Jang Jin-Seong is a rarity. He is a former North Korea intelligence official who defected to the South, but even more remarkable is that he runs a news site with reliable information about North Korea. It could cost him his life.
One of the hardest places in the world to get accurate information, for journalists or for intelligence officers, is the closed and paranoid regime of North Korea.
Rarely are journalists allowed into the country. In my 15 years of covering the Hermit Kingdom I have been allowed into the reclusive country about nine times. And relying on others who have been there is risky. Defectors often demand money for information and stories can be embellished to make them more attractive and more valuable to news agencies bidding on them. (ABC News has a policy of not paying for news.)
Allegedly filling this void is a new wave of so-called North Korea news websites. There are more than dozen websites operated by North Korean defectors or South Koreans who are politically pro-North Korea. Their web posts often get on portal sites which can end up being cited by major newspapers and TV networks. Sensational stories, for example on late-Kim Jong Il’s mistresses or exotic herbal medicines that kept him alive for years, become popular for Facebook posts and retweets. The more shocking the story is a better chance it will run up the chain of news outlets and end up on evening TV news.
But recently, I came across one new website that carries stories on North Korea with surprisingly solid information. They use Google satellite images and quote North Korean officials who often travel to China.
“Our priority is credibility. We’ve made a point not to report unless we have verifiable information even if the story comes late,” said Jang Jin-Seong, 40, who runs the www.newfocus.co.kr website. “We are very aware of lots of phony North Korea specialized websites out there.”
Jang escaped the North in 2004 after working in the Communist party’s intelligence agency. His job was to analyze South Korean society and come up with strategies to spread communist propaganda in the South. After defecting to the South, he worked the other way around taking a post in the National Intelligence Service analyzing the North.
He quit last year and started the New Focus website last February with two other defectors whom he described as “former Pyongyang elites” and four South Korean reporters. Their consultants include computer specialists who are capable of hacking and a network of North Koreans “who are empathetic of North Korea’s dire situation and who believe their information to New Focus would help the plight of the poverty stricken nation’s future to a better off society,” Jang said.
Asked whether he manages to keep these North Korean officials to stay in the loop with financial compensation, he acknowledged that is necessary.
Jang’s major project which is almost complete is to draw up a concise map of the North’s important spots using Google technology.
“We note where Kim Jong Il’s many state houses are, where their generals live, and where the party keeps confidential personnel or resources,” said Jang. For the first time, they have also completed the map of Pyongyang’s subway system, thanks to Google satellite.
Jang, though, fears for his life. North Korean website www.uriminzokkiri.com that carries their state news has called Jang a “human waste,” “‘pathetic clown” and “a liar” threatening that his “revelation of our major locations in Pyongyang and elsewhere” would lead to a tragic death.
Jang’s answer, “I take that as a compliment.”