A book named Rimjin-gang–News from Inside North Korea just became available. It’s a compilation of years of reporting by a group of about 12 North Koreans using video and still cameras to record everyday life in North Korea. The title comes from the Rimjin River (Imjin in English), which forms part of the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. Japanese and Korean readers have been able to read the Rimjin-gang magazine since 2007.
I heard Ishimaru speak in October at New York University, and his stories about how the material makes its way out of North Korea were almost as fascinating as the videos and stills he showed. Surprisingly, video and still cameras are not illegal in North Korea, and can be used openly at times. Sometimes the reporters conceal their cameras in bags or luggage. Ishimaru explained that the material is smuggled out of the country on USBs or burned to video discs and then concealed in regular shipments of bootleg DVDs flowing both ways across the very porous border with China. The favorite material in North Korea are the historical dramas produced in the south, which are widely watched everywhere in Asia.
The material is fascinating. There is a video of a woman berating a police officer for asking for a bribe so she could get onto a truck transporting people to a market; stills of prisoners in a “labor training” camp marching off to a job site, some with tools slung over their shoulders; and interviews with local people explaining how they manage to survive in the country’s emerging black market, which is sporadically but increasingly tolerated by the government in the face of the failure of its own economic programs.
Ishimaru explained that the people doing the recording and photography are untrained, and that his goal is to increase their level of professionalism and to cautiously find others who want to join the team. For their own safety, the identities of the North Koreans are not know to each other–to protect them if they should fall into the hands of the police.
One caveat: The English-language, 500-page Rimjin-gang costs $120 with shipping from Japan. Ishimaru says he’s trying to get Amazon to carry it, but for now you have to go through the Asia Press website.