x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Journalists fighting an information war in secretive North Korea

News gathering remains 'very dangerous', with the regime using sophisticated technology to monitor informants and suppress stories.

Workers at the Kim Jong Tae Electric Locomotive Combined Plant honour Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang yesterday.
Workers at the Kim Jong Tae Electric Locomotive Combined Plant honour Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang yesterday.

SEOUL // Hunched over, staring at their computer screens, the dozen or so journalists in this cramped office in north-west Seoul collect the latest reports for their online news service about one of the world's most secretive countries.

Their sources could die for what they do.

As the world watches every clue about North Korea after the death of the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, in an echo of the days of dissecting everything out of the Kremlin under the Soviet Union, even South Korea's secret service relies on what the journalists of the largely US government-funded DailyNK produce for insights.

Where grainy satellite images and occasional testimonies from defectors once created the only blurred impressions of life inside North Korea, the DailyNK has a network of sources within the nuclear-armed country to tell the world what is really happening.

"It's not a risk for us [in Seoul], but for those who provide information from the Chinese border or from inside. They're taking a lot of risks," said Daily NK's chief editor, Shin Ju-hyun.

"Right now they are doing the [news] gathering and reporting and meeting. It's very, very dangerous. Our sources have been captured and they have [faced] various dangers from the North Korean government."

Informants have bribed themselves out of trouble. But in a country that has executed or sent to gulags those accused of disloyalty, acute dangers remain.

North Koreans crossing the border into China to visit relatives might meet DailyNK reporters discreetly during their trips, and ethnic Koreans with Chinese passports who travel into and out of North Korea also pass on information.

Sources, sometimes disenchanted North Koreans, travel to the far north near the border with China and use Chinese mobile phones to communicate, all the while hoping they cannot be traced. Illegal trading boats are also used to smuggle reports out.

Just as news services such as the DailyNK use modern technology such as mobile phones to take information out, so the North Korean authorities use sophisticated monitoring equipment in a game of cat-and-mouse.

"It doesn't get any easier," said Mr Shin, a 36-year-old from western South Korea. "They use electronic monitoring devices. They try to find our sources, those who are calling. They try to catch them.

"There are many difficulties in obtaining information, but mostly we have acted wisely."

Crackdowns on traffic across the border between China and North Korea pose a persistent headache, but Mr Shin insists the authorities will be unable to hold back a tide driven by new ways of spreading information.

"The North Korean government maintains a policy of isolation, but they cannot control the information in and out by the border. They can't control it anymore," he said.

The task of turning news from informants into news stories, produced in Korean, Chinese, Japanese and English and attracting 150,000 hits a month, is done at DailyNK's office a short walk from downtown Seoul.

On one side of the room and not to be photographed, are North Korean defectors.

This group has been badgering contacts within North Korea to gauge the reaction to Kim's death.

Much of the funding for the seven-year-old organisation comes from the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy. Yet it is an ambition to change things inside North Korea, rather than money, that drives the operation.

"If there's a sign of change in North Korea, for example a power struggle, we want to be the first ones to report it, even if there's a risk," said Mr Shin.

Recent events vividly illustrate the difficulty that remains in finding out what is going on inside North Korea.

Kim Jong-il's death was kept secret for two days, with South Korean intelligence in the dark, and even minor clues about the ruling hierarchy are treated with excitement as a result of their rarity.

DailyNK has a track record of securing high-level information that major news organisations follow up. It once acquired an advance copy of Kim's annual message to the nation.

Reports often reflect the surreal nature of the Pyongyang regime.

One recent article detailed an intercepted official broadcast that said Kim Jong-un single-handedly drove off 70 American soldiers while leading operations against Yeonpyeong Island, which North Korea shelled in November 2010, killing four South Koreans.

Other organisations focused on getting information into a country dominated by government propaganda have smuggled in DVDs of films exposing the reality of life in the north, sneaking them through a border among the thousands of innocuous music or movies smuggled every day.

Ultimately, along with the other news organisations that broadcast into North Korea, among them Radio Free Chosun and FreeNorthKoreaRadio, DailyNK hopes to help democratise and reform North Korea, although the regime has accused it of smear tactics.

Mr Shin believes change is afoot, giving Kim Jong-un's regime just a 50 per cent chance of surviving three years.

"North Korean people, their thinking and perception has been changing," he said. "Unless there's a military collapse or power battle, civilians won't make any move.

"But if that happens, they will gather in some place and they will eventually participate in the revolution."

dbardsley@thenational.ae