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North Korea revealed by those who know it

A magazine based in Japan offers an intimate look inside North Korea. Its reporters are North Korean farmers and factory workers who risk their lives to portray life inside their reclusive homeland.

September 25, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — Editor Jiro Ishimaru dimmed the lights and started the shaky video clip before a roomful of North Korea experts.

The footage, taken surreptitiously from a speeding motorcycle, was jarring: It showed the Soonchun Vinylon factory, which many defectors claim has been secretly used to produce lethal chemicals, including nerve gas. But the video showed a deserted complex slouching forlornly on a weed-strewn stretch of countryside.

The experts sat wide-eyed. They had heard rumors of the factory's fate, but this was their first real evidence.

The images will soon be featured in an issue of Rimjingang, a magazine published in Japan that offers a highly intimate look inside North Korea. What makes it all the more remarkable is that the quarterly publication consists of articles written not by outsiders, but by a few North Koreans, farmers and factory workers who risk their lives to provide poignant vignettes and hard-news accounts of life in their reclusive homeland.

The stakes are high. The reporters use pseudonyms because they know that if they are caught by North Korean authorities, they could be sent to prison or executed as spies.

Westerners too face dangers reporting in North Korea. This year, two American TV journalists were sentenced to 12 years in prison after being caught by border guards. Their sentences were later commuted, and they were able to leave the country when former President Clinton arrived to meet with North Korean officials.

Named by the magazine's reporters after a river that flows across the border from north to south, Rimjingang features everyday scenes of people's lives, from mammoth Pyongyang to the smallest villages. Since the magazine was launched in 2007, the tiny staff of reporters has delivered scoop after scoop.

Their cameras peek inside an illegal market where hungry children scavenge food from the ground. They offer images of a busy bus terminal patrolled by soldiers, a North Korean prison and a town where even children are put to work in a coal mine.

"I'm proud of these reporters," said Ishimaru, 37, editor of Rimjingang. "I'm committed to help them deliver a message to the world that they are risking their lives to report."

The magazine is published in Korean and Japanese, and editors will soon launch an English edition they hope will help think tanks and the Obama administration gain a better feel for life in North Korea.

Four reporters work for the magazine, but stories have been contributed by others.

Born in Osaka, Japan, Ishimaru early on developed a fascination with politics on the Korean peninsula. In 1992, he became a reporter for Japanese-based AsiaPress International and made several covert forays into North Korea.

"I realized that foreigners couldn't really report on anything significant with so many eyes monitoring them," he said. "The story is complex. It needs to be told by the people who live it."

In time, Ishimaru met North Korean defectors in China who said they wanted to tell the story of their impoverished country. But none had the skills to do so.

So Ishimaru started a journalist training program. Working with volunteers, he provided aspiring reporters with surveillance cameras and offered lessons on how to film without getting caught -- often conducting exercises in crowded Chinese markets.

The students -- ranging in age from 20 to 50 -- learned how to approach people without raising suspicion, how to ask questions without appearing intrusive. Lessons in hand, they returned to North Korea, later stealing back to China only to deliver their stories.

The first thing Ishimaru says he asks is why they're willing to take such risks. Not for the small per-story payment, he says they tell him, but as a way to help topple the regime they say has driven their nation into poverty.

"I tell them that journalism is fun," he said. "And that if they want to take the risk of describing how devastating life is inside North Korea, I will help them in every way I can."

Not every reporter makes it. Some quit after experiencing the perils of reporting their stories and spiriting them out of the country.

Ishimaru travels to the border between China and North Korea to meet with staff members as they arrive to report their findings. He says the reporters' trips are always dangerous, but more so now since the two American journalists were taken into custody.

Because it is risky for the journalists to carry notes, they sit down with Ishimaru in China and explain in detail how they did their reporting. Slowly, a story emerges.

Like the piece about rampant poverty on the back streets of Pyongyang, neighborhoods so close to the capital's gleaming statues and open spaces that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il wants the world to see.

At the meeting, Ishimaru told the North Korea experts the reporter who shot the video of the factory was a beginner.

"Each story," Ishimaru said, "is a piece of a complex puzzle."

Rimjingang has impressed Sohn Kwang-joo, chief editor of the Daily NK, a website reporting on North Korea from the outside.

"This is a magazine where North Koreans are the main characters," he said. "The regime does not want the world to hear their voices. But in Rimjingang, their lives and voices meld."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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