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Two US journalists working for Current TV are detained in Pyongyang while reporting on the plight of North Korean women on the border with China. The two women are facing up to 10 years forced labour for “hostile activities”. Thousands of North Koreans have been detained for listening to a foreign radio station, making phone calls abroad or publicly questioning the sole political party.
The security forces, particularly state security, are responsible for maintaining the country’s isolation at all costs. For several years there has been a rise in the number of those executed for having communicated with someone abroad. Kim Sung Chul has been held in custody since October 2006 after sending film abroad of a public execution. A North Korean TV journalist, Song Keum Chul, has reportedly been held in a camp since 1996 for challenging the official version of certain historical events.
North Korea is one of the hardest countries for the foreign media to cover. The authorities do grant press visas for cultural or sporting events or during the visits of foreign leaders but once there, reporters are closely watched by officials who take good care to prevent them talking to the people. Entire regions of the country are totally closed off to the international press.
It is also very difficult for the foreign press to freely report in the Chinese border provinces, where investigations into the plight of refugees and border smuggling are highly risky. “Chinese police raids and the presence of lots of infiltrated North Korean agents makes working on the border very complicated”, said one journalist working for an independent North Korean radio station based in Seoul in neighbouring South Korea.
North Korean media were silent about the stroke suffered by Kim Jong-il in 2008. But in April 2009, the day after the launch of a rocket, state media put out footage of jubilant crowds vaunting the glory of the space programme, and of course, the key role played by Kim Jong-il. No media was able to report the fact that the satellite that should have been launched by the rocket was not in fact put into orbit.
Kim Jong-il has direct control over the North Korean press, including The Workers Newspaper, the Korean Central News Agency and national television JoongAng Bang Song. Each journalist is indoctrinated so as to be able bear witness, without any mistakes, to the grandeur of the late president Kim Il-sung and his son. The press also has the duty of demonstrating the superiority of North Korean socialism over “bourgeois and imperialist corruption”. A typing error can prove an expensive mistake: several North Korean journalists have been sent to “revolutionisation” camps for a simple spelling mistake.
Independent North Korean radio stations, set up in South Korea and supported by Reporters Without Borders, put out programmes on human rights to counter the mind-numbing propaganda of the media in the North. Despite police checks on radios - each set is sealed so that it can only be tuned to the frequencies of official radios - a growing number of unrestricted radios are entering via the Chinese border.
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