A Free Press Stirs in North Korea

Wall Street Journal
October 19, 2010

by Melanie Kirkpatrick

North Korea is usually off limits to reporters. But to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, Pyongyang issued a rare invitation to foreign journalists to visit the country. The occasion provided the first public sightings of the young Kim Jong Eun, and the press dutifully beamed photos of the dictator-in-training overseeing North Korea’s “largest ever” military parade. He was positioned near his father, current dictator Kim Jong Il, waving to the crowds and saluting the troops.

Yet what do we know about the North’s newest four-star general? Journalists representing the world’s most elite international media organizations told us very little about the youngest Kim or the likely effect of his appointment on North Korea’s future. He appears to be under the tutelage of a trio of eminences: Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s venerable chief of staff; his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui; and his uncle by marriage, Chang Sung Taek. These graybeards presumably will serve as regents for the crown prince should the ailing Kim Jong Il die.

Next to no personal data has been released about Jong Eun—not even his birth date—and the information blackout has given rise to a slew of rumors: He speaks several languages, he is a fan of the NBA, and (my favorite) he has undergone plastic surgery to make him look like a reincarnation of his chipmunk-cheeked grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic.

A more ominous rumor puts him as the mastermind behind the March attack on the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, that left 46 sailors dead. The secretive nature of North Korea’s political system makes it impossible to know the truth or falsity of such stories, and the best the international press can do rarely amounts to more than informed speculation.

Contrast this reporting with that of another group of journalists: North Koreans reporting from inside North Korea. Incredible as it may seem in a country where journalism as it is practiced in the West is punishable by a trip to the gulag or public execution, such reporters are a new and growing phenomenon. Armed with easy-to-hide pinhole cameras and flash drives, they are getting videos, photographs and written information out of North Korea.

There are several news organizations supporting journalists in North Korea. One is Rimjin-gang magazine, a division of AsiaPress International, based in Osaka. The founder and editor of Rimjin-gang is a Japanese journalist by the name of Jiro Ishimaru. As the world’s journalists were reporting from Pyongyang last week, Mr. Ishimaru was in the U.S., presenting his reporters’ remarkable videos, photographs and articles to American audiences. A book containing English-language translations of some of the magazine’s best stories was published on Oct. 15.

Rimjin-gang is the Korean name for the Imjin River, which begins in North Korea and runs south across the demilitarized zone. It is a symbol of North Koreans sending information to the South, Mr. Ishimaru says. “I came to realize that outsiders attempting to shed light on North Korea hit a wall that is simply impossible to breach. No one can report on a nation better than its own people.”

Mr. Ishimaru runs a staff of 10 reporters. For security reasons, each reporter operates independently without knowledge of the identity of his colleagues or what they are doing. The reporters are men and women who want to do something with their lives and who want to help their country, Mr. Ishimaru says. They believe that “if you don’t do something, you are just a slave.”

Mr. Ishimaru recruits his reporters in the border regions of China, home to tens of thousands of North Korean refugees who have escaped across the Yalu or Tumen rivers. He and colleagues from South Korea give the budding journalists a crash course in the basics of journalism and teach them how to use essential technology. The journalists then go back to North Korea with enough money to travel around the country, pay bribes if they get into trouble, and eventually return to China.

It is next to impossible for ordinary North Koreans to get close to military installations, the gulag or Kim Jong Eun. So the reporters have decided to focus on day-to-day life in North Korea, especially starvation, the growing market economy and corruption. They have produced more than 100 hours of video on these subjects. Among the tapes I viewed were ones that showed bags of rice labeled “WFP”—for the United Nations World Food Program—being sold in a marketplace, and soldiers using a military truck as a bus service for paying customers.

The information doesn’t flow just one way. Mr. Ishimaru’s reporters also try to get information about the outside world into North Korea, usually in the form of CDs containing videos of South Korean soap operas, news shows or documentaries. Before DVD players came into use in China, VCD players—video CD players—had a short run of popularity. Chinese merchants now sell these discarded devices, along with CDs, across the border in North Korea. It’s against the law to possess a VCD player or to watch South Korean videos, but the law-enforcement system has broken down enough that more and more North Koreans are taking the risk, assuming that if they get caught they can bribe local officials to look the other way.

Free North Korea Radio, a Seoul-based radio station run by North Korean defectors, also has reporters in North Korea. Their stories are broadcast to the North, where information about what is happening in the listeners’ own country is scarce. There is no dissident movement in North Korea, and better information is a necessary prerequisite.

In China in 1989, when pro-democracy demonstrations were taking place in Tiananmen Square, the world learned what was happening from students who used facsimile machines to send reports to friends overseas. In an article in these pages at the time, the late strategic thinker Albert Wohlstetter wrote, “the fax shall make you free.” Twenty-one years later, China isn’t free, but it is freer.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, the world’s most repressive society, it is courageous journalists with pinhole cameras and flash drives who are helping to set their country on the path to freedom.

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