North Korea: How digital technology helps to get news in and out of North Korea

November 2nd, 2010  |  Published in Comments & Features, Networked Life, TechWatch Korea  |  6 Comments

This is a screenshot of a news video by KIM Dong-cheol, a North Korean underground journalist with the Japan-based journalists network AsiaPress, shows a young woman in a North Korean village looking desperately for food for their rabbits she sells to wealthy North Korean. She looks like a girl, but says, that she is already 23 years old.

Thanks to the spreading of digital technologies in North Korea, we are gaining more and more access to first hand accounts of daily life of North Koreans by North Korean underground journalists.

One of the well regarded news organizations is the Japan-based AsiaPress. Its founder Jiro Ishimura talked on Monday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) about how the spread of digital technologies allowed him to set up his network of six underground reporters.

Here a short account:

The motive: Ishimaru, who studied Korean in Seoul, visited North Korea only three times in the 1990s, one time on a Chinese passport. But he went to the Chinese-Korean border 70 times, interviewing around 700 North Koreans, who were visiting or living in the Middle Kingdom. He experienced, that foreign journalist face unsurmountable hurdles reporting about the realities in North Koreans, only “embedded” North Koreans can offer us glimpses into their daily life. And so he started to recruit North Koreans, he met on the Chinese side.

Even young soldiers don't have enough to eat. By Chang Jeong-gil/Asiapress.

The facilitating factors: 1. The regime lost its ability to feed the people in the 1990s, resulting in a massive famine. Hence, the people had to take care of themselves. Since then a vibrant market economy has developed: Despite international sanctions money can buy you anything – from German cars to Japanese gadgets.

2. The digitization made it easier to get contents in and out of the country. For one, SD cards are smaller than video cassettes and therefore much easier to hide. Contents are copied more easily, and digital cameras are widely available in North Korea these days, as are South Korean TV dramas. They are being recorded in China, copied to DVD, and a few days later they are spreading in North Korea. According to Ishimura more than half of the young people in North Korean cities have indulged already in South Korean soaps. already.

3. North Korea has its mobile telephone network. It is for domestic consumption only, but the journalist in the capital Pyongyang can call others in the border area with China, who in turn will call their handlers on the Chinese side with Chinese cellphones.

The digital arms race: But in the last few years the communication is becoming more difficult because the North Korean regime started to run special vans equipped with German technology along the border to China to triangulate Chinese phones on the Korean side. Punishment can be severe. Now the AsiaPress reportes are using mobile email, which is much more difficult to locate.

The prospects: “I think that unless Kim Jong-Il’s administration takes a drastic step of completely banning all forms of digital media, there is no way it can stop the flow of information going into and out of North Korea. … I don’t think there is anyway the leaders can put a stop to this.”

The book: AsiaPress just published a book with English translations of the reports of the six underground reporters that so far were only available in Korean and Japanese. The book called “Rimjin-gang” is available for 9000 Yen at AsiaPress. ISBN: 978-4-904399-05-7

It can be ordered directly from the company and costs 9,000 yen, which is US$112 at the current exchange rate.

Another provider of news is Daily NK, a treasure box of glimpses into the life of North Koreans. It recently reported about the appearance of a satirical song in North Korea:

The children’s song is a well-known one in South Korea called “Three Bears”. In its rewritten version it makes fun of the dynasty, the grandfather Kim Il-sung, the father Kim Jong-il, and the son Kim Jong-un. And here are the lyrics:

“Three bears in a house, pocketing everything; grandpa bear, papa bear and baby bear. Grandpa Bear is fat, Papa Bear is fat, too, and Baby Bear is a doofus.”
The re-written lyrics of the song, NKIS claims, are as follows: “Three bears in a house, pocketing everything; grandpa bear, papa bear and baby bear. Grandpa Bear is fat, Papa Bear is fat, too, and Baby Bear is a doofus.”


  1. somefromGermany says:

    November 2nd, 2010at 22:21(#)

    I hope for the people of North-Korea they will be able to get their faith in own hands. The world, I fear, will not help them to get rid of bad influence. The times are not the same as after the second world war, where the west help people to get freedom.

  2. Martin says:

    November 7th, 2010at 18:36(#)

    The interesting thing this time is, that nobody wants to help them, because everybody likes the status quo too much. The Chinese want to keep the North as buffer, the South Koreans are afraid of the costs of unification, and the Americans might be afraid of being kicked out of Korea.
    There are a lot of discussions going on, whether there will be unification or not. I think the discussion is futile. Ok, there is obviously nobody who will grab the “coat of history” as the German chancellor Helmut Kohl did and try to force a unification. But if the North Korean state totally collapses, South Korea has to take it. Who else would want it. I think it is as easy as this.

  3. Harry says:

    November 8th, 2010at 10:24(#)

    Hello, does anyone know if the video, from which the screenshot is, is available on the Net?

  4. Martin says:

    November 10th, 2010at 20:35(#)

    I have not found any on the internet. I have it here on DVD, but it is copyrighted material, and I had to promise, not to distribute it.

  5. CNA Training says:

    November 11th, 2010at 12:26(#)

    nice post. thanks.

  6. robthechob says:

    November 12th, 2010at 04:17(#)

    we are a long way from kansas

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