SEOUL — North Korea’s vicelike grip on the flow of information into and out of its secretive society is weakening, thanks to technology, the porous border with China and the North’s crumbling economy, defectors and activists say.
While North Koreans celebrated the birthday of their “Dear Leader” in Pyongyang on Wednesday, a group of activists and defectors showed reporters how outside influences and inside sources are circumventing the totalitarian state’s media. The event was sponsored by Paris-based press freedom foundation Reporters Without Borders.
Raymond Kim, a Seoul representative of Reporters Without Borders, held up a cell phone that played a discussion between a husband and wife in Hyesanjin, a North Korean city on the border with China.
The couple expressed confusion because they expected to receive a month’s supply of food — the usual handout provided by the North Korean government on leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday. Instead, the couple received rations for just one day.
The phone conversation was recorded Wednesday morning by Open Radio for North Korea (ORNK), a Seoul-based group that broadcasts mostly North Korean news into the isolated country and gleans information from a network of informants, which it publishes in South Korea.
Funded by the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy and by Reporters Without Borders, ORNK operates with a staff of 22, mostly defectors. Each staffer handles six or seven informants. Some are paid, some are seeking contacts outside North Korea as insurance against the day when the regime collapses, and the rest are simply staying in touch with their friends who have defected to the South.
ORNK President Ha Tae-kyung, a former pro-democracy activist in South Korea, said North Korea is becoming less isolated, at least in the border region.
Citing 2009 findings by the Washington, D.C., research firm InterMedia, Mr. Ha estimated that some 5,000 North Koreans own Chinese-made cell phones, mostly in the border area; some 200,000 own cassette recorders/AM radios, which students use in foreign-language studies; and about 1 million own shortwave radios.
The information North Koreans crave most in outside radio broadcasts is about making money because markets and trade are key to the survival of millions of North Koreans since the collapse of Pyongyang’s distribution system, Mr. Ha said. Other areas of interest include government policies, travel to China, and news about North and South Korea.
Because of cross-border trade with China, electronic devices are becoming increasingly available, Mr. Ha said, including 4 million VCRs and DVD players, on which North Koreans can watch smuggled South Korean content, such as films and dramas.
Even information technology is spreading. “A few days ago, one of my friends in the town of Chongjin told me he had seen a few episodes of ‘Iris,’” said defector Jung Gwang-il, referring to a popular South Korean espionage action series. “He asked me to send him the rest — not on a DVD, which is too big, but on a USB.”
Mr. Ha reckons that North Koreans will be able to access the Internet next year via Chinese smart phones, which will open more communication channels, including social networking sites Twitter and Facebook.
Activists said the work of ORNK and groups such as Radio Free Asia and North Korea Reform Radio undermine Pyongyang’s state-run media, which greatly worries the regime leadership, who rigidly control even their own reporters.
In a special subsection of North Korea’s notorious Yodok prison camp, Mr. Jung said, he knew of two reporters from the state media who had been imprisoned.
“The National Security Agency officials [camp guards] had labeled the two reporters ‘verbal reactionaries,’ ” the defector said. “The NSA men said, ‘You have the energy to talk, so you have to work harder, then you won’t be able to talk anymore.’ “
The men died of malnutrition in 2003 or 2004, he said.
Although information gathered by groups such as ORNK, Daily NK and Good Friends from North Korean sources are widely quoted in South Korean media, questions about the credibility of their informant networks persist.
“It is a mixed picture, because it is essentially a question of how credible marketplace rumors are in any society,” said Andrei Lankov, an analyst on North Korea at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “These informants essentially tell you what the average North Korean in a border area, possibly a minor official, is hearing. In some places, it might be wrong; in other places, they have been proven very correct.”
Mr. Lankov noted that a reporter relying on sources inside the North was the first to break the news of Pyongyang’s flawed currency valuation in 2009.
“I don’t think they fabricate, though their correspondents are not professional,” said Choi Jin-wook of Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification. “There are now 20,000 defectors in the South, and they have family, friends and relatives, and they send money and correspond and communicate, so [they] are a major source of information.”
Mr. Choi said relatives of defectors were imprisoned in the past, but corruption now is so rife that North Korean police are bribed to look the other way when money begins to arrive for a family after one of its members defects.
Mr. Ha said he always checks with at least two sources from different geographical parts of his network before publishing anything. In the six years that he has run ORNK, he has dropped 10 percent of his informants after their information proved unreliable, he said.
Meanwhile, a North Korean walked across the heavily mined border into South Korea, Reuters reported Wednesday.
Military and spy agency officials could not explain how the man managed to walk across the 2.5-mile-wide minefield and past North Korean guards. Authorities were interrogating him after South Korean guards picked him up late Tuesday.
Hundreds of North Koreans flee the impoverished country each year across its northern border with China, and most make their way to the South. More than 20,000 have found refuge in the wealthy capitalist neighbor, Reuters reported.