Undercover North magazine now in English

by Miwa Murphy

Kyodo News

NEW YORK — 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 English edition of the quarterly Rimjingang will be published about twice a year from now on, chief editor Jiro Ishimaru said at a recent meeting at New York University, adding that digital editions in various formats will be available from 2011, including one from Apple Inc.’s iBook store.

Rimjingang has been available in Korean and Japanese since 2008.

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

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 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 their recordings. 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, she 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.