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February 4, 2010
N. Korean paid informants risk lives but send dubious news

Photo by Ben Piven for Worldfocus

North Korea is one of the most closed-off societies in the world. Information from inside the country is notoriously difficult to gather.

Radio signals are jammed, internet connections blocked and cell phones monitored. To combat this lack of information some news organizations pay informants to smuggle news out.

These sources, often cultivated by South Korean news agencies as “underground stringers,” risk their lives for little pay. But as many as half of their reports are false, according to a recent New York Times article by Choe Sang-hun:

The reports are sketchy at best, covering small pockets of North Korea society. Many prove wrong, contradict each other or remain unconfirmed. But they have also produced important scoops, like the currency devaluation and a recent outbreak of swine flu in North Korea. The mainstream media in South Korea now regularly quote these cottage-industry news services.

“Technology made this possible,” said Sohn Kwang-joo, the chief editor of Daily NK. “We infiltrate the wall of North Korea with cellphones.”

Over the past decade, the North’s border with China has grown more porous as famine drove many North Koreans out in search of food and an increasing traffic in goods — and information — developed. A new tribe of North Korean merchants negotiates smuggling deals with Chinese partners, using Chinese cellphones that pick up signals inside the North Korean border.

Worldfocus also spoke with Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, about North Korean informants:

Regarding the underground news agencies, I’ve found that their reports are plausible, but a little exaggerated. For example, Good Friends’ NK Today was the first to report the famine in the 90s, but I think their claims of the death toll were overstated. These agencies have on occasion given vague reports of protests that I think have a kernel of truth — but are also exaggerated.

For example, I have never interviewed a defector who personally witnessed any kind of public protest in North Korea, although I think there have been localized incidents at the markets where vendors complained to market management or resisted arrest by the police. There have also been a fair number of incidents in which security officials were murdered.

On the ethics of the agencies paying informants, I think it would be unethical for them not to pay — in that these people are risking their lives. According to Choe Sang-hun’s recent piece [above], some of the informants are actually considered to be reporters who are working. But there is no doubt just the same that paying taints the quality of information. It creates an incentive for them to tell you what they think you would want to hear. We don’t pay for interviews with defectors, although when I interview them I am usually with a missionary who might be providing food and clothing.

Worldfocus put together a list of English-language news agencies and blogs that cover North Korea. These sites try to gather information from within North Korea:

  • Daily NK was created by activists from the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. As the world’s first dedicated North Korean online news site, The Daily NK reports in real time.
  • NK Today is produced by Good Friends USA to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and describe the way North Korean people live as accurately as possible.
  • North Korean Economy Watch is intended for business people, policy makers, academics and journalists but does not generally focus on human rights or the nuclear issue.
  • DPRK Studies promotes awareness of North Korean security, social, political and historical issues. It is a portal to news, research, opinion, and organizations on North Korea.
  • The Hankyoreh is a progressive newspaper decisively committed to journalistic freedom, democracy, peaceful coexistence and national reconciliation between South and North Korea.
  • Kyodo News is distributed to almost all newspapers and radio-TV networks in Japan. Kyodo has a special English-language section dedicated to North Korea.
  • Yonhap News Agency is based in Seoul and is the largest news-gathering network in Korea. There is a monthly magazine and a weekly e-newsletter dedicated to covering news from North Korea.

And these sites serve as North Korea’s official media, propagating pro-government news and information.

  • Korean Central News Agency is the Pyongyang-based state-run news agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. News is transmitted to other countries in English, Russian, and Spanish.
  • Korean Friendship Association was founded on November of the year 2000 with the purpose of building international ties with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For more Worldfocus coverage of North Korea, visit our extended coverage page: Behind the Korean Curtain.

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I am sad to see World focus off the Air shortly.
I think the show is excellent and informative. Too bad.


Would you risk your life to send out news that nobody believes anyway?


Is this similar to the movie done many years ago ” Our Man in Havana” where the agent invented black operations so as to keep his lifestyle going. I spy, you spy, everyone one spy spy.
Spin city again and again and again.
How does a close society get Swine Flu? They do not unless it is a way to get rid of certain potions of their populations without the outside countries saying anything.

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