IJuche app banned in South Korea


140113-ijuche-iphoneA recently-launched iPhone app that delivers articles from the Korean Central News Agency to iPhones and iPads has been banned in South Korea.

The app, iJuche, was developed and published in late 2013 and was highlighted on NorthKoreaTech earlier this week. That publicity was apparently enough to get it blocked.

“I just got a call from a person at Apple informing me that iJuche has been found to be in violation of South Korea’s “National Security Law” and has been removed from the South Korean App Store,” said Peter Curtis, the developer of the app.

Users in South Korea that have already downloaded a copy of iJuche, or those with App Store subscriptions in other countries, should still be able to access news through the app, but new users won’t find it available for download in the Korean App Store.

South Korea’s National Security Law is a decades-old law that bans anti-state acts that endanger national security. In recent years, this has been used to ban the redistribution of North Korean propaganda on the Internet.

That means many websites from North Korean and those sympathetic to the country are blocked from local Internet users. It’s also been used to prosecute local Internet users who re-distribute North Korean content, sometimes by simply posting it on a website.

The law has many critics who maintain it restricts freedom of speech and doesn’t belong in a modern, developed society like the South Korea of today.


To-date, most of the sites and services blocked under the law have been those in Korean, although late last year a portion of the NK News website was also cut off from South Korean Internet connections.

KCNA Watch, a service developed by New Zealand-based Frank Feinstein, collates the daily output of KCNA from its website and makes it easy to navigate and search. It’s often easier to find articles on KCNA Watch than through the official KCNA website, and Feinstein’s site maintains the original versions of stories.

The importance of that feature was highlighted last month when KCNA deleted hundreds of articles mentioning Jang Song Thaek, the purged uncle of Kim Jong Un. The articles remain available through KCNA Watch.



TV Review: Secret State of North Korea


0116-frontline-04The harsh, closed world of North Korea and the lengths the state goes to keep people under control reached primetime television in the U.S. on Tuesday evening. Frontline, the premiere news documentary program of the U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS) network, aired an edition focused on the DPRK called “Secret State of North Korea.”

For North Korea to get such primetime coverage is relatively rare in the U.S. The country typically only breaks onto American television screens when the North Korean government says something particularly provocative, and then its fodder for the non-stop news networks.

In its Tuesday evening documentary, Frontline did a good job of presenting the reality of today’s North Korea without relying on the tired, over-used excesses of the country.

The show begins with Jiro Ishimaru traveling in a car in China near the North Korean border. Ishimaru runs Asiapress, an Osaka-based news agency that specializes in undercover reporting from North Korea.

Jiro Ishimaru of Asiapress in a scene from "Secret State of North Korea"

Jiro Ishimaru of Asiapress in a scene from “Secret State of North Korea”

I wrote about Ishimaru and Asiapress back in November 2010 when he spoke in Tokyo. He has a network of North Koreans who have been provided with digital video cameras and have been taught basic video techniques.

His contacts smuggle the footage out of the country at great personal risk to themselves and Ishimaru edits it, ensures that the identity of the people filming the video cannot be deduced, and then sells it to TV stations in Japan and around the world.

It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind operation and the documentary relied heavily on his footage.

A couple of video clips used in a trailer for the program were not new. I’d seen them in 2010 when Ishimaru spoke in Tokyo, and I feared the program wouldn’t bring anything new. But those fears were misplaced.

Despite some of the clips being several years old, others were new and all provided a fascinating glimpse inside the DPRK to areas that few if any foreigners ever see.

0116-frontline-16 0116-frontline-09
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We see orphans scratching through dirt on the street to find food, the absurd site of the No.1 Department Store in Pyongyang were many of the things on display are not for sale, are taken inside a weekly local meeting where citizens receive revolutionary education and see a couple of amazing clips where citizens take their frustrations out on soldiers and police.

The program introduces us to defectors that have escaped to Seoul, including some that run Open Radio for North Korea. That’s one of the handful of radio stations that broadcast programming into North Korea each day via shortwave.

For anyone interested in technology, one of the most interesting parts concerns a defector that, once in Seoul, has decided to start sending movies, TV shows and other content back into the country.

He does this by copying movies — we heard he had just sent a James Bond movie in — onto DVDs and USB sticks. In one scene, he meets a contact on the Chinese border and hands over a bag of media and DVD players to be taken into the country.


Night vision footage of USB thumb drives being handed over to a North Korean for smuggling into the country

And then we’re taken into a North Korean home were two young women are watching one of the DVDs. That’s a particularly fascinating scene.

For North Korean watchers, the program might not have produced many surprises or brought any new ideas, but it’s worth remembering that specialists are not the target audience.

The vast majority of those watching probably didn’t know much about the country and the issues involved beyond the usual headlines about “tensions rising on the Korean peninsula.” I’ve spoken to several such people who watched the program and they all thoroughly enjoyed it.

0116-frontline-02And even if you do know a lot about North Korea, it’s still recommended as a well-researched and well-produced documentary revealing another face of the DPRK.

The documentary was produced by Hardcash Productions in London and originally aired on Channel 4’s Dispatches in the U.K. under the name “Life Inside the Secret State.”

It can now be viewed on the Frontline website, is available on the Frontline iTunes channel or can be purchased from PBS as a DVD.


BBC decides against service for North Korea


131229-bbcThe BBC World Service has decided not to launch a service aimed at North Korea, concluding any programming aimed at the country would face an uncertain audience and not be cost-effective.

The decision was relayed in a letter from British Foreign Secretary William Hague to the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. The BBC World Service is currently funded by a grant from the Hague’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although that’s about to change.

“The World Service has re-examined the case for broadcasts into North Korea, considering both the feasibility of such broadcasts and how effective they would be in reaching North Korean audiences,” the letter said.

“On the basis of this work, the World Service board recently reached the conclusion that it is not currently possible for the World Service to offer a meaningful, effective and cost-effective service.”

Hague’s letter was sent earlier in January, just a couple of weeks after several U.K. politicians backed a campaign to get a BBC Korean service on the air.

The campaign was launched by a group called “The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK)” and argues that North Koreans would benefit from independent sources of news and radio is the best way of doing that.

Hague’s letter detailed some of the reasoning behind the BBC board’s decision.

Here’s an examination of the claims:

Shortwave Radio

  • “A shortwave radio service would reach an insignificant percentage of the population due to a combination of low numbers of shortwave-capable radios, ignorance of different wavebands and DPRK signal jamming.”

This is an interesting finding, especially given the current presence of the roughly ten radio stations that use shortwave to reach North Korea.

To be sure, there’s no sure way to know exactly how many people are listening to the programs, although surveys of defectors – the only audience research possible because it takes place outside of the country – indicate at least some North Koreans are listening.

A 2010 survey carried out by BBG, the umbrella organization that runs Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, found 27 percent of 250 defectors surveyed reported listening to foreign radio. That includes both South Korean stations broadcasting on mediumwave (AM) and shortwave broadcasts.

In its 2012 report “A Quiet Opening,” InterMedia, the company that conducts audience surveys for BBG, said that DVDs had been the most effective vehicle for foreign media in North Korea, with 48 percent of respondents reporting their use.

“However, radio occupies a unique space in the North Korean media environment, as the only real-time, direct source of sensitive outside news available nationwide. From the perspective of those attempting to deliver outside information, the relative speed and ease of disseminating content into North Korea from abroad, via radio, gives broadcasting a distinct distribution advantage over other media types that must be smuggled into the country.”

The BBC does have a point about jamming.

North Korea aggressively jams foreign radio broadcasts by broadcasting noise on the same frequency so that it mixes with the foreign program and makes listening difficult.

However, it’s worth noting that the DPRK only possesses a finite number of transmitters capable of jamming, so more stations on the air mean a higher chance that any one station will get through. That still doesn’t guarantee a clean signal for the BBC.

Regulatory hurdles

  • “South Korean regulations currently prevent foreign broadcasters from broadcasting FM or mediumwave radio from South Korea.”

South Korea, like Japan and China, are very strictly regulated media markets. To-date, it has proved impossible for any foreign or private broadcasters to construct transmitters in the country for the purpose of reaching the North Korean audience.

Current shortwave programming comes from a variety of locations, including the Mariana Islands and Uzbekistan.

The closest any broadcaster has come is BBG, which has managed to put some of its programs on mediumwave by leasing time on the powerful 1,118kHz transmitter of religious station Far East Broadcasting Co. (FEBC) in Seoul.

Open Radio for North Korea has also managed to broadcast from within South Korea by taking time on a local MBC affiliated station in Chuncheon, near the border. It broadcasts on 774kHz and 92.3 FM for an hour from 4am local time.


  • It would be impossible to offer a TV service that would not be blocked by the government.

While the InterMedia report noted the viewing of foreign TV broadcasts inside the DPRK, this was reception of signals from domestic South Korean and Chinese stations that spilled over the border. Any targeting of North Korea with TV broadcasts would almost certainly result in jamming that would be much more effective than on shortwave.

Internet and Smartphones

  • Mobile or Internet services would achieve very low or insignificant impact given access is strictly limited to political elites and both North Korea networks are effectively cut off from the rest of the world.

The BBC is right here. There’s no way to get content to North Korean smartphones or computer screens using the current networks. Any attempt, even by elites, to access BBC sites would almost certainly be detected.

Hague’s letter also noted that BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC that sells its programming overseas, is engaged with trying to get its programming aired on Korean Central Television. That would likely be non-factual content such as dramas, children’s TV shows and documentaries.

“In the long term, this is a good way to improve understanding about the outside world within such a closed society,” Hague concluded.


App lets you keep up with KCNA on iPhone, iPad


If you use an Apple iPhone or iPad, there’s a new app that lets you stay current with news from the Korean Central News Agency.

IJuche is the product of work by Peter Curtis, who says he became fascinated with the DPRK after reading Andrew Holloway’s “A Year in Pyongyang.”

“When I decided that I wanted to try my hand at iOS app development, I asked myself what sort of app I’d like to see on my iPhone and iPad that nobody else had written already,” he said.

And so came the idea to focus on North Korea.

“As your readers most likely know, official DPRK websites don’t tend to be terribly elegant or readable, and the problems are compounded on mobile devices. I could generally drag myself to the KCNA website once every few months when I thought about it for some reason, but never bothered to try keeping up with it,” said Curtis.

“With that in mind, I figured out what sort of iPhone/iPad app I could make that would be useful to me, and, ideally, a few other folks.”

The app queries the kcna.co.jp website daily and pulls in new headlines and articles and presents them in an easy-to-read interface. The Japanese site isn’t quite as fast in updating news as the kcna.kp site, which is based in Pyongyang, but the code behind the site is simpler and so easier to work with.

“In my own case, I simply love that I can be sitting in a bar, lying in bed, or what have you, and pull out my phone in a moment of boredom to see the latest announcements from North Korea. When KCNA is this much more accessible, it’s easier to follow ongoing narratives.”

iJuche can be found in the Apple App Store.

Here’s a couple of screenshots from the app.

First, the iPad app:


And the iPhone app:


Kim Jong Un’s new year address


For the second year in a row, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared on state TV and radio on January 1 to deliver a new year address to his nation.

The direct address was something of a surprise when it happened last year as Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, was rarely heard speaking on state media. For many years, he delivered his annual address through an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

This year’s speech comes at an interesting time, happening just weeks after Jang Song Thaek was arrested and executed for crimes against the state. Reports suggest a major purge of Jang’s allies continues into the new year.

The speech touched on that and several other issues of importance to the government and much has already been written about that. I thought I’d look at how the speech was delivered rather than what was said.

One of the most notable things about this year’s speech was how little Kim Jong Un was actually on screen.

The speech began with an introductory frame.

The introduction frame for Kim Jong Un's 2014 new year speech

The introduction frame for Kim Jong Un’s 2014 new year speech. (KCTV screengrab)

And quickly cut to a medium-angle shot of Kim Jong Un walking towards a dais with papers in his hand. While it’s impossible to tell what those papers were, we’re likely intended to conclude it’s a copy of the speech.

The Workers’ Party of Korea symbol adorns the dais, the wall behind and a flag placed nearby.

Kim Jong Un walks towards a dais to deliver his 2014 new year speech. KCTV screengrab.

Kim Jong Un walks towards a dais to deliver his 2014 new year speech. (KCTV screengrab)

This appears to be exactly the same spot from where the 2013 address was delivered, although a year earlier there were several floral arrangements also placed nearby.


Kim Jong Un delivers his 2013 new year address. (KCTV screengrab)

When the speech begins, viewers are alternated between the following three shots: a medium shot of Kim, a tight shot and a still image of the Workers’ Party of Korea central committee hall.

The cameras both face Kim from an angle, perhaps intended to add to the illusion that he is speaking to an audience.

Switching between cameras and a still image can be used to provide variety to the viewer and can also be used as an editing trick to mask places where a speech was edited, perhaps if a part needed to be repeated because of a stumble on words or a part was later removed or added.

The medium shot of Kim Jong Un's 2014 new year address. (KCTV screengrab)

The medium shot of Kim Jong Un’s 2014 new year address. (KCTV screengrab)

The close shot of Kim Jong Un's 2014 new year address. (KCTV screengrab)

The close shot of Kim Jong Un’s 2014 new year address. (KCTV screengrab)

The Workers' Party of Korea Central Committee Headquarters as shown in Kim Jong Un's 2014 new year address (KCTV screengrab)

The Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee Headquarters as shown in Kim Jong Un’s 2014 new year address (KCTV screengrab)

The speech was introduced with applause although an audience was never shown. Kim Jong Un is the only person seen throughout the entire broadcast.

It included 32 pieces of applause. All ranged from 5- to 7-seconds long with the exception of the opening round at 14 seconds, a piece a few minutes in at 8 seconds and the closing round at just under 10 seconds.

In all, the 26 minute and 19 second speech was interrupted with 3 minutes and 23 seconds of applause.

The applause all sounds uniform and the lack of audience shots means it’s difficult to conclude that an audience was present.

But what’s perhaps more interesting than possibly canned applause is Kim Jong Un’s screen time.

The editor alternated between the two shots of Kim Jong Un and the still image of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee Headquarters for the first two minutes of the speech then went to the still image continuously for the next 23 minutes, only returning to a mix of shots in the last minute of the broadcast.

In total, Kim Jong Un was seen speaking for just 2 minutes 12 seconds of the entire broadcast.

In the 2013 speech, a similar image of the WPK building was also shown, but Kim Jong Un got much more screen time.

The still image used in Kim Jong Un's 2013 new year broadcast (KCTV screengrab)

The still image used in Kim Jong Un’s 2013 new year broadcast (KCTV screengrab)

Here’s the entire broadcast:


Another push for BBC Korea


131229-bbcThere’s a new push behind efforts to get the BBC World Service to launch a Korean-language service for North Korea.

A group called The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) has published a report making a case for such a service and just launched an online petition.

In its report, EAHRNK argues that North Korean citizens need independent sources of news and information and that radio broadcasts provide the best way of delivering that to the country.

Several radio stations are already doing just this – Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, South Korea’s KBS and private stations run by North Korean defectors are on the air everyday – but that doesn’t mean the BBC’s voice would be duplicative, the report says.

“By virtue of the BBC being a British organisation, its programming would carry significantly less political baggage than that of US-funded broadcasters or services run by the ROK or North Korean defectors,” the report claims.

The report can be downloaded here.

At time of writing, the online petition has 115 signatures and needs a total of 1,000. It’s addressed to Peter Horrocks, director of the BBC World Service, and asks him to consider launching a Korean service.

The idea of a BBC World Service broadcast in Korean isn’t new. It was floated earlier this year and a 2012 report called “A Golden Opportunity” also argued for the establishment of a service. But the BBC World Service has been cutting language services in recent years as it has faced reductions in its annual budget. Adding services hasn’t been a priority.

The recent execution of Jang Song Thaek provided a platform for the proposed BBC broadcasts to be brought up in the British parliament on 16 December.

Fiona Bruce MP, vice chair of the all party parliamentary group on North Korea, asked UK Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Hugo Swire about the chances of such a service.

“Given that a major weapon in ending Stalin’s reign of terror was the role that this country played by broadcasting the BBC World Service and breaking the Soviet information blockade — the same has been done more recently with the Burmese information blockade — and given the Foreign Secretary’s role in setting the World Service’s strategic objectives, will the Minister consider extending the BBC World Service to the Korean peninsula?,” Bruce asked in a parliamentary question.

Swire noted that the U.K.’s embassy in Pyongyang is working to bring BBC drama, nature and science programs to North Korean television.

“We believe that that has the potential to expose significant numbers of North Koreans to aspects of the outside world from which they are normally totally isolated,” he said of that plan.

Swire was later pushed on that answer by Gisela Stuart, a Labour MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston.

“Will the Minister have slightly more robust conversations with the BBC, encourage it to look at the issue of transmitters into North Korea and point out to it that BBC documentaries and drama, however entertaining they may be, are not really the answer? What is needed is the World Service and access,” she said.

Swire responded by saying it would be a decision for the BBC to make, and indicated he didn’t think it proper that the government pressure the corporation to launch such a service.

“There are reasons to do it and there are reasons not to do it, but at the end of the day, the BBC has the independence to decide where and to whom to broadcast.”

Here’s video of the question and answer period on North Korea.


Report: South Korean arrested for aiding North’s spy bureau


A South Korean businessman has been arrested by local authorities on suspicion of passing classified information and video and audio system technology to North Korea, Yonhap reported on Saturday.

The report said the suspect, identified only as a 54-year-old man called “Kang,” worked with agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau to pass the information. He regularly traveled to China and made contact with the agents directly and through email.

Few other pieces of information were available.

The case could be interesting because the Reconnaissance General Bureau is the Korean People’s Army unit responsible for spying activities, including infiltration of South Korea and electronic surveillance.

I mentioned it in February last year when writing about a large satellite monitoring station on the outskirts of Pyongyang. The monitoring station is located close to the bureau’s headquarters.

As noted in that article, the Reconnaissance General Bureau was named in U.S. Executive Order 13382 that set out trade sanctions. Here’s what the U.S. government said about it in August 2010:

The Reconnaissance General Bureau is North Korea’s premiere intelligence organization, created in early 2009 by the merger of existing intelligence organizations from the Korean Workers’ Party, the Operations Department and Office 35, and the Reconnaissance Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. RGB trades in conventional arms and controls the North Korean conventional arms firm Green Pine Associated Corporation (Green Pine), which was also identified for sanctions by the President today for exporting arms or related materiel from North Korea.

Its headquarters were located after TV footage was broadcast of a visit there by Kim Jong Il in early 2010.

The unit was reorganized in 2009/10 and 38 North published an extensive analysis:

Recent changes during 2009-2010—the most dramatic reorganization in years— seem to have been implemented to unify all the intelligence and internal security services directly under the National Defense Commission (NDC) and to secure the position of Kim Chong-il’s son, Kim Chong-un, as his successor. — 38 North Special Report


“Mass intimidation” from DPRK media on Jang’s execution


North Korean state media’s coverage of the arrest, trial and subsequent execution of Jang Song Thaek was “tantamount to mass intimidation,” Reporters Without Borders said on Thursday.

“Although only to be expected from one of the world’s worst dictatorships, such manipulation of news and information is disturbing,” the Paris-based group said in a statement.

“The extensive and indeed staged coverage of this execution coinciding with the hyped coverage of the second anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death had the hallmarks of a intimidatory message to the entire Korean population and the international community.”

One of the things that made Jang’s arrest notable was the way it was done in public. State TV, radio and newspapers devoted a considerable amount of time to denouncing him for what were at the time accused crimes. Later in the week, the media carried news of his trial, his apparent admission of guilt and his execution.

That was followed by an information purge that has seen thousands of articles removed from the websites of the state-run Korean Central News Agency and party-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

“This propaganda has highlighted the harshness of a regime that has not hesitated to execute one of the party’s most senior officials, a four-star general and uncle of the currently leader. Such an atmosphere of terror will weigh heavily on the little freedom of information remaining in such a closely-watched society,” Reporters without Borders said.

North Korea ranks at position 178 on the group’s press freedom index – one place from the bottom. The only nation ranked below the DPRK was Eritrea.

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