(NEW YORK) — One of the most difficult places in the world to get accurate information, both for journalists and intelligence officers, is the closed and paranoid regime of North Korea. Former North Korean intelligence official Jang Jin-Seong, who defected to the South, now runs a news site with seemingly reliable information about North Korea, and it could cost him his life.
Journalists are rarely allowed into the reclusive country, and defectors often demand money for information and stories that are frequently embellished to make them more attractive and valuable to news agencies bidding on them (ABC News has a policy of not paying for news).
A new wave of so-called news websites, operated by North Korean defectors or South Koreans who are politically pro-North Korea, have sprung up around the Internet, pushing stories through portal sites that are later cited by major newspapers and television networks. Sensational stories, for example, on the late Kim Jong Il’s mistresses or exotic herbal medicines that kept him alive for years have become popular for Facebook posts and retweets on Twitter. The more shocking the story, the better chance it has to run up the chain of news outlets and end up on the evening news.
But Jang Jin-Seong’s website is unique, carrying stories on North Korea with surprisingly solid information. Jin-Seong’s stories use Google satellite images and quote North Korean officials who often travel to China.
“Our priority is credibility. We’ve made a point not to report unless we have verifiable information even if the story comes late,” said Jang Jin-Seong, 40, who runs the “New Focus” website. “We are very aware of lots of phony North Korea specialized websites out there.”
Jang escaped the North in 2004 after working in the Communist party’s intelligence agency. His job was to analyze South Korean society and come up with strategies to spread communist propaganda in the South. After defecting to the South, he worked the other way around taking a post in the National Intelligence Service analyzing the North.
He quit last year and started New Focus last February with two other defectors he describes as “former Pyongyang elites” and four South Korean reporters. Their consultants include computer specialists who are capable of hacking and a network of North Koreans “who are empathetic of North Korea’s dire situation and who believe their information to New Focus would help the plight of the poverty stricken nation’s future to a better off society,” Jang said.
Asked whether he manages to keep these North Korean officials to stay in the loop with financial compensation, he acknowledged that is necessary.
Jang’s major project, now almost complete, is to draw up a concise map of the North’s important locations using Google technology.
“We note where Kim Jong Il’s many state houses are, where their generals live, and where the party keeps confidential personnel or resources,” said Jang. For the first time, they have also completed the map of Pyongyang’s subway system, thanks to Google satellite.
Jang, though, fears for his life. One North Korean website that carries state news has called Jang “human waste,” a “pathetic clown” and “a liar,” threatening that his “revelation of our major locations in Pyongyang and elsewhere” would lead to a tragic death.
Jang’s answer: “I take that as a compliment.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN