NGOs, defector organizations and small media outlets specializing in North Korea are breaking down the wall of silence surrounding the reclusive country faster and more efficiently than South Korean intelligence agencies.
It was the Daily NK that broke the news on Nov. 30 of North Korea's shock currency reform, just six or seven hours after the regime announced it. At the time, the National Intelligence Service only muttered it was "trying to discover the facts" and the Unification Ministry for another three days insisted it had no such news from the North.
When NGO Good Friends on Dec. 7 reported deaths linked to H1N1 flu in the North, the South Korean government said it was difficult to confirm the story. It was also a private organization, not the government, that reported signs of the currency reform backfiring and the regime backtracking on the limit to how much of their old money North Koreans can exchange. In April 2004, a newsletter published by a private organization broke the news of a devastating explosion at Yongchon Railway Station.
The reason these organizations are faster and more accurate is that they have a network of some 20,000 North Korean defectors and their contacts in the North to draw on. "Many of the 20,000 or so defectors in South Korea send money they've earned here to their families in the North through China," one defector said. "So you can assume that there's a human network throughout North Korea."
Mobile phones are the most important means of delivering inside news from North Korea. One source in the North says mobile phones were first used mainly by illicit traders and people smugglers on the North Korea-China border in the early 2000s. The people smugglers would give pre-paid phones to their North Korean counterparts because that was cheaper than constantly traveling to and fro across the border.
As mobile phone use exploded in the border region, Chinese mobile service providers built relay towers there, so it is now possible to get a signal in the living room of any North Korean house in the border area, one source said. "In the past, you had to climb halfway up a hill on the North Korean side to get a signal."
The North Korean regime has tightened controls on mobile phone use, but many people manage to evade them, the source added. An official with a North Korean defectors' organization said, "Human networks across the whole of North Korea deliver news to us through mobile phones in the border area." Private agencies typically recruit North Korean defectors or send people to the Chinese border area to collect information.
But some experts worry about the reliability of news by hearsay. "Information like the currency reform that all ordinary North Koreans know about is highly trustworthy," said Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University, but news coming from the centers of power including leader Kim Jong-il's health or the succession may be less reliable. "It seems that there are more than 100 North Korea information broker outfits working in the North Korea-China border area," an intelligence officer said, "Often they just cook up unverifiable and sensational stories to make money."