Sources on North Korea 1: Rimjin-gang



We are always looking for interesting and credible resources on North Korea. Among the best new things we have seen is the work of Rimjin-gang, which has just released a highly-readable English-language version of its reportage. Rimjin-gang grew out of ASIAPRESS, a Tokyo-based network to support independent Asian journalism. In 1998, an ASIAPRESS North Korea team began operations. Based in Osaka and under the able guidance of chief editor and journalist Jiro Ishimaru, Rimjin-gang publishes interviews with North Korean defectors. But it also offers reports from a stable of North Korean journalists and freelancers who left North Korea but returned to the country—at great risk--after being recruited to work for the magazine.  In addition to stories and interviews, materials include videos, voice recordings and even the publication of purloined official documents.

The English-language volume repays close reading and confirms many of the findings from our survey (and more vividly too!). Among the stories to be found in this first volume:

  • An outstanding explanation of the role of party and military “guidance” of enterprise management, and the increasing role of corruption in the process;
  • A report on a trip to the vinalon factory at Sunchon. Emblematic of the failures of the state socialist system, this gigantic industrial complex was to be devoted to the synthetic fiber of which a North Korean scientist was an inventor. The complex was to include a full panoply of upstream and downstream production units, from a coal-fired power plant, through fertilizer production, to vinyl chloride, carbide and vinalon itself. Nothing at the site remains operational except for the carbide facility; the remainder is a rusting hulk.
  • A poignant story talks about a small trader who had borrowed North Korean won just prior to the currency reform of 2009, and got stuck with excess currency that she could not unload. The book also reproduces the edict banning the use of foreign exchange (“On Severely Punishing Those Who Use Foreign Currency Within Our Republic Uncompromisingly”), which the government subsequently was forced to relax.
  • Interesting examples of low-level confrontations between citizens and officials. Some stills from a video show a woman berating a police officer seeking a bribe so she could get onto a truck ferrying people to a market. Another story details a confrontation between a woman in Pyongyang and the city’s morals squad—the Moral Discipline Corps--over the wearing of pants.
  • A tour of Pyongyang’s largest general markets;
  • Photos of workers being marched through a town on a labor detail, exemplary of the low-level “labor training” facilities that constitute the bottom rung of the penal system.

The book is pricey, but the money is going to a good cause. The Rimjin-gang staff is not only committed to getting information out of North Korea, but is training a new generation of journalists for the future.

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