Week 5 Report: Chris Green – Information from North Korea “Can Lead to a Better Life”
June 11, 2012
Allen Sanchez contributed the following article on week five of our Spring 2012 speakers series on North Korean human rights.
“If you were to Google ‘North Korean people,’ you might learn that they are automatons; people who cannot think, people who have no idea what’s going on….brainwashed!” said Chris Green, manager of international affairs at the Daily NK. The Daily NK and other organizations committed to the flow of information to and from North Korea “start out with the belief that this [depiction] is untrue,” he said. Though typical North Koreans do not have access to the internet or outside news media, they are not as unconnected and disengaged from the outside world as many would believe.
The Seoul-based Daily NK is one of a handful of members of what Green called the “information freedom gang,” which fosters the flow of information between North Korea and the outside world. Along with several other Seoul-based “information-freedom” NGOs, the Daily NK, founded in 2004, regularly collects and publishes information from inside North Korea.
On Wednesday, May 9, Chris Green spoke to a crowd of nearly 50 people as part of NKnet’s lecture series on North Korean human rights. The overarching message of his lecture paid tribute to the old adage, “knowledge is power.” Green posed the question, “Why do you as a foreigner in Seoul need to know this stuff?” referring to information coming from North Korea. To this he replied, “because it can lead to a better life.” He went on to explain that better knowledge of what goes on inside North Korea can lead to a better understanding of North Koreans, which can lead to better advocacy, better policy, and ultimately a better life…for us and for them. For the Daily NK, improving access to information both inside and outside of North Korea is a means to improving daily life for North Koreans.
Green explained the process of information gathering in North Korea as one that sometimes is dangerous and opaque, yet surprisingly accurate. While there are no official news sources within North Korea besides the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), there is no shortage of citizen-journalists willing to face dire consequences to get news from inside North Korea out to the wider world. “For 60 years the North Korean people had no opportunity to tell their story,” Green explained. Now “they have suddenly been given an outlet for their rage, love, hate, tears, [and] happiness…all of these things. And it turns out, they want to tell their stories.”
Organizations such as the Daily NK gather newsworthy information through a variety of methods, all of which place the citizen-journalists in direct opposition to the state. These organizations usually employ a handful of North Korean defectors in South Korea who maintain ties to people within the highly guarded country. Contact is established through Chinese cell phones which are smuggled into North Korea, and information can be exchanged quite regularly and easier than one might think.
Another method of gathering information is through South Korean citizen-journalists who work directly on the Chinese-North Korean border. While Green said that China is not thrilled with the presence of such reporters, he noted that the authorities have not hindered the information gathering process. These independent reporters have their own networks of people that provide cross-border information. In reference to the identity of the people within the networks, Green stated frankly, “We don’t have any idea who they [the South Korean citizen-journalists] know…and we don’t want to know.” Through these secretive networks of people working within South Korea, China, and North Korea, the Daily NK is able to publish articles about life as it happens in North Korea.
With such secretive networks at the center of the information-gathering process, how can the Daily NK know that the information they collect is accurate? To address this concern, Green explained the way that information is disseminated across North Korea, and how this very process is used to verify the information the Daily NK receives. One of the main channels that the North Korean regime uses to communicate information to its citizens is the neighborhood People’s Units. Each week, these People’s Units function as the mouthpiece of the regime, spreading information to citizens in mandatory neighborhood gatherings. For the Daily NK, the beauty of this is that whether a contact person is in the North Hamgyong Province or in Pyongyang, the information from the People’s Unit will be nearly identical. The Daily NK simply has to cross-reference information it receives from multiple sources located throughout North Korea to verify the story’s accuracy. This is especially useful in verifying information that affects the entire population, such as the death of Kim Jong Il or the recently failed rocket launch.
Smaller-scale stories are a bit harder to verify, and the Daily NK receives numerous news stories that it often never publishes. According to Green, the Dailiy NK takes journalistic integrity as seriously as it can in such situations, and would rather withhold a story than publish false or inaccurate information. However, for the Daily NK, every story matters, no matter how small, large, or newsworthy the story is. Green poignantly stated, “…ultimately they [North Koreans] want to tell their stories, because that’s what human beings want to do.” Whether faced with harsh punishment or difficult circumstances, the exchange of communication is ever-increasing. “It’s unavoidable…they want to speak, they want to be heard.” After 60 years of silence from the citizens of the “Hermit Kingdom,” it is now their time to speak, and our time to listen.
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