When it comes to clamping down on information, it's hard to top The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But thanks to some very determined journalists in recent years, news is crossing the border. According to Robert Boynton in the April issue of the Atlantic, “a half-dozen independent media organizations have been launched … to communicate with North Koreans – to bring news out of the country as well as to get potentially destabilizing information in.” Boynton explains.
BOB GARFIELD: For clamping down on information, in or out, it would be hard to top the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Its leaders are enigmatic, its policies cryptic, its authoritarianism absolute. The non-governmental organization Freedom House ranked North Korea dead last – that’s 196 out of 196 – in its 2010 Press Freedom Index. So, information travels across the border the hard way, or not at all. But thanks to some very determined journalists in recent years, the hard way now exists. According to Robert Boynton in the April issue of The Atlantic, quote, “A half-dozen independent news organizations have been launched to communicate with North Koreans to bring news out of the country and to get potentially destabilizing information in.” Boynton’s piece is called North Korea’s Digital Underground. Rob, welcome to On the Media.
ROBERT BOYNTON: Thanks for having me here.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with how you got this story. You traveled to South Korea and spent time with the groups who were behind this operation.
ROBERT BOYNTON: I've been traveling to the region for the past three years. And actually, in 2008 I was in Seoul and I was interviewing some people at the Daily NK, which is one of these journalism organizations, and my translator said to me – or reported what had been said to me – that there were these reporters inside North Korea we were getting information from. And I had to stop and ask the translator to repose the question and retranslate the answer because I just couldn't, frankly, believe that there were actually reporters inside North Korea.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it’s kind of a surprising development to imagine that [LAUGHS] there’s active journalism going on between North and South. How does it work?
ROBERT BOYNTON: It works in many different sorts of ways. There are all sorts of informants and reporters of one sort or another in North Korea who are going back and forth over the border between North Korea and China. They will sometimes bring little SD chips or thumb drives or cameras with photographs on them or other digital files and give them usually to people on the other side of the border in this large area, where there are a lot of defectors and refugees from North Korea. There are also many cellphones, which are used to communicate from North Korea to China. The Chinese have set up many different cell towers all along that border. And some of these cellphones are even capable of transmitting video and audio files, so there are all sorts of different ways, from handing off something to sending it digitally.
BOB GARFIELD: Your piece focused substantially on an organization called Daily NK, an online news site. Tell me about the Daily NK. Who are they and what specifically are they after?
ROBERT BOYNTON: The Daily NK is sort of the oldest and most established of these various independent news organizations, and it has about 17 or so journalists in Seoul who have active connections to and communication with their reporters and other people inside North Korea, also inside China, where a lot of the reporting goes on. One of the founders, the cofounder of the Daily NK, is a man named Park In Ho, and he spends a good part of his life in China talking to refugees, talking to people who have crossed over the border, and cultivating and getting to know people who are interested in going back. I mean, one thing you have to understand is that in the last 10 years, the number of people going back and forth between North Korea and China has just risen exponentially, generally trading goods and food. So he has been using this dynamic as a way to recruit and convince people to, in their passage back and forth, to bring information for him, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me examples of particularly vivid or revealing or, or shocking information that has come out of North Korea? And, equally, can you tell me what has been smuggled in that you think might have had the most effect in the North?
ROBERT BOYNTON: The kind of things that have come out that have been most shocking have tended to be video. There have been very widely circulated videos of public executions. There have been widely circulated videos of children starving. There’s a, a horrifying video of very skinny, obviously stunted children. They have a phrase for these. They call them “kochebi,” which are sort of fluttering swallows. These are street children whose parents have died, most likely in the famine, who are surviving by going around the markets and picking little bits of grain off, or if you leave a noodle in your bowl of soup you've just bought, they'll go and eat that. You know, those kind of photographs and video of those things have probably been the most shocking. One of the things I found the most interesting, though, was that so much of the journalism that comes through these organizations is really the sort of workaday journalism that anyone would do: Are the markets in Wonsan full or empty? How is the rice crop going? Things like that. And those sort of unspectacular claims are the ones I used, actually, to try to verify all of this information because those were the things that were probably easiest to check.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious about what gets smuggled in.
ROBERT BOYNTON: Some of the things that are being brought in are e-books on thumb drives. There’s one e-book called Welcome to the World, kind of an almanac of sorts, telling the history of and facts about South Korea and the rest of the world. And the head of the organization, North Korean Intellectual Solidarity, Kim Heung Kwang, is interested in taking the Korean version of Wikipedia, reducing it to a thumb drive and distributing that throughout North Korea.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it possible to gauge from outside the country the impact within?
ROBERT BOYNTON: There have been many studies of defectors in China who have just left North Korea that have looked into their media habits. And one thing that has come across was that as North Koreans’ media consumption increases, they become more and more suspicious of and less well-disposed towards the regime. So the very fact of consuming non-official, non-sanctioned media is having an effect of some sort.
BOB GARFIELD: Rob, thank you very much.
ROBERT BOYNTON: Hey, thank you.
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BOB GARFIELD: Robert Boynton is director of the Literary Reportage Concentration at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. His article, North Korea’s Digital Underground, is in the April issue of The Atlantic.