On DPRK information sources…

UPDATE: On a related note…

North Korea’s Digital Underground“, The Atlantic, April 2011

ORIGINAL POST: The following blurb appeared in a recent article on 38 North:

Feeding this confusion are serious problems with information collection about the domestic situation in North Korea. Policymakers in Seoul and Washington rely heavily (whether they know it or not) on testimony or information provided by North Korean defectors. Defectors and networks of informants who move across the China-North Korea border, are key sources for a new constellation of media organizations like Daily NK, Open North Korea Radio, Free North Korea Radio, Good Neighbors, Radio Free Asia (U.S.), Asia Press (Japan), and other internet media. To be sure, people coming out of the DPRK can be important sources of information—for example, these networks brought out information about the 2009 currency reform. However, the new “media” organizations are not staffed by independent, professional journalists. To the contrary, they are propaganda organs and advocacy organizations designed to undermine regime stability in the North. Their reports frequently lack verification, yet regularly appear in Yonhap News, the leading South Korean government news agency, without any filtering. Major conservative newspapers, such as Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, and Donga Ilbo, quote them as is. International news media, including the wire services and leading American newspapers, in turn, reprint them as world news. Unverified reports and politically motivated characterizations of North Korean instability are transmuted into truth. There are even cases of defectors reportedly being pressured to tow the official line. For example, Yonhap News was pressured to remove a senior reporter, herself a defector, from its North Korea desk when she discounted exaggerated reports by defector organizations of instability around the Kim family succession and currency reform failures.

Aidan Foster-Cater responds in this Asia Times article:

How do we know anything about North Korea? Where can you find reliable information? If sources conflict, how does one judge between them? Bottom line: Who ya gonna trust?

These are key questions. And they’re as old as the hills – which North Korea has more of than facts. My own interest in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is now, dare I confess, in its fifth decade. Even when I started, back in the 1960s, data of any kind were a problem. There were almost none to speak of.

No point asking Pyongyang. I was a fan in those days, but even so I winced at the regime’s clunky propaganda, and its emptiness: the absence of even the most basic facts and figures.

In the 1950s, North Korea did publish some statistics, but in the 1960s they stopped. Why? As growth slowed, paranoia and secretiveness ballooned. Nicholas Eberstadt has noted it was the same in the USSR and China, when Stalin’s and Mao’s excesses were at their height [1]. In Moscow and Beijing the mad blackouts eventually ended. In Pyongyang, darkness still rules.

Normal countries need numbers. A national budget with no figures: What a crazy idea! Not in North Korea, where this bizarre charade is enacted every year, most recently on April 7.

What passes for a parliament in Pyongyang usually meets for just one day a year, in spring. The main business is to pass the budget, which they duly do. (There’s no debate, obviously.)

And no numbers, either. Take a look at the official Korea Central News Agency [2]. Finance minister Pak Su-gil uttered a few percentages, but not a single actual solid figure. Weird.

Until 1994, they at least gave the budget totals, so we could work out some of the rest. South Korea’s Unification Ministry (MOU) reckons it heard a real number on the radio, once, and on that basis offers its own guesses here and there. Yet this is meagre stuff. A joke, really.

But I’ve banged on about this before in these pages [3], so what’s new pussycat? Two things.

First, I personally have taken this matter up, at the highest level. Only the other day I had words on the subject with the Speaker of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) himself. No really, I did. Choe Thae-bok, an urbane gent of 82 and a very senior figure, spent a week in London just before the SPA session. Tea at the House of Lords, that sort of thing. All a bit surreal, and it’s easy to scoff. But at times like these, it’s important to keep the doors open.

Over a convivial dinner at Asia House, I asked Choe about those budget blanks. He said he’d look into it, but I admit I wasn’t holding my breath. Ah well. He must be a busy chap.

Fortunately in 2011 we can supplement Pyongyang’s crummy crumbs with more solid fare. It’s a new world: the information age! NK may resist, but two things have changed – a lot.

First, and obviously, the Internet has been a boon. We who follow North Korea are no longer sad lonely nutters. Online we can find each other – we are legion! – and pool our knowledge. Kind folks like Curtis Melvin at NKeconwatch and Tad Farrell at NKNews, among others, have put a lot of work into creating crucial online resources on North Korea. (For their pains, they have survived more than one cyber-attack [4]. Who on earth would do a thing like that?) So now we can collate and compare notes.

Read the rest below the fold….

Secondly, we also have a rich crop of fresh data thanks to the arrival of new media sources. As one recent account puts it, there now exists “a new constellation of media organizations like Daily NK, Open North Korea Radio, Free North Korea Radio, Good NeighborsRadio Free Asia (US), Asia Press (Japan)” et al [5]. (This list oddly omits one of the best and oldest: the South Korean Buddhist non-government organization [NGO] Good Friends. [6])

All of these strive to fill in the official blanks and report what is actually happening in North Korea on the ground. Many use defectors, and/or – more riskily – contacts inside the DPRK.

The result is an explosion in North Korean news like we never had before. Read any issue of DailyNK, or Good Friends’ bulletins. At long last we get a sense of what life is really like on the ground, at the grassroots, outside Pyongyang: for ordinary North Koreans, and for hard-pressed local cadres whose thankless task is to implement the centers’s daft or malign orders.

Much of this is grim reading, or viewing. Video adds to the impact. Reading about starvation is bad enough; try looking at it. More fun is a feisty woman pushing back at a cop. You can watch both in this clip . (Warning: You may find the surrounding ads in seriously bad taste.)

So now we can all see what it’s like to be North Korean. You’d imagine everybody working on the DPRK would be grateful for these valuable and vivid glimpses. But you’d be wrong.

The above list of new media comes from a recent article at 38North: itself another excellent online resource [7]. This was also carried on Nautilus, one of the oldest websites to track North Korea [8]. Both are indispensable. (Full disclosure: this writer has been a contributor to each.)

As its title indicates – “Analytical Failure and the North Korean Quagmire” – the article in question has a wider remit. The authors, John Delury and Chung-in Moon, are vexed – aren’t we all? – at the current dangerous impasse between Pyongyang and Seoul and Washington.

Whose fault is this? Mainly ours, it appears, for not seeing straight. Delury and Moon raise a lot of issues, but I’ll focus on just one: their call for “correcting the analytical framework”.

It’s in this context that they mention new media on North Korea. And they don’t like them: no sirree, not one little bit. If Asia Times Online allows, in fairness I’d like to quote this critique at some length. This comes from a section itself headed “Wishful Thinking & Biased Sources”:

“Feeding this confusion are serious problems with information collection about the domestic situation in North Korea. Policymakers in Seoul and Washington rely heavily (whether they know it or not) on testimony or information provided by North Korean defectors. Defectors and networks of informants who move across the China-North Korea border are key sources for a new constellation of media organizations like Daily NK, Open North Korea Radio, Free North Korea Radio, Good Neighbors, Radio Free Asia (US), Asia Press (Japan), and other Internet media. To be sure, people coming out of the DPRK can be important sources of information – for example, these networks brought out information about the 2009 currency reform. However, the new “media” organizations are not staffed by independent, professional journalists. To the contrary, they are propaganda organs and advocacy organizations designed to undermine regime stability in the North. Their reports frequently lack verification, yet regularly appear in Yonhap News, the leading South Korean government news agency, without any filtering. Major conservative newspapers, such as Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, and Donga Ilbo, quote them as is. International news media, including the wire services and leading American newspapers, in turn, reprint them as world news. Unverified reports and politically motivated characterizations of North Korean instability are transmuted into truth… . … US diplomats, lacking direct contact with North Korean counterparts, are in the dark about North Korea’s strategic intentions and negotiating positions. Even North Korea’s public statements are summarily dismissed as “empty words” or “blackmail” – even though North Korean behavior over the long term tends to conform to its high-level pronouncements. Instead of an engaged, empirical approach, policy decisions are being made on the basis of defector reports and disinformation, of preconceived ideas and wishful thinking.
Strong stuff. Let’s clear away some of the brushwood here. Yes, Washington and Seoul need to grit their teeth and stay engaged, though Pyongyang of late has made this mighty difficult. I agree too that a “collapsist” view of the North seems to be driving policy in Seoul currently, and that this is ill-considered or even dangerous in the signals it sends to the Kim regime.

But hey, don’t shoot the messenger. To smear such brave, sincere people and organizations as peddling “propaganda” and “disinformation” is frankly outrageous, and possibly libelous.

One should expect accuracy and nuance from scholars. Yet the half-dozen outfits that Delury and Moon lump together are in fact diverse. Some do indeed have a regime change agenda. FNKR, for instance, proclaims on its Web masthead: “NK People’s Liberation Front.”

By contrast, Good Neighbors is a South Korean NGO that helps children worldwide. Its North Korean projects include a dairy farm and helping orphanages. What’s not to like? [9]

As for Asia Press (API) and the better-known RFA, their remit is wider than North Korea alone. API is a Japan-based group of independent journalists, with offices all over Asia. “Free from any dependence on capital and authority”, they strive to “give voice to people ignored and shunned by major mass media networks”. [10] Again, what’s not to applaud here?

RFA by contrast is funded by the US government and has an avowed agenda: “bringing free press to closed societies”, as its masthead proclaims. Is that a bad thing? It can of course be done well or badly. On my reading RFA does a good, solid, professional, journalistic job.

Having read these new media ever since they launched, I am much in their debt. Rarely do I find them merely propagandistic – unlike the official DPRK press, which remains as stodgy and uninformative today as when I first encountered the Pyongyang Times back in the 1960s.

My sense is that what drives them is the same thing that drives me: a thirst to know, to fill in the blanks, and to counter the lies. Not unlike WikiLeaks, these gadflies do good. They bring the hidden into the light, and we are the wiser as a result. The powers that be don’t like it, of course. But we can’t trust governments, so we need the voices of those they seek to silence.

And anyway, which of us doesn’t have an agenda? Certainly not the accusers here. Delury I haven’t met, but Chung-in Moon – whom I know of old, respect and like – is one of South Korea’s foremost advocates of the Sunshine policy, now sadly eclipsed and turned to night.

I share his frustration with the current Lee Myung-bak administration, whose policies in my view have made things worse, not better. But one can argue that case on its own terms, as I tried to do in a pair of articles earlier this year – also published on 38North, as it happens.

Whatever is driving bad policy in Seoul or timidity in Washington at the moment, frankly I doubt if it’s these media. Governments, however misguided, are not so dumb that they can’t tell the difference between propaganda and what in my experience the new media are really trying to do – namely, like all of us, to fathom what is actually going on in North Korea.

Delury and Moon have the wrong target here. Worse, they claim it’s the regime that tells the truth: its “behavior over the long term tends to conform to its high-level pronouncements”.

Really? As in: Of course we don’t have nukes. Er, yes we do. We’re not enriching uranium: what a slur. Fooled you! We are now. As John McEnroe used to say: You cannot be serious.

Not long ago, dictators ruled in Seoul too. They sought to silence democrats like Professor Moon. Yet now he tells us to listen to Kim Jong-il, but to mistrust his victims. That is odd, and sad.

Read the full story here:
Doves who’d shoot the messenger
Asia Times
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/MD19Dg01.html
Aidan Foster-Carter
4/19/2011

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