Finding Cannibals: filling the North Korea news gap – PBS Mediashift

Byoung-Keun (middle) at work at the DailyNK office in Seoul. Photo by Simon Roughneen.

SEOUL, South Korea — “I am always worried about security for those who report information to us from inside,” said Byoung-Keun, a North Korean working in Seoul as a journalist for The DailyNK, a news website focused on telling the world what is happening in possibly the world’s most closed-off society.

Byoung-Keun is a pseudonym, because the former North Korean state official cannot divulge his real name to PBS MediaShift. Doing so could lead to reprisals for family and former colleagues living in North Korea, or even an assassination attempt on him in Seoul, if other recent reports about defectors being targeted by Pyongyang are true.

In North Korea, Internet and cell phone use are restricted to senior government officials and foreigners — and then closely monitored. The only media is state-run, and for those interested in unwittingly funny triumphalism predicting the imminent collapse of western capitalism, then the Korean Central News Agency has it all.

More seriously, however, punishment for North Koreans caught passing information outside ranges from imprisonment in the country’s gulags – which some estimates say hold a mind-boggling 200,000 political prisoners – to death. No wonder Byoung-Keun is concerned for those he talks to on the inside.


View from the South Korean side of the demilitarised zone across the 'Bridge of No Return' into North Korea (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

He said he is driven by a desire to tell the world what is going on in North Korea, “because no one else is doing it.” Byoung-Keun is one of two defectors working at DailyNK’s Seoul office, with three others based in China, communicating from there with people inside North Korea. Northeastern China is home to an ethnic Korean minority, with an unknown number of North Korean migrants and asylum seekers in the area, and there is a growing formal and informal trade economy across the border into North Korea.

According to Bob Dietz, Asia coordinator with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), this region of China offers “the best watch” on North Korea. “Exile groups blended with South Korean aid groups, many of them with a fundamentalist Christian backing, are the best source of news and are a regular supply of intelligence for governments trying to get more information about conditions in North Korea,” he told MediaShift.

Some of these missionaries and activists are at the forefront not only of information gathering, but of assisting North Koreans who want to defect — like Byoung-Keun — by smuggling into China and then onward, overland to Mongolia or to southeast Asia, in the hope of eventually finding asylum and a new life in South Korea. Pastor Peter Jung told Mediashift that he and colleagues operate in the border area, but said he cannot give any details about how the “underground railroad” — the step-by-step system by which North Koreans defect — works. “It would be too dangerous to write too much detail about that,” he cautioned.

Christopher Green is manager of International Affairs at DailyNK, and translates and edits Korean copy into English. He told me that the primary means of communication are Chinese cell phones, which work inside areas of North Korea close to the Chinese border. “If someone gets caught using one of these, they can rationalize by saying that they need the device to keep in touch with family living in China,” Green added.

And in the smuggle and barter economy dominant along the border areas, a bribe is usually needed to get the policeman to look the other way. Before he defected, Byoung-Keun smuggled medicinal herbs into China – floating them inside tractor tyre tubes across the Yalu River that marks the border between the two countries. He said the proceeds from this supported 28 people, who otherwise might have struggled to survive in North Korea’s stagnant economy.


North Korean pilot Capt Lee Woong-Pyung defected to the south on this MiG-19 fighter jet - now on display at Seoul's War Memorial museum - on Feb. 25 1983 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Byoung-Keun is now applying that knack for improvisation and survivalist savvy to his journalism work in Seoul. Describing what at first glance appears to be a challenging operation – getting news out from North Korea – he said, “It is difficult, but not that difficult. We have our system, linking with our contacts on the inside, and that gets us what we need for a story.”

He said defector journalists keep their calls to three minutes at a time, to reduce the risk of surveillance. He said he is asked a lot about the apparent difficulties of reporting on his country, where on the rare occasions that foreign journalists are allowed in, they are kept to a Potemkin Village-style itinerary and shadowed by guides (i.e., surveillance) at all times.

However, even this limited methodology looks like it could be wound down, with a crackdown by state security agents presenting new security risks for undercover journalists. According to a story by another Seoul-based media group with an eye on the North, Open Radio for North Korea, the Pyongyang regime says anyone caught using a Chinese cell phone should be deemed a spy.

Eun Kyoung Kwon of Open Radio for North Korea told MediaShift there is a renewed drive to “crack down on anti-socialist behavior,” in the North Korean regime parlance. The back story is ongoing tensions between North Korea and its wealthy, technologically advanced neighbor to the south — which is strongly backed by the United States, and a coming leadership change in Pyongyang.

Current leader Kim Jong Il is said to be ailing, with his third son Kim Jong Eun lined up to take over. Perhaps as soon as 2012, when the country will hold lavish celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding leader and Kim Jong Il’s father.

The succession and centenary should prompt renewed international media interest in North Korea, which is currently struggling with an under-reported food shortage and possible famine in some parts of the country. As the sole native English speaker at DailyNK, Green often fields requests from foreign journalists seeking the latest on North Korea. “International coverage of North Korea is really quite limited and often sensationalized,” Green said. “Some publications tend to take whatever Kim Jong Il says at face value,” repeating the dictator’s bombastic and cartoonish threats and denunciations verbatim.

Amid the news vacuum, the gossip mill prompts prurience, however, and an often vain search for non-existent horror stories. From time to time, there are rumours of people eating people in North Korea, which has endured famines and food shortages in recent times , and there might be some truth, in some cases, to some of the rumours. However, for journalists trying to find news about North Korea from the outside, there seems to be a misperception that cannibalism is a regular practice inside North Korea, leaving Green to lament that “I get repeatedly asked  – by one reporter in particular – if we have any stories of cannibalism in North Korea.”

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