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The little that we do know about life in North Korea is thanks to a network of informants who take great risks to relay information.
SEOUL, South Korea — It is safe to say that acquiring accurate information about North Korea is an imperfect science.
The regime's failed rocket launch on April 13 underlined its status as the most opaque in the world. Outside observers were not permitted to witness the launch, and any chance of determining exactly what became of the ill-fated Unha-3 ended when the South Korean navy failed to find fragments in the Yellow Sea.
The guessing game is reaching another critical juncture as rumors spread of an impending second rocket launch or an underground nuclear test, designed to banish the humiliation of a fortnight ago and to strengthen the North's hand in negotiations over its nuclear weapons program.
For a brief period, during the unusually comprehensive coverage of Kim Jong Un's ascent to power at the turn of the year, it seemed that warmer relations were possible, and that outsiders were learning more about life behind the veil. But that disappeared with the regime's launch announcement, a move that sunk an aid deal with the US that had been negotiated on February 29.
"Whatever little was learned was blown away by [North Korea's] reversal on the leap-day agreement," said Martyn Williams, who runs the North Korea tech blog. "That surprised everybody, even seasoned North Korea watchers, and reminded us how little we really know about the country and what to expect from it."
What little we do know about life under the 5-month leadership of Kim Jong Un comes from a network of informers who risk imprisonment, or worse, to pass on information for analysts outside the country to place in a wider contact.
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Anyone with an interest in the North will have at some point visited the website of the Daily NK, an online publication that offers insights into the murkier reaches of the country's political, economic and social life.
Set up in 2004, the Daily NK boasts about 200 sources in North Korea. It receives much of its funding from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy and generates extra income from sales of books by some of its 20 journalists, who write in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese.
Its goal is to promote human rights and democracy through the quick dissemination of news and opinion on the internet, Kim So Yeol, a Daily NK reporter, told GlobalPost at the site's office in central Seoul. "We draw on our network of informants in North Korea, sometimes over the telephone from near the Chinese border [where North Korean mobile phones are in range]. I can't tell you exactly how it works, for obvious reasons."
Finding a way into the inner circle of Kim Jong Un's advisers is the biggest challenge, says Kim: "Our contacts in the regime are mainly mid-ranking local administrators, so they have some access, but they are not part of the power circle."
Nonetheless, Kim adds, there is evidence that public disquiet has risen in the few months since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. Open markets — an important source of income for North Koreans who bypass the official state-distribution system — were closed after Jong Il's death, but hastily reopened after angry protests from traders. "That was a significant change," says Kim.
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That minor revolt may have been fueled in part by better access to information about the outside world among ordinary North Koreans. "Many of the complaints came from people who have learned more about economic development and better standards of living in China," says Kim.
For as steadfastly as the government manages what news gets out, it also controls what its citizens know. Still, in our increasingly interconnected world, some information manages to trickle in.
While the country's estimated one million mobile phones — on a network run by the Egyptian 3G operator Orascom — are confined to officials and members of the elite, smuggled DVDs showing life in the prosperous South are thought to find their way into the hands of a more eclectic audience.
Young defectors recently interviewed by GlobalPost said they had partly been inspired to flee by glimpses of life in the prosperous South in contraband DVDs of films and TV dramas.
Distribution routes through China have become so effective that the latest episode in a popular South Korean soap opera can be in the hands of a North Korean the following night, watched on local players made with parts from China. "It's a huge trend," says Kim. "The DVDs are passed around because anyone who doesn't catch an episode feels like they are missing out."
A better understanding of life beyond North Korea's borders will only fuel discontent among ordinary North Koreans whose traditional dependence on the state for daily necessities is being challenged by food and cash shortages.
"North Korea's behavior is all the more extraordinary given its problem with chronic malnutrition," says Kim Yun Tae, secretary general of the Seoul-based Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. "The biggest problems facing Kim Jong Un are the food and economic situations, and the ability of his people to survive. There is anger about this, and it could explode at some point. It's like volcanic magma bubbling away beneath a seemingly calm surface."
The regime has reportedly faced complaints over the cost of celebrating the centenary of the birth of Jong Un's grandfather, North Korea's founder and "eternal president" Kim Il Sung. Short of the cash to pay for the extravaganza — of which the $850 million rocket launch was a part — it has been forced to charge for essentials, such as fertilizer and fuel, that were once provided for free.
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Despite signs of fledgling unrest, Kim So Yeol at the Daily NK is quick to rule out a popular uprising in one of the world's most repressive societies.
"There has been talk about a North Korean version of the Arab Spring, but that is impossible," he says. "The system watches over each person individually — all they can do is flee, so I expect there to be more defections. But there aren't even the beginnings of a Middle East-style democracy movement."
Rumors of a power struggle have persisted since the inexperienced Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s, became leader late last year. Kim So Yeol believes that a more open North Korea could emerge if Jong Un, who received some of his education in Switzerland, survives any immediate challenges to his authority.
"He is still young, and it is possible that North Korea will open up economically under his leadership," he says. "He was educated in the West, so he knows what goes on outside. His long-term goal is to be a better leader than his father or grandfather. But in the short-term he wants to concentrate on securing his power base."
The world will have to wait, however, for anything approaching a representative view from ordinary North Koreans.
"Do they all secretly despise the Kim dynasty?" says Williams from the North Korea Tech blog. "Do they know about life in the rest of the world? Have they heard of the internet and have a notion of free speech? We never hear this from official sources, and defectors, by their nature, are all dissatisfied.
"When the country does eventually open and free speech is allowed, I think it will be most interesting to learn about the thoughts of average people. I bet we'll be in for some surprises."