Magazine's Clandestine Look At Life In North Korea Underground magazine Rimjingang is undermining the North Korean government's efforts to control the flow of information out of the country. Its undercover North Korean citizen journalists report on topics banned in the official press and smuggle their work out for publication.
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Magazine's Clandestine Look At Life In North Korea

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Magazine's Clandestine Look At Life In North Korea

Magazine's Clandestine Look At Life In North Korea

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Cracks are appearing in North Korea's efforts to control the flow of information. And one of those cracks is an excellent read. It's an underground magazine whose articles are written by undercover North Koreans citizen reporters. They take huge risks to report on topics banned in the official press and then smuggle their recordings and writings out of the country.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

ANTHONY KUHN: It's just before 3 p.m. at a private market in Haeju, a port city on North Korea's west coast. Merchants and their customers are leaning against bicycles or squatting on the pavement, waiting for the market to open. Some of the merchants' backs are bent under the weight of huge sacks containing their wares.

This video was shot secretly by a reporter for Rimjingang magazine, which is edited in Seoul by Choi Jin-I. Choi points out a visual irony in the video.

Ms. CHOI JIN-I (Poet): (Through Translator) That merchant is straining under a heavy burden, as he walks beneath a propaganda poster of leader Kim Jong-il and his parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KUHN: The markets began to appear after the death of leader Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the government officially recognized them in 2003. Choi explains that in order to keep the markets and their profits under their control, North Korean officials have limited the markets' business hours, restricted the age of merchants who can sell, and set the prices of goods.

But all the restrictions, Choi says, just fuel black markets.

Ms. JIN-I: (Through Translator) Those in power will only let the markets grow to the extent that they do not threaten them. But obviously, because of capitalism's inherent powers, the markets will continue to grow, regardless of what those in power do.

KUHN: Rimjingang is named for a river that flows down the Korean Peninsula from north to south. The bimonthly magazine now has six reporters, all North Koreans without formal journalistic training. They smuggle their work out into China, where Choi trains them and discusses their assignments before they return to North Korea.

Ms. JIN-I: (Through Translator) Training makes a big difference. I'm impressed by their lively writing. It took a while for me to convince them that what we're doing is good for society and we weren't trying to overthrow the regime. Now, they realize the importance of what they're doing.

KUHN: Ms. Choi gets by on modest funding from the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. A Japanese version of Rimjingang is put out by the Tokyo-based publisher Asia Press.

Donald Macintyre, a former Seoul bureau chief for Time magazine, is editing Rimjingang's soon to be published English edition. He says that the trend that's driving the magazine is an increased flow of goods, people and information between North Korea and its neighbors.

Mr. DONALD MACINTYRE (Former Seoul Bureau Chief, Time Magazine): Information is also now flowing the other way from North Korea to the outside world. North Koreans are talking to journalists and academics and aid workers about what's happening inside their country. They're calling up relatives by cell phone. As many of you will know, if you're near the China border in North Korea, you can use a Chinese cell phone and you can call Seoul.

(Soundbite of phone call)

KUHN: Another video shows a dirt road in the countryside on a sunny day. A band of grade school students comes down from the hills where they've been picking acorns.

One student says they're assigned to pick nearly 40 pounds of acorns each in three days and give them to their school. Choi says this is basically just exploitation. She describes the back and forth between the kids and the cameraman.

Ms. JIN I: (Through Translator) The cameraman is asking what schools they go to, but they're scared to answer. What? Do you think I'm a spy? he says. Why are you shaking with fear? You make me sound like I'm trying to arrest you.

KUHN: Choi says that if her reporters were found by the government to be committing journalism, they'd probably be killed. That's why they usually don't tell their interviewees that they're interviewing them. They hide their cameras in bags and shoot through holes in them. Rimjingang presents an often humorous street-level view of current events in North Korea.

For an example, Choi reads from an interview with an anonymous North Korean state-owned company manager who mocks the country's first nuclear test in 2006.

Ms. JIN I: (Through Translator) (Reading) General Kim Jong-il completely succeeded in conducting a powerful nuclear test that was incapable of killing even a single person or even a fish. No other country in the world dares to carry out such an experiment.

KUHN: Choi was once a poet, working at the official Chosun Writers' Union in Pyongyang. She fled across the Tumen River into China in 1998. She later went back and brought her son out before moving to Seoul. She says she's delighted to have found such a meaningful job.

Ms. JIN I: (Through Translator) The birth of Rimjingang means that the North Korea people have a voice of their own, with which they can speak out. For people outside the country, it means that they can communicate with real North Koreans, not just officials.

KUHN: Copies of Rimjingang are mailed into North Korea. Most of them are probably intercepted and destroyed, but Choi Jin I believes that word of her publication will eventually spread.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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