A Nascent Press in North Korea?

The front page of today’s New York Times features a fascinating story about new efforts to get information out of North Korea, perhaps the world’s most impenetrable and cloistered nation. Here’s how it works:

The networks are the creation of a handful of North Korean defectors and South Korean human rights activists using cellphones to pierce North Korea’s near-total news blackout. To build the networks, recruiters slip into China to woo the few North Koreans allowed to travel there, provide cellphones to smuggle across the border, then post informers’ phoned and texted reports on Web sites.

Reporter Choe Sang-hun is careful to note that this project should be kept in context—the accounts are sometimes contradictory, and they’re not likely to include information about, say, secret nuclear programs or the struggle over the line of succession. Still, the article states, information spirited out this way provided some of the first accounts of North Korea’s recent drastic currency revaluation. And of course, any news that escapes official channels is a challenge to the authoritarian regime.

The regime, of course, is not inclined to let challenges pass. Because the actual transmission of information on the Web does not occur within North Korea, officials there can’t employ some of the strategies of “digital repression” Joel Simon, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, outlines in a story (online tomorrow) in the March/April issue of CJR. Instead, we get this sort of thing, reported at the conclusion of the Times piece:

Mr. Mun of Daily NK says his informers engage in a constant game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The North Korean government can monitor cellphone calls, but tracing them is harder, so the police rove the countryside in jeeps equipped with tracking devices.

The informants call him once a week; they never give their names, and they hide the phones far from their homes.

Despite those precautions, they are sometimes caught. This month, Mr. Ha’s Web site reported that an arms factory worker was found with a cellphone and confessed to feeding information to South Korea. A source said the informant was publicly executed by firing squad.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.