Posts tagged AsiaPress

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TV Review: Secret State of North Korea

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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.


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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.

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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.

A cell phone being used in Pyongyang

Fines for using Chinese mobile phones

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AsiaPress has detailed the fines North Koreans face if they get caught using Chinese mobile phones.

The use of such phones is prohibited in North Korea, but some citizens secretly use them to make uncensored calls to contacts in China, South Korea and other countries. Among them are a handful of North Korean “citizen reporters” that feed information to AsiaPress.

The agency says a fine of 1 million North Korean won is levied on anyone caught calling South Korea. The fine for a phone call to China is between 400,000 won and 600,000 won, it reported. Additionally, violators face up to a week in custody.

A second article by AsiaPress puts the real exchange rate at about 2,540 NK won to US$1 so the fine to call South Korea is around US$393. To put that a little more in context, the price of a kilogram of rice is about 2,000 won. That makes the fine for calling South Korea equivalent to the price of about half a ton of rice.

Use of Chinese mobile phones is possible in a region from the border to several kilometers inside North Korea. Authorities patrol the area with detector vans and attempt to locate people making secret calls.

More about the use of Chinese cell phones by AsiaPress.

How digital technology helps get news from North Korea

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Today I had the chance to meet and hear Jiro Ishimaru of AsiaPress speak at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. He was there to talk about how the Japanese news agency manages a small network of North Koreans who report from inside the country and smuggle out images and video.

The network is fascinating to hear about, as are Ishimaru’s stories about information flow both ways across the Chinese border.

Some snippets:

  • Most young people in major cities have seen South Korean TV dramas.
  • The dramas are recorded in China from satellite broadcasts and appear quickly in local markets.
  • They are smuggled into North Korea, where they are duplicated and distributed on DVD and Video CD.
  • Even the wealthy and those with good jobs are bored of propaganda and want to watch something interesting.
  • Sometimes the police raid the market, but even the police want to watch the dramas.

To-date AsiaPress has published its reports in Korean and Japanese, but Ishimaru’s speech was timed to coincide with the publishing of the agency’s first book in English.

Called “Rimjin-gang,” the 495-page book is divided into four main sections dealing with the economy, the people, the Kim Jong-Il regime and state oppression.

It’s published by AsiaPress itself.

ISBN: 978-4-904399-05-7

It can be ordered directly from the company and costs 9,000 yen, which is US$112 at the current exchange rate.

I covered the event for IDG and wrote a piece about the use of digital technology by AsiaPress. The digital door to North Korea has already opened.

I think that unless Kim Jong-Il’s administration takes a drastic step of completely banning all forms of digital media, there is no way it can stop the flow of information going into and out of North Korea.

I asked him if he thought this would happen.

I don’t think there is anyway the leaders can put a stop to this.

Read the PC World story.

Here’s the presentation.

The event included an introduction by Bradley Martin, a noted North Korea expert, author and contributor to Global Post. This video includes the presentations of both Martin and Ishimaru and is in four parts. Ishimaru’s video presentation has not been included due to copyright restrictions and a request from Ishimaru.

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