This article originally appeared in The Nation magazine.
In the winter months, the Tumen River freezes over and under cover of darkness, North Koreans escape to China. In 2004, for the second time in his life, Lee Jun made the journey across the Tumen River—except this time, he wasn’t bringing his family to China to escape the mass famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s.
Hidden inside Lee Jun’s jacket on his second border crossing from North Korea to China was a flash drive containing the photographs and video footage he took as Rimjin-gang magazine’s first undercover “citizen journalist.”Among the files in the flash drive was a photo of a female merchant counting money in a market in Chongjin. Out of context, this image seems mundane and unremarkable—certainly not worth a lifetime in prison or a death sentence. But North Koreans are subject to indefinite terms in prison and even execution for smuggling information from North Korea to the outside world, which is exactly what Rimjin-gang magazine seeks to do.
Launched in 2007, Rimjin-gang is the first magazine about North Korea written by North Koreans. The articles in Rimjin-gang don’t make headlines in most Western publications’ coverage of North Korea. In the past few months, Western coverage of North Korea has largely focused on North Korea’s nuclear program and the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son Jong-Un as his successor. Rimjin-gang, meanwhile, covers stories about the everyday lives of North Korean citizens, offering foreigners and South Koreans rare insights into topics such as the illicit trading of real estate, the comfortable lives of entrepreneurial villagers who sell fishing nets, the illegal tutoring businesses that teachers undertake to supplement their measly wages and the detainment of entire families in North Korea’s political prison camps.
Rimjin-gang issues have been available in Korean and Japanese since 2007, and Rimjin-gang has recently released its first English-language anthology in hopes of bringing these stories to a Western audience. While Rimjin-gang does not currently have the funds to publish regular issues in English, the new English anthology compiles the best reports, interviews and photographs from the past three years.
Ishimaru Jiro, editor and publisher of Rimjin-gang, conceived of the idea of working with North Korean “citizen journalists” after years of attempting to report on North Korea as a foreign journalist from Japan. Speaking to an audience of academics, journalists and students at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on October 18, Ishimaru said that it was in Seoul as a student during the end of the Cold War where he “first heard reports about the suffering of North Koreans” under Kim Jong-il’s secretive regime. As a young journalist, he felt compelled to go into North Korea to report on the situation there himself. When obtaining a visa proved nearly impossible, Ishimaru tried the next best option: In 1993, he traveled to the China/North Korean border to conduct interviews with the North Korean escapees who lived in border cities such as Yanbian.
During the handful of times in his career where Ishimaru did manage to gain permission to enter North Korea, he was only able to do so under constant monitoring from the government. “They monitor you even when you’re asleep,” said Ishimaru. “I realized that it was impossible to conduct true journalism in North Korea as a foreigner.”
In 2002, Ishimaru, in collaboration with the Asia Press, developed plans to train North Korean journalists and to create Rimjin-gang—named after the river that flows from North Korea to South Korea. In 2003, Ishimaru started to train his first recruit, Lee Jun, whom he had met on one of his trips to the China/North Korea border. Nowadays, Ishimaru frequently travels to the China/North Korea border to train new reporters and to hold clandestine meetings with the six reporters currently stationed in North Korea—two of whom are mothers with young children.
In an interview with The Nation, Ishimaru explained that the training starts with a discussion of why reporting is important and whether or not such reporting could help bring about change in North Korea. If the recruits are still interested in working with Rimjin-gang after these initial conversations, Ishimaru will then teach them the fundamentals of journalism ethics, interviewing, writing, filming, photography and operation of computer and camera equipment. This process can range from a few months to a few years. Throughout the process, the reporters cannot meet each other for safety reasons. Working in isolation and under pseudonyms for little pay, these reporters are risking their lives because they believe that their work could make a difference for the future of their country. Once they collect enough reporting and photo and video footage, the only way that they can get the files back to Ishimaru is to make the dangerous crossing from North Korea to China with flash drives concealed in their clothing.
“Even if we are eventually caught,” said Lee Jun in a statement in Rimjin-gang, “I believe that we will not regret that we’ve done. No matter how much I think about it, we are working for justice.”
Rimjin-gang has been well received in places such as Japan, Germany, and especially in South Korea, but Ishimaru has strategically focused his promotion of the English edition of Rimjin-gang to American audiences.
“US policy has a huge impact on the future of North Korea, so we want the English edition of Rimjin-gang to act as a source for Americans,” says Ishimaru, who noted that it is difficult for American journalists to acquire first-hand information about North Korea. “We hope it will deepen policy makers, journalists, and academics’ understanding of North Korea.”
Ishimaru has also participated in Stanford University’s Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes conference on October 11 and 12, where he gave a talk on the limited technology available in North Korea and how his team overcomes these obstacles. In Washington, DC, Ishimaru held a meeting with multiple North Korean experts at the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, where he gave a presentation on Rimjin-gang’s work.
Former Nation intern and director of NYU’s Literary Reportage program Robert Boynton first met Ishimaru in Seoul in 2009. Boynton believed so strongly that Western audiences should learn about Rimjin-gang that he successfully pushed for a NYU grant to fund Ishimaru’s visit to New York. Boynton, who is writing a book on East Asian politics, describes Rimjin-gang as an “antidote” to a situation in which “the expertise among journalists from the West who write about North Korea is quite limited—which is understandable given the fact that many experts on North Korea haven’t been able to visit North Korea themselves.” While neither Boynton nor Ishimaru claim that Western reporting on North Korea is inaccurate, with the Western media’s focus on Kim Jong-il’s regime and on foreign diplomacy issues, mainstream media reports about North Korea can exclude the extraordinary stories of ordinary North Korean citizens.
However, some American policy makers, journalists and academics may be reluctant about adopting Rimjin-gang as primary source material. Henry Em, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies and Modern Korea scholar at NYU, notes that “many claims made by defectors from North Korea have proven to be false” and says that the security measures that Rimjin-gang takes to protect its reporters and sources makes it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct fact-checking.
While Rimjin-gang touts a commitment to accuracy (Ishimaru assigns multiple reporters to particularly controversial assignments and uses photographic and video footage to corroborate claims in articles and interviews), in instances in which reporters cannot reveal themselves as journalists for safety reasons, Rimjin-gang does not attribute quotes to specific people and publishes photographs and video footage without their subjects’ permission. While Ishimaru says that he is aware that this is not ideal journalistic practice, he says that the “unique environment” in North Korea necessitates these safety protocols.
Professor Em also argues that foreign audiences need to be very careful when interpreting the stories, photographs and video footage that Rimjin-gang produces. Although Em does not question the authenticity of Rimjin-gang’s footage, he points out that “local knowledge still needs to be interpreted, and depending on who’s doing the interpreting, the story could be shaped very differently. All of the stories in Rimjin-gang require knowledge of the historical contexts.”
Because the source material was “difficult even for South Koreans to interpret”, the production of Rimjin-gang’s first English edition has been an expensive process that has taken over three years to complete, says Ishimaru. Producing the English edition ended up costing over $70,000.
“We tried to raise funds by selling our journalists’ footage to TV stations, as well as through the sales of the Japanese edition of Rimjin-gang, but it wasn’t enough,” says Ishimaru. “I had to personally borrow money in order to procure the full funding. We understand that the English edition of Rimjin-gang is expensive, but we hope that those who have an interest in North Korea understand our financial situation and go ahead and purchase it.”
At roughly $108 for the English anthology, the price for insiders’ knowledge of North Korea is steep. However, for even those with just a basic knowledge of what has occurred in North Korea within the past few decades, Rimjin-gang is a compelling read. The amount of first-hand reporting in the magazine is truly unprecedented, and indicates that there is a will among North Koreans to criticize their government and reach out to the world—challenging the stereotype of North Koreans as brainwashed automatons. In order to produce effective foreign policy that might help North Koreans, the US should consider North Koreans’ own assessments of their countries’ ailments in Rimjin-gang.
You can purchase the book and access a free selection of articles, photographs and video footage at Rimjin-gang’s website.