SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea, one of the world’s most impenetrable nations, is facing a new threat: networks of its own citizens feeding information about life there to South Korea and its Western allies.
The networks are the creation of a handful of North Korean defectors and South Korean human rights activists using cellphones to pierce North Korea’s near-total news blackout. To build the networks, recruiters slip into China to woo the few North Koreans allowed to travel there, provide cellphones to smuggle across the border, then post informers’ phoned and texted reports on Web sites.
The work is risky. Recruiters spend months identifying and coaxing potential informants, all the while evading agents from the North and the Chinese police bent on stopping their work. The North Koreans face even greater danger; exposure could lead to imprisonment — or death.
The result has been a news free-for-all, a jumble of sometimes confirmed but often contradictory reports. Some have been important; the Web sites were the first to report the outrage among North Koreans over a drastic currency revaluation late last year. Other articles have been more prosaic, covering topics like whether North Koreans keep pets and their complaints about the price of rice.
But the fact that such news is leaking out at all is something of a revolution for a brutally efficient gulag state that has forcibly cloistered its people for decades even as other closed societies have reluctantly accepted at least some of the intrusions of a more wired world. “In an information vacuum like North Korea, any additional tidbits — even in the swamp of rumors — is helpful,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has chronicled the country’s economic and population woes for decades.
“You didn’t used to be able to get that kind of information,” he said of the reports on the currency crisis. “It was fascinating to see the pushback from the lower levels” of North Korean society.
Taken together, the now-steady leak of “heard-in-Korea” news is factoring into ever swirling intelligence debates about whether there is a possibility of government collapse, something every American president since Harry S. Truman has wished for, and none have witnessed.
The news the informants are spiriting out is not likely to answer the questions about the North’s nuclear program or leadership succession that the United States cares about most. There is no evidence so far that these new sources have any access, or particular insight, into the North Korean leadership or military elite.
The informers themselves remain of limited use to American and South Korean spymasters, in part because the North has no broad cellphone network, making it easier for the authorities to eavesdrop on calls and harder for handlers to direct operatives in real time.
As one senior American intelligence official put it, “You’re not going to find the North Korean uranium project from these guys.” So the traditional methods of intelligence collection — using satellite imagery, phone and computer intercepts, and informants and agents of South Korea’s intelligence service — remain the main sources of information.
Still, the Web sites appear to have inflicted damage. North Korea’s spy agencies, which almost never admit to weaknesses, recently warned that South Korea’s “plot to overthrow our system, employing all manners and means of spying, is spreading from the periphery of our territory and deeply inland.” They vowed retaliation, especially against “human trash,” an apparent reference to the North Koreans who have betrayed their leaders’ code of silence out of principle or for pay to supplement their usually meager wages.
The informers’ networks are part of broader changes in intelligence gathering rooted in the North’s weaknesses. The first breakthrough came in the 1990s, when famine stoked by a breakdown in the socialist rationing system drove defectors out of the country and into the arms of South Korean and American intelligence agencies. The famine also led North Korea to allow traders to cross the border into China to bring home food, leaving them vulnerable to foreign agents, the news media and, most recently, the defectors and activists intent on forcing change in the North.
The first of their Web sites opened five years ago; there are now five. At least three of the sites receive some financing from the United States Congress through the National Endowment for Democracy.
The Web reports have been especially eye-opening for South Koreans, providing a rare glimpse of the aptly named Hermit Kingdom untainted by their own government’s biases, whether the anti-Communists who present the North in the worst light or liberals who gloss over bad news for fear of jeopardizing chances at détente.
“I take pride in my work,” said Mun Seong-hwi, a defector turned Web journalist with the site Daily NK, who works with the informers and uses an alias to protect relatives he left behind. “I help the outside world see North Korea as it is.”
Even in the days of the Iron Curtain, North Korea was one of the world’s most closed societies. There were few Western embassies where spies could pose as diplomats. And with citizens deputized to watch one another for suspicious activities, strangers could not escape notice for long.
Of the 8,400 agents South Korea sent over the border between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and 1994, just 2,200, or about 1 in 4, made it home. Some defected, according to former agents, but many were killed.
As recently as 2008, when the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly had a stroke, it was long-distance sleuthing rather than on-the-ground spying that broke the news. South Korean agents intercepted a government e-mail message containing his brain scans, according to the Monthly Chosun magazine.
The Web sites have not uncovered news that delicate, although the implications of their reports on the currency crisis, later confirmed by South Korean government officials, were far-reaching. They said that the North was requiring people to exchange old banknotes for new ones at a rate of 100 to 1, as well as limiting the amount of old money that could be swapped. That suggested that officials in the North were cracking down on the few glimmers of private enterprise that they had tolerated, dashing hopes that the country might follow China’s lead of at least opening its economy anytime soon.
Still, the Web sites are plagued with challenges. The cellphones work on China’s cellular networks, so they operate only within several miles of the Chinese border. Because North Koreans cannot travel freely in their country, the Web sites are forced to depend mostly on people who live near China.
Beyond that, Ha Tae-keung, who runs one of the Web sites, says that some sources are prone to exaggerate, possibly in the hopes of earning the bonuses he offers for scoops. He and other Web site operators, meanwhile, are vulnerable to “information brokers” in the North who sell fake news.
But Mr. Ha said that the quality of the information was improving as Web sites hired more defectors who left government jobs and remained in touch with former colleagues, often by cellphone. “These officials provide news because they feel uncertain about the future of their regime and want to have a link with the outside world,” he said, “or because of their friendship with the defectors working for us, or because of money.”
While such contacts would have been unimaginable 20 years ago, one thing has not changed: the danger.
Mr. Mun of Daily NK says his informers engage in a constant game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The North Korean government can monitor cellphone calls, but tracing them is harder, so the police rove the countryside in jeeps equipped with tracking devices.
The informants call him once a week; they never give their names, and they hide the phones far from their homes.
Despite those precautions, they are sometimes caught. This month, Mr. Ha’s Web site reported that an arms factory worker was found with a cellphone and confessed to feeding information to South Korea. A source said the informant was publicly executed by firing squad.
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