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Going undercover in North Korea

North Korean children (image: Asia Press)

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

In the Chinese city of Yanji, just a few kilometres from the North Korean border, one of the most risky journalistic endeavours ever undertaken is taking shape.

A North Korean citizen is being trained in the techniques of using a hidden camera.

His identity is a closely guarded secret, so he chooses to use the name Lee Jun.

Mr Lee is one of a group of citizen journalists that has begun working inside North Korea, producing written reports and video footage which are then smuggled to the outside world.

He has crossed the border on numerous occasions, bringing hours of material showing everyday life in the street, on trains, even in police stations.

His images, caught on a camera concealed inside his bag, give a rarely seen glimpse of one of the world's most closed societies.

Magazine editor Choi Jin I
We can compare reports to make sure we are as factually correct as possible to really reflect the authentic North Korea
Choi Jin I

Much of North Korean life is here - thriving black markets doing a brisk trade, bustling street-side restaurants, and stalls with a remarkable variety of fruit and fish.

But there are signs of poverty and hunger too - barefoot children wandering in puddle-filled streets, ragged boys scrounging for food, a family collecting plastic bottles on waste ground.

And glimpses of control - in one scene an official clears the street of women hawkers operating without permission.

During one of Mr Lee's recent trips across the border to China he recorded a short interview with Asia Press, the Japan-based journalists' organisation co-ordinating the project.

"I just want to show the natural lives of the people," he says.

"I may be just one individual, but if I can become a spark I can achieve my goal.

"Some people in North Korea may say I'm a traitor, but I'm confident in what I'm doing, standing alone for democracy."

Threat of prison

The risks being taken by Lee Jun and his nine fellow citizen journalists are huge.

There are reports that North Korea executed a state official last year for making phone calls abroad without government permission.

North Korea map

The state runs and ruthlessly controls all forms of media - television news bulletins begin with assembled military ranks singing a tribute to the leader Kim Jong-il.

Being caught producing independent journalism and sending it abroad would at the very least mean a spell in prison.

Their work eventually ends up in a small apartment in the South Korean capital Seoul where the articles are edited by Choi Jin I, a North Korean defector.

Single frame images are selected from the video footage and the material is published in a magazine, Rimjingang, published every two months.

"We sometimes ask our reporters to look at similar subjects," Mrs Choi tells me.

"Then we can compare reports to make sure we are as factually correct as possible to really reflect the authentic North Korea."

Tiny step

The first edition contains an apology from one of the reporters active in the North Korean border area.

"We admit that our writings will be clumsy and our pictures will not be beautiful," says Ryu Kyung Won, also using an alias.

North Koreans carrying luggage (image: Asia Press)
The magazine will be published in both Japanese and English

"This is attributed to the fact that we are common people who did not have the opportunities to engage in professional training."

But it is a brave effort nonetheless. The reporting has included the recounting of a conversation with a North Korean soldier who predicts that his country's army will collapse.

For decades South Koreans have had little or no information about life on the other side of the border.

This is their first chance to read genuine testimony from independent journalists working inside North Korea.

In the coming weeks the plan is to produce regular editions in both English and Japanese so that the information, gathered at enormous personal risk, can reach a wider audience.

The secretive, communist state remains cloaked in censorship. It may be a tiny step, but for once, North Koreans are telling their own story.

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