea is a member of the Universal Postal Union, but it has direct postal service with a limited number of countries. South Korea is not among them. Contrast this with East and West Germany. Throughout the Cold War, Germans in one part of the divided country could send letters to their relatives in the other part of the country. Koreans have not been able to do so for sixty years. If a South Korean wants to communicate with a North Korean, there are no institutional channels by which to do so.

But all this is changing, made possible by the North Koreans who have fled to China and, especially, by those who have gone on to South Korea or the West. North Koreans may be in exile, but they are determined to find ways to communicate with their families and friends at home. The leaders of the information invasion are North Koreans now in exile and intent on getting information into and out of their country.

In South Korea, the North Korean diaspora has established an array of nonprofit organizations aimed at prying open North Korea by providing its citizens with information banned there. Four independent radio stations, founded and staffed by refugees, broadcast from Seoul to North Korea. A Web magazine run by exiles is publishing information gathered by a stable of covert reporters operating in North Korea. A think tank is developing back-channel lines of communications with intellectuals and military officers in North Korea. These efforts are funded by private sources from South Korea and, in the United States, by the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization created by Congress in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. In 2011, the National Endowment for Democracy spent $1.3 million on programs supporting human rights, development, and democracy in North Korea.

North Korean exiles perform three essential functions in opening up their homeland. Above all, they are conduits of information. Through calls on illegal Chinese cellphones, remittances, and other interactions, the refugees provide a window on the wider world to family members still locked inside North Korea. Word of mouth may be a pre-technology way of spreading information, but it is effective. When North Koreans hear a trusted relative describe his life in South Korea, his conversion to Christianity, or his new understanding of North Korea’s history, they are likely to believe what he says, even when it contradicts Pyongyang’s propaganda.

Second, North Koreans who settle in South Korea serve as a “bridge population,” in the words of the president of the National Endowment of Democracy, Carl Gershman. The exiled North Koreans link their homeland with South Korea and the world at large. These people, Gershman said, are “giving voice to the voiceless society left behind.”

In this respect, the information invasion works two ways. First, it ferrries information about the outside world into North Korea. Second, it enables exiles to get information out of North Korea. In addition to educating their fellow citizens left behind in North Korea, the exiles are also finding success in interpreting their secretive country to the larger world. In recent years, a mini-surge of books, articles, documentaries, TV shows, and websites has presented refugees’ stories about life in North Korea. These have given the world an unprecedented window on life in North Korea. It is harder than it ever was for anyone – especially South Koreans—to hide their heads in the sand and pretend they do not know the brutal realities of life in that country.

Third, as a population acculturated to the South but with roots in the North, the refugees are preparing for the eventual integration of North Korea into a united Korea. They will be a vital resource when that occurs. This is especially true of the under-thirty generation. As was the case in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism, young North Koreans are more intellectually malleable, more open to new ideas than their elders are. Gershman calls them the 1.5 generation. He says these young exiles are sucking up information about the Western world: “how people in South Korea and other countries respect and defend human rights and democracy, how political parties organize and campaign, how workers fight for their rights and entrepreneurs compete in the marketplace, how journalists report the news and NGOs educate, defend, and give voice to society.”

Young North Korean exiles are also more receptive than their elders are to South Korea’s culture of education and hard work. When the time comes for rebuilding North Korea, the corps of educated and highly motivated North Koreans in exile will be a valuable resource.