Earth Calling #6: North Korean Information Warriors

Produced by Camille Duran / Published by Eleen Murphy / Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran / Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space. Photo by Marcelo Salinas.

Today we share a story of courage and defiance in one of the most oppressed and secretive countries in the world. This is about the North Korean people’s connection with the outside world, and the wind of change.

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Transcript from the Episode

[Mobile ringing / vibrating]

Camille Duran [CD]: Ah there she is…

Eleen Murphy [EM]: Hm, now she calls you directly on your mobile?

CD: Of course, you gave her my number…

CD: Green Exchange, good morning.

EM: Sure, pretend you don’t know who is calling…

CD: [Aside] Shhh!

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: [To Planet Earth] Hey, how are you?

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yes I am at my desk. Uh…no I am not alone…

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Uh, yeah, right…ahem… Right, well, I got a story you are going to like today, Is that still interesting? because the team is working hard on those.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Well, today we are going to North Korea.


It’s a small country in East Asia. Korea was part of the Japanese Empire until the end of the Second World War, but it was divided into two zones: the North occupied by the Soviets, and the South occupied by the Americans. Those two parts never managed to get reunified, they were at war for three years in the 50’s, and since then never signed a peace treaty.

It’s governed by a totalitarian dictatorship.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yeah, a totalitarian dictatorship. In short this means the state has complete authority on what people can do in both their public and private life. You cannot do whatever you want with your free time, everything is controlled and everything is done for the State and ruled by the State.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Why? Well, it’s a long story. All decisions follow an ideology and reinforce the cult of one family – the Kim family – who has been ruling since the beginning. The ideology they follow is the one of “Juche” which means “self-reliance”. A good example is food production where they will stay self-reliant at all costs: About 20 years ago, a famine killed between 200,000 and 400,000 people, we’re unsure of the numbers, some say more than a million. And it is estimated that 3 quarters of the population is still hungry everyday.

The government follows a policy that says “military-first”. They have the highest number of military and paramilitary personnel in the world with around ten million people – that’s more than United States, that’s more than China. What else? Nuclear weapons – they have been running important tests over the last years. I am sure you felt this. They do them under ground from what I heard.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yeah that must be it. Yes in East Asia, you have a peninsula in front of Japan. North Korea is the North part of this peninsula, bordered by China, Russia, and South Korea.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yeah well no one really like this, the United Nations are throwing sanctions every year but I don’t know if it’s going to stop them.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: A revolution? Well, people are brainwashed, they’re punished, put to jail, and they’re fully dependant on the state. So it’s very difficult. Just to give you an idea, it’s estimated that one percent of the population is in jail.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yes, it’s more than in the United States.

[Audio Clip]

CD: They also have no access to information and education from the outside world. So many of them don’t know of any alternative, and the outside world is enemy of the State, pretty much. That’s what our story is about today. About the North Korean people’s connection with the outside world, and the wind of change. Let’s dive in


CD: There is a new generation of change makers, trying to smuggle images out of the country.

[Audio clip]

Jiro Ishimaru for instance is a Japanese journalist trying to expose what Kim Kong-un’s Regime is trying to hide. He has an undercover network of ordinary North Koreans who are filming inside the country, especially areas foreigners and journalists don’t have the right to visit. They’re very active – they even have a State employee in the network who has been smuggling footage out for five years. Needless to say that filming everyday life is forbidden, it’s considered a political treason.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: What you commonly see on the footage is basically orphan children living in the street in terrible conditions, begging for money and eating whatever they can find.

[Audio Clip]

CD: You also see the day-to-day interactions between the state police and the population. Yeah, it’s really crazy.

Members of this network get the footage out by smuggling it into the Tumen river. That’s the river that separates North Korea from China. Then they collect it downstream. It’s a well coordinated operation, where they put their life at risk every single time. We need to celebrate Jiro Ishimaru, his news agency and his network because without them, we wouldn’t know what we know.

[Audio Clip]

Jiro Ishimaru: Our footage is forcing North Korea to acknowledge the hardship that their people face. The authorities don’t like it at all, because if the truth gets out it will put Kim Jong Un’s power under threat.


CD: Now there are also people working towards smuggling information inside the country. And that’s also very interesting for making change happen.

Meet Jung Kwang-il. I am not sure of the pronunciation and writing – but it’s a fake name anyway. He escaped North Korea and is now organising shipments into the country from the South. Thumbdrives, DVDs, laptops, radios. Anything that can convey information from the outside. A lot of films, people love it. Action films, soap operas…. Popular culture is what changes people’s mindset according to him, it is what could bring democracy to North Korea.

The North Korean government is desperate to catch him. Let’s dive into one of his operations.

[Audio Clip]

CD: So here they’re passing the border. There’s a guard at the border that they are bribing, saying that they’re going to sell mushrooms.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yeah, he’s going himself. He is returning in the country every time. He was caught once, we’ll put a couple of links if you want to hear the whole story. We’re not here to describe torture practices, but yeah he’s been through hell. Then he was released and he escaped one year after, and been smuggling electronics ever since. So…back to their operation:


[Audio Clip] 

CD: It’s finally night time. They are waiting on the side of the river, and they use their cigarette lighter to signal their presence in the dark…that’s how their contact is able to see them when they arrive.

[Audio clip]

CD: Here he is explaining what’s in the bag and how to use it. He thanking his contact, planning the next meeting, and here he is saying: “Be careful, the water is deep, the equipment should not get wet.”

Then the goods get to the country’s markets where they are sold to the population, at their own risk.


A whole black market was developed for giving access to the people. People are watching from home, and well, needless to say – you’d better not get caught.

What’s really interesting is that all this is becoming mainstream in North Korea. And there are more change maker stories like this one: pirate radios, undercover networks, etc. It’s very encouraging.

The result of all this great work is that more and more people are stopping to believe in the regime’s stories. In response, the government is regularly searching the houses, looking for DVDs and electronics, and it has been reported that people get publicly executed if they are found consuming media from the outside world. But this doesn’t seem to stop the wave of information crossing the country. People are curious, of course. Especially over there, where they’ve been cut off from the world for so long.

Over one million people listen to pirate radio today. There are one million cell phones into the country, which legally can call only within borders, but of course they get modified to be able to make foreign calls. This number is rapidly increasing.

There is much more to say about what’s going on over there, it’s fascinating and scary at the same time, but the one thing to remember is that the situation is evolving, thanks to change makers like the ones we named today.



The future will tell how the regime is going to handle the situation. Right now they are handling it with more terror, and half of the top generals have been fired by Kim Jong Un. His uncle – who after 30 years of service started advocating for reform – was removed from a Party meeting and executed one week later.

All those are signs that something is going on. All we can say in the meantime is… don’t get caught, and keep up the fight. Although I don’t think anyone listens to Green Exchange in North Korea. Except maybe the regime? Hey Kim, what’s up?


CD: I hope this doesn’t get you depressed, because it’s definitely a positive change story…

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yeah, no it’s rough, probably as difficult as it gets on this planet. Uh, on your surface I mean. I hope they are going to stop with those nuclear tests, but this is hard to say.

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Yeah, hold on, honey…you can call me anytime, right?

[Planet Earth speaks]

CD: Alright, take care…ciao.

[Phone call ends]

CD: [To Eleen] I don’t know if that was a good story choice to cheer her up?

EM: She’ll be alright. It’s just the reality of what’s going on, I’m sure she’ll appreciate knowing about it.

CD: Yeah I guess so…

EM: …You can always send her a couple of sweet emojis, she’d love it!

CD: Eleen! Are you done? 

EM: [Laughs]



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