In winter months, the Tumen River freezes over and under cover of darkness, North Koreans escape to China. In 2004, for the second time in his life, Lee Jun made the journey across the Tumen River—except this time, he wasn’t bringing his family to China to escape the mass famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s. Hidden inside Lee Jun’s jacket on his second border crossing from North Korea to China was a flash drive containing the photographs and video footage he took as Rimjin-gang magazine’s first undercover “citizen journalist.”
Among the files in the flash drive was a photo of a female merchant counting money in a market in Chongjin. Out of context, this image seems mundane and unremarkable—certainly not worth a lifetime in prison or a death sentence. But North Koreans are subject to indefinite terms in prison and even execution for smuggling information from North Korea to the outside world, which is exactly what Rimjin-gang magazine seeks to do.
Launched in 2007, Rimjin-gang is the first magazine about North Korea written by North Koreans. The articles in Rimjin-gang don’t make headlines in most Western publications’ coverage of North Korea. In the past few months, Western coverage of North Korea has largely focused on North Korea’s nuclear program and the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son Jong-Un as his successor. Rimjin-gang, meanwhile, covers stories about the everyday lives of North Korean citizens, offering foreigners and South Koreans rare insights into topics such as the illicit trading of real estate, the comfortable lives of entrepreneurial villagers who sell fishing nets, the illegal tutoring businesses that teachers undertake to supplement their measly wages and the detainment of entire families in North Korea’s political prison camps.
Rimjin-gang issues have been available in Korean and Japanese since 2007, and Rimjin-gang has recently released its first English-language anthology in hopes of bringing these stories to a Western audience. While Rimjin-gang does not currently have the funds to publish regular issues in English, the new English anthology compiles the best reports, interviews and photographs from the past three years.
Ishimaru Jiro, editor and publisher of Rimjin-gang, conceived of the idea of working with North Korean “citizen journalists” after years of attempting to report on North Korea as a foreign journalist from Japan. Speaking to an audience of academics, journalists and students at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on October 18, Ishimaru said that it was in Seoul as a student during the end of the Cold War where he “first heard reports about the suffering of North Koreans” under Kim Jong-il’s secretive regime. As a young journalist, he felt compelled to go into North Korea to report on the situation there himself. When obtaining a visa proved nearly impossible, Ishimaru tried the next best option: In 1993, he traveled to the China/North Korean border to conduct interviews with the North Korean escapees who lived in border cities such as Yanbian.
During the handful of times in his career where Ishimaru did manage to gain permission to enter North Korea, he was only able to do so under constant monitoring from the government. "They monitor you even when you’re asleep," said Ishimaru. “I realized that it was impossible to conduct true journalism in North Korea as a foreigner."