Archive for the ‘Rimjingang’ Category

Rimjingang, Imjingang, and the Sunchon Vinalon Complex

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad notes the following information about Rimjingang and Imjingang:

Japanese publisher Jiro Ishimaru has gotten a lot of attention over the past month for his new English-language book of articles from Rimjingang – the magazine about North Korea that’s written by North Koreans.

Over the past six years, he’s worked closely with a few dozen North Koreans to get insiders’ stories published.

Less well known is the North Korean defector in Seoul, Choi Jin-i, who worked closely with him until recently. She published a Korean version of the magazine while he handled Japanese.

They split earlier this year over funding differences. Mr. Ishimaru’s magazine is commercially-funded while Ms. Choi’s is supported by charitable contributions. Ms. Choi’s magazine now has a slightly different name. It’s called Imjingang.

Their writers are mainly North Koreans with the political and financial ability to visit China, where they can communicate freely.

For both Ms. Choi and Mr. Ishimaru, the biggest challenge is getting contributors to verify the information they report.

Mr. Ishimaru’s favorite scoop came last year. It was a video report that showed a 20-year-old textile factory in the North Korean city of Suncheon, long touted as a showplace industrial plant by North Korea’s state media, is actually unused and crumbling.

“The factory might have only run on opening day when the Great Leader (Kim Jong Il’s father Kim Il Sung) was there,” Mr. Ishimaru says. “There had been rumors inside the country that the factory never ran, but nobody outside the nation confirmed that. Our reporter went there and for the first time filmed the factory in ruins.”

Ms. Choi says her favorite article appeared in the magazine’s first issue in 2007. It was an analysis of North Korea’s economic situation by a high-ranking government official. She said she worked for more than a year to persuade the official to give an interview.

The quality of information in that interview surprised North Korea watchers. “Many South Korean scholars said they didn’t know there was an intellectual in North Korea,” Ms. Choi said.

And the surprise for me: The factory in Sunchon mentioned in the story is the Sunchon Vinalon Complex (not to be confused with the 2.8 Vinalon Complex in Hungnam).  I actually used the video mentioned in this story and matched it up with Google Earth Satellite imagery to confirm it was shot in the DPRK.  You can see the blog post and video here.

Read the Wall Street Journal article here:
North Korea by North Koreans; How the Magazines Work
Wall Street Journal
Evan Ramstad


How digital technology gets the news out of North Korea

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Martyn Williams writes in IT World:

The girl in the video looks like she’s about 12 years old. Thin, dirty and with a vacant look on her face, she tells the cameraman that she’s actually 23 and she survives by foraging for grass to sell to wealthier families for their rabbits.

The sobering footage was shot in June this year in the province of South Pyongan, North Korea, and provides a glimpse into the life of one person who lives far from the military parades and fireworks last month marking the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

It was shot on a cheap camera by a man who goes by the pseudonym Kim Dong-cheol, a North Korean with a double life. In addition to his job as a driver for a company, Kim also works as a clandestine reporter for AsiaPress, a Japanese news agency that’s taken advantage of the digital electronics revolution to get reports from inside North Korea.

AsiaPress works with six North Koreans they’ve trained as journalists. They’re given instruction in operating cameras, using PCs and how to use cell phones so they don’t attract the attention of authorities. Then, every few months, they meet with AsiaPress representatives just over the border in China to hand over their images.

“When we started training journalists in 2003 or 2004, getting cameras into North Korea was a real problem,” said Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of the news agency, at a Tokyo news conference on Monday. “Nowadays, within North Korea you are able to have your pick of Sony, Panasonic or Samsung cameras.”

The material they produce is often startling and documents a side of the country the government doesn’t want the world to see.

In another clip also captured by Kim, a North Korean woman argues with a police man. Asked for a bribe, she screams at him and pushes him. “This cop is an idiot,” she shouts.

For most journalists, getting into North Korea is a tough task. Getting outside of the capital Pyongyang to see the lives of average people in the countryside is very difficult. Seeing the sort of poverty or disagreement with authority that Kim caught on camera is impossible.

Most of the shots are recorded surreptitiously and the small digital cameras make smuggling images easier than from older tape-based models.

“You used to have to tape video cassettes to your stomach,” he said. “But it’s very easy to hide an SD Card somewhere on your body.”

AsiaPress isn’t the only media working with reporters or informants in North Korea. Outlets including Open Radio for North Korea and Daily NK also receive reports from correspondents inside the country that add additional information, understanding and sometimes rumor to what’s happening inside the country.

The reports are typically sent via cell phones connected to a Chinese mobile network. Signals from Chinese cellular towers reach a few kilometers into North Korea and are difficult to monitor by the state’s telecom surveillance operation.

Recently, North Korean authorities have woken up to the flow of information across the border and are trying to stop it.

“The greatest headache I face is telecommunications,” Ishimaru said.

Mobile detection units patrol the border looking for signals from within North Korea and, if found, attempt to triangulate their source.

“The number of these units has been increasing, so if you spend a long time on the phone the police will come and search your house,” said Ishimaru. “People have become frightened of using the phone.”

If caught the punishment can be severe. Earlier this year a man faced a public firing squad after he was caught with a cell phone and admitted to supplying information to someone in South Korea, according to a report by Open Radio for North Korea.

The risk such reporters face leaves their agencies open to criticism that they are putting people in unnecessary danger, but Ishimaru said his reporters all want to provide a true picture of life inside North Korea to the rest of the world. He pays them between $200 and $300 per month.

The digital media revolution isn’t one way. It’s estimated that half of all young people in major cities have watched pirated South Korean TV dramas.

“Media around the world has gone digital and that’s also happened with North Korean propaganda,” said Ishimaru. “But even the wealthy and those in authority don’t want to watch propaganda films and movies about Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. They want to watch something that’s more entertaining.”

The shows are recorded from South Korean satellite TV broadcasts in China and burned onto DVDs or Video CDs that soon make it over the border and into North Korean markets.

There are occasional crackdowns, but even the police want to watch the dramas.

“Although there are crackdowns and things are confiscated,” he said, “I don’t think there is anyway the leaders can put a stop to this.”

Read previous posts about Rimjinggang here

Read the full story here:
How digital technology gets the news out of North Korea
IT World
Martyn Williams


Rimjingang to be published in English

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

According to the Mainichi Daily News:

A magazine composed almost entirely of materials smuggled out of North Korea by reporters living inside the country has just launched its first English edition in an effort to reach a wider audience.

The quarterly Rimjingang has been available in Korean and Japanese since 2008. The English edition will be published about twice a year from now on, chief editor Jiro Ishimaru said at a recent meeting in New York University, adding that digital editions in various formats will be available from 2011, including one from Apple Inc.’s iBook store.

Published by Asiapress International, a Japan-based journalists’ organization, the magazine is named after a river in the Korean Peninsula flowing north to south across the demilitarized zone. It operates with eight North Koreans who report clandestinely while living in such capacities as driver, factory worker and mother.

All of the reporters left North Korea because of economic hardships but returned to the country after being recruited to work for the magazine, which provides them with journalistic training and recording equipment.

In a country that tightly regulates information, taking images of street-level North Koreans for outside distribution would most likely be construed as treason. For safety, the identities of the North Korean reporters are completely shrouded in secrecy — they do not know each other or what their colleagues are doing, Ishimaru said.

The reporters periodically cross the China-North Korea border to deliver what they have recorded. The materials include digital images of people who foreigners would rarely have access to — a woman making merchandise at home to sell at a market, homeless children looking for food in a dump, clothing regulation enforcers on the lookout for youngsters wearing unacceptable fashions such as tight-fitting pants, and young soldiers scavenging for food from a farm.

“The reporters are taking risks because they have a strong will to let the outside world know the reality in North Korea and inspire a desire to improve the situation there,” Ishimaru said.

Some of the recent materials cover the paralyzing effect of the November 2009 currency redenomination in which North Korea slashed the value of the won, setting the exchange rate between the old and new bills at 100 to 1 and imposing restrictions on the quantity of old bills that could be swapped for new ones. The move was widely seen as the state’s attempt to reinforce control of the economy.

The magazine shows one of those affected, a woman identified as “Ms. Kang,” who is in her 50s and makes a living selling general goods such as plates and bowls procured in China.

Shortly before the devaluation, “Ms. Kang” reportedly took out a loan of 10 million won, worth about $3,000 at the time, from an acquaintance. Now she struggles with a huge debt as no currency trader will exchange her old won into Chinese yuan, leaving her unable to buy goods in China. She is also unable to convert them into the new won beyond the 100,000-won limit.

“Because the Americans don’t know very much about North Korea, we wanted to include some introductory pieces that explain people’s everyday lives there, including the impact the market is having,” said Bon Fleming, an American editor who translated the bulk of the material for the English edition.

Suzy Kim, assistant professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, said she was most impressed by the abundance of visual footage in the magazine. But she added, “Many of the stories in the magazine are anecdotal — there is as yet no way to collect enough information to present a statistical context for the stories.”

In order to make up for its heavy dependence on a handful of reporters, Kim suggested that the magazine can improve by incorporating a wider variety of views about North Korea from people with different backgrounds, experiences and opinions.

Ishimaru said North Korea is a nation changing fast and so are its people, contrary to the oft-reported images of brainwashed citizens. One of the forces behind the change is the increasing availability of digital media, a trend fueled by the influx of Chinese electronics, including VCD players, which are much more affordable than DVD players, he said.

Illegal copies of South Korean TV dramas crossed the border into North Korea en masse around 2003 via ethnic Korean communities in northeastern China, where watching South Korean satellite broadcasting programs became popular in the late 1990s, according to Ishimaru.

“What allowed the North Korean government to exert tight control over the daily lives of its people was the state’s food rationing system, which taught everyone to remain submissive as long as they were fed,” Ishimaru said.

Since the collapse of the public distribution system in the famine of the 1990s, however, people have been forced to fend for themselves and have become less afraid of the authorities, he said.

“You can no longer talk about North Korea without talking about the expansion of the market economy there,” Ishimaru said.

“The question is not about food — it’s whether North Korea will open up to the outside world or not.”

Previous posts about Rimjingang can be found here.

I have added Rimjingang to my list of North Korea media outlets all of which can be found here.

Read the full sotry here:
Undercover magazine on North Korea launches English edition
Mainichi Daily News


‘Rimjingang’ in the Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

According to the Wall Street Journal:

There are several news organizations supporting journalists in North Korea. One is Rimjin-gang magazine, a division of AsiaPress International, based in Osaka. The founder and editor of Rimjin-gang is a Japanese journalist by the name of Jiro Ishimaru. As the world’s journalists were reporting from Pyongyang last week, Mr. Ishimaru was in the U.S., presenting his reporters’ remarkable videos, photographs and articles to American audiences. A book containing English-language translations of some of the magazine’s best stories was published on Oct. 15.

Rimjin-gang is the Korean name for the Imjin River, which begins in North Korea and runs south across the demilitarized zone. It is a symbol of North Koreans sending information to the South, Mr. Ishimaru says. “I came to realize that outsiders attempting to shed light on North Korea hit a wall that is simply impossible to breach. No one can report on a nation better than its own people.”

Mr. Ishimaru runs a staff of 10 reporters. For security reasons, each reporter operates independently without knowledge of the identity of his colleagues or what they are doing. The reporters are men and women who want to do something with their lives and who want to help their country, Mr. Ishimaru says. They believe that “if you don’t do something, you are just a slave.”

Mr. Ishimaru recruits his reporters in the border regions of China, home to tens of thousands of North Korean refugees who have escaped across the Yalu or Tumen rivers. He and colleagues from South Korea give the budding journalists a crash course in the basics of journalism and teach them how to use essential technology. The journalists then go back to North Korea with enough money to travel around the country, pay bribes if they get into trouble, and eventually return to China.

It is next to impossible for ordinary North Koreans to get close to military installations, the gulag or Kim Jong Eun. So the reporters have decided to focus on day-to-day life in North Korea, especially starvation, the growing market economy and corruption. They have produced more than 100 hours of video on these subjects. Among the tapes I viewed were ones that showed bags of rice labeled “WFP”—for the United Nations World Food Program—being sold in a marketplace, and soldiers using a military truck as a bus service for paying customers.

The information doesn’t flow just one way. Mr. Ishimaru’s reporters also try to get information about the outside world into North Korea, usually in the form of CDs containing videos of South Korean soap operas, news shows or documentaries. Before DVD players came into use in China, VCD players—video CD players—had a short run of popularity. Chinese merchants now sell these discarded devices, along with CDs, across the border in North Korea. It’s against the law to possess a VCD player or to watch South Korean videos, but the law-enforcement system has broken down enough that more and more North Koreans are taking the risk, assuming that if they get caught they can bribe local officials to look the other way.

Here are previous posts featuring information from Rimjingang.

Read the full story here:
A Free Press Stirs in North Korea
Wall street Journal
Melanie Kirkpatrick


The All-North Korean Pig Farming Sector

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Accroding to the Daily NK:

The 8th issue of Rimjingang, the periodical written by North Korean underground journalists, sheds light on North Korea’s private livestock industry.

One article, “Livestock Industry Developing from Private Means of Living into Private Enterprise,” describes how pig farming has developed during and since the famine period. It explains how, under the functioning planned economy, the “livestock industry” amounted to each household unit raising pigs to sell on the side, but now the planned economy is little more than a distant memory and the livestock sector has been specialized and systematized into sectors; breeding, butchery, distribution and sale.

That is why in North Korean markets 90% of goods are Chinese, but 100% of pigs and pork is North Korean.

Under the planned economy, roughly 20% of people in rural areas privately raised pigs and sold them to state meat procurement stores for two kilograms of corn per kilo of meat, the report notes. But from the mid 1980s, procurement stores bought them for cash, so competition grew and eventually the stores had to close due to increasing prices and their own lack of ready cash. Since the 1990s, distribution has stopped and more than 50% of people have started raising pigs in more specialized ways, it adds.

The report goes on to explain that during the March of Tribulation people figured out that their salaries, even when received, represented a mere tiny fraction of the labor value they could realize by trading illegally in the jangmadang. Many were unwilling to put up with it.

“Going through the March of Tribulation, the profit motive through the market has opened the door to new food lives which the Leader cannot open with his slogan, ‘reform food lives with meat,’” the report asserts. “Now, since a powerful supply and demand system has been spontaneously established, anybody can afford to eat meat as long as they can earn money.”

“’Leave us alone!’ is the real voice of the people of Chosun,” the report concludes, adding that the phenomenon of the Chosun pig farming industry implies the clear potential to develop modern industry in North Korea.

The 8th edition of Rimjingang was published in Korean on June 30th.

Read the full story here:
The All-North Korean Pig Farming Sector
Daily NK
Yoo Gwan Hee


Private sector real estate activity booming in the DPRK

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 08-9-4-1

Professional ‘housing trade mediators’ (real estate agents) facilitating less-than official housing transactions have emerged in North Korea, with a wide range of real estate opportunities popping up, including not only sales but even rooms rented out by the month.

An article titled “Chosun’s Real Estate Black Market’ in the monthly magazine, ‘Imjin River (rimjingang)’, detailed the current status of today’s real estate situation, including a description of the black market and issues involved with housing transactions in North Korea. Articles for the magazine are written by reporters inside North Korea gathering first hand information on the state of the North Korean society.

In North Korea, exchanging cash to obtain real estate is a highly illegal activity, but with an extreme shortage of housing and a growing divide between the rich and the poor, the demand for housing sales has grown sharply, leading to the development of the real estate black market.

In the North, when the government allocates houses, it issues a ‘Government Residence Permission Certificate’, allowing the resident to move in. This permit is not, strictly speaking, a certificate of ownership, but rather permission for use of a property, but since there is no expiration date on the permit, once it is issued it is, for all practical purposes, a property deed showing ownership.

Lately, according to the article, almost no one has been receiving residence certificates, and these days, it has become common for North Koreans seeking housing take their money to the black market and either directly or indirectly purchase housing. In addition, as the black market grows, so too, does the linkage of it with the ruling class.

On one hand, as these housing sales in North Korea are illegal, disputes and trouble continue to arise, but on the other hand, because of their illegality, the North Korean government has no official apparatus in place through which to resolve the issues.


Market activity flourishes in the DPRK

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 08-4-21-1

The March issue of “Rimjingang”, a magazine publishing stories on life inside North Korea as reported by defectors and those still inside the DPRK, contains an eye-opening report on activities in North Korea’s markets.

Since 2003, North Korean authorities have legalized DPRK markets throughout the country. The previously existing farmers’ markets were remodeled into ‘combined’ general markets and all traders were permitted to sell their wares. After the legislation was passed, even in Pyongyang general markets emerged in each neighborhood.

According to the magazine, more than 60 markets have been set up, with each market housing around 50 traders. The use of mannequins at clothing stores and attractive price tags used to catch the eye of the shopper are in force. These days, it is not even surprising to hear cassette players extolling the virtues of a particular vendor’s goods. Sellers here do not speak abruptly to customers as they might in a State-run store. In markets, one can hear respectful language used even to children. These are not ideas taught by the labor bureau, but rather independent ideas put to use by the sellers.

Stalls selling a variety of seafood can also be found in a number of markets. Mackerel, squid and flatfish from the East Sea are among the surprisingly fresh products on display. This seafood is not on display courtesy of the North Korean government, but rather is delivered by private entrepreneurs running refrigerated trucks from the coast to Pyongyang. According to the magazine, a number of delivery services are in operation, providing goods to the highest level of North Korean society.

Around Pyongyang, a number of flower sellers have also popped up in the capitalist markets. It is custom to give flowers whenever there is an event in honor of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il; but these days it is also popular for couples to give each other flowers as gifts. Even before the emergence of these markets, there was nothing that couldn’t be found in Pyongyang as long as someone had the money to purchase it.

Currently, women under the age of 39 are prohibited from working in markets, and efforts to extend this restriction to women under 49 have raised tension with many women trading in the markets. ‘Good Friends’, an organization aiding North Korea, has reported that recently thousands of women have organized in protest against security forces in the farmers’ market in Chungjin.


First underground DPRK journal launched

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 07-11-30-1

The first bi-monthly magazine reporting internal news directly through North Korean undercover journalists was launched on November 20th. The Korean language magazine, “Rimjingang,” is also expected to launch in English and Japanese by the end of this year. The inaugural issue contains interviews with staff members of the central state enterprise on current North Korean economic issues, public sentiment following the North Korean missile launch last year, interpretations of the North Korean internal image, as well as reports on local occurrences and accidents.

Once news is directly gathered and prepared by North Korean residents, the manuscript is then sent to the outside world where it is printed as the “Rimjingang” magazine. This magazine’s inaugural press conference was held at the Seoul Press Center on the afternoon of November 20th. The conference attracted enthusiastic coverage, with over 30 domestic and international press corps members in attendance, including Fuji TV and international wire services such as AP and Reuters.

With the help of Japan’s Asia Press, the North Korean journalists involved in the production of “Rimjingang” have been filming local footage, conducting interviews with residents, and recording the daily debriefing sessions of citizens for the past five years. Much of the video footage currently distributed to South Korea and Japan has been recorded by the journalists themselves.

Magazine publication officials revealed that the “Rimjingang” would also be distributed within North Korea. They added, “the North Korean reporters seek subject matter that reflects how North Korean people live, what they think, and what they want,” and, “the only real evidence that reflects how North Korea is changing is given through the North Korean people.”

There are currently 10 North Korean journalists affiliated with “Rimjingang.” The diverse list includes a staff member of the central state enterprise, a schoolteacher in his thirties, a worker from a foreign currency earning company, the first journalist to release his pen name to the outside world, a resident in her forties from Pyongan Province, and journalist in his thirties from South Hamkyeong Province.

An official from Asia Press said, “Over the years, more than 600 North Korean defectors have been interviewed around the China-North Korea border,” and, “there have been a few among them with intentions, like us, of delivering news from within North Korea to the outside world, so we have been training them in journalism since 2002.”

“We explained to them what ‘journalism’ was, and taught them the format of news articles as well as the operation of video camera..they then returned to North Korea and began gathering news, and since 2004, some of the news they collected has been released through Japanese and Korean press, as well as U.S. and European press.”