Closing the North Korea news gap
With the Kaesong Industrial Complex closed and inter-Korean relations looking their bleakest in many years, it’s understandable why so many pundits are worried about the potential for clashes between the two Koreas. But while those risks may have increased, something potentially far more significant is happening to our very capabilities for understanding North Korea in the months and years ahead. In short, the sources available for South Korean journalists and policy makers to understand what is going on inside the North have reached their lowest point in decades.
At the very top, government-to-government contact has been severed, eliminating a once vital source of information to understand North Korean decision-making processes. Kaesong, one of the richest remaining vectors of information about daily life inside North Korea, now looks unlikely to ever reopen, with prospects for other types of inter-Korean exchanges also appearing bleak. And following steps North Korea took to tighten security on the Chinese border, defector arrivals to Seoul - a once critical source of contemporary information - have dropped to an all-time low, with related costs in moving information across the border also rising sharply.
With the exception of the National Intelligence Service and one or two defector-linked news organizations with sources still inside the country, South Koreans now have fewer means for corroborating news or understanding what is going on inside North Korea than ever in recent history. And this is something that could have far-reaching effects when it comes to being able to detect emerging points of concern in North Korea, before they snowball into far bigger problems which could impact the South.
As the chief correspondent of NK News, an English language news and information service focusing on North Korea, this is a problem my team and I are fighting on a daily basis. Like most media, we have no news bureau inside the country, and even if we did, North Korean limitations on official reporting make it hard to imagine that yielding significant results. But it’s a problem we’re at least partially able to overcome, by fostering relationships with foreigners living and working in the country, and by using emerging technologies to spotlight data, visual media and satellite imagery that - together - can evidence unique stories.
Most recently, these techniques helped us show how North Korea illegally imported cable cars to its Masikryong ski resort late last year. A foreign resident used a secure Internet connection to send us photos of recently installed equipment there, which when combined with information from a visiting businessperson, helped us identify the exact resort they had been bought from in Austria.
Similarly, in 2014, we combined especially commissioned satellite imagery with photos provided by local residents and tourists to confirm the precise evening in which a tragic building collapse occurred in Pyongyang, a timeline that even journalists legally working inside the country were unable to corroborate at the time.
Granted, with only about 250 foreigners living and working inside the country and approximately 4,500 Western tourists visiting each year, these sources are naturally limited in what they can see and do. It’s naturally also true that their capability to inform us about changes related to sensitive subjects like the leadership and military are obviously limited. Indeed, foreign residents are usually prevented from traveling beyond the capital and have few opportunities to develop substantial relationships with locals. Tourists, for their part, must participate in carefully choreographed trips which provide a relatively polished view of the country and are restricted from almost any real conversation with local citizens.
Yet the knowledge and experience of long-term residents is up-to-date and relatively easy to obtain, with them able to provide useful information on things like the electricity situation, official exchange rate data and a sense of the general sentiment in the capital. And tourists are uniquely capable of providing a rich, ground-level source of photos and video, which can help us understand living conditions in even remote parts of the country, difficult for foreign citizens to access. When combined with information from the borderlands, careful analysis of official state media output and up-to-date satellite imagery, it’s clear to me that the results can and should be used.
However, neither the South Korean government nor the media have historically been able to do a very good job in keeping close tabs with sources like these, partly due to the risks foreign residents face when speaking to journalists from an “enemy state” and partly due to misconceptions in Seoul about just how useful this category of people can be.
But as the channels of inter-Korean communication continue to shrink, sources which were once mainly used by bloggers and small news organizations like NK News must now be looked at more seriously by those interested in keeping close tabs on developments in North Korea.
*The author is the director and managing editor of NK News.