Paper Excerpt: Case Study on Using North Korean Defector-run Networks to Monitor Conditions Inside North Korea

UPDATE (26 June): Part II of this excerpt can be found here.

Excerpts from a paper on the effectiveness of monitoring conditions inside North Korea by using Chinese cellphone-based networks operated by North Korean defectors in the South.

Long thought of as the world’s most isolated nation, with little information flowing to outsiders on conditions inside the country, North Korea may finally be getting pried open at the hands of defectors armed with Chinese cellphones. The flow of information has become so impressive that Sisa Journal, the South’s leading newsmagazine, declared the day of near real-time reporting of events in North Korea had finally dawned.

The system[2] works by having someone with contacts in the North, usually a recent defector now based in the South, send a smuggled cellphone to family members or friends still living in the North. The contact inside the North then builds a network of connections, starting with friends and family members, but eventually growing to include members of the North’s government and military – additions to the network that are facilitated by outside cash in exchange for inside information. The networks are kept limited and divided into small cells to help avoid infiltration and minimize risks to the entire network should an informant get caught by Chinese or North Korean security services.

While more information may be getting out of the North, how accurate is it? How timely? The ability of the defector networks to successfully collect accurate, timely information from inside North Korea will be tested below by three case studies, all involving disease morbidity. The advantage of using disease outbreaks to test defector reporting is that they provide some of the few instances where the defector’s information can be independently verified, since North Korea, as a member of the United Nations, has also chosen to be a member of the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Organisation for Animal Health (commonly referred to by its French acronym, OIE). All of these organizations are viewed as internationally accepted arbiters of the existence and severity of disease outbreaks, as this paper will view them.

The case studies will use defector reporting from three well-known North Korean defector-run websites: DailyNK, Goodfriends, and Free North Korea Radio[3]. This is by no means an exhaustive list of defector organizations or websites – future researchers will be able to find plenty of others. The goal of this research is not to compile a definitive list or examine all relevant defector-run websites. Instead, the goal is to examine the output of the three major sites to measure their ability to collect timely, accurate information from inside North Korea. These three organizations were selected for research based on their comparatively frequent website updates and breadth of information, not as part of a value judgment on their relative merits compared to similar websites.

Swine flu provides the clearest evidence of the ability of the defector networks to monitor disease outbreaks in the North. While the disease arrived in South Korea in April 2009 (confirmed by the WHO on 2 May[4]), and much of the rest of the world over the following spring and summer, there were no reports of it in North Korea until 3 December, when Goodfriends, one of the North Korean defector organizations, issued a report of an outbreak in the North Korean city of Sinuiju[5]. Goodfriends followed the initial report with a series of reports on 7 December containing additional information: the first case of the disease in the North had been in Sinuiju in early November, that the disease was spreading nationwide and had reached Pyongyang, that deaths had been reported, that the most severely affected were the young (under age 23), and that in response to the outbreak, the North Korean government had ordered schools closed nationwide, blocked road and rail connections to the city of Sinuiju, and closed the Sinuiju border crossing with China[6].

It wasn’t until 9 December, six days after Goodfriends’ initial report and two days after its more-detailed follow-up reporting, that the North officially declared it had the disease, in an announcement by the Korea Central News Agency[7] (the North Korean government’s official news agency) and in a report to the World Health Organisation[8]. The KCNA announcement reported outbreaks in Sinuiju and Pyongyang, plus other areas of the country, that quarantine measures had been put into place (the Korean term used could indicate quarantine for individuals and/or geographic areas), and that all schools in the country had been ordered to begin their winter vacations early, on 7 December. A later North Korean report to the WHO stated that all those infected with the disease were children ranging in age from 11 to 14 years[9].

The accuracy of the defector reporting is striking. It correctly identified the existence of the outbreak, the locations of the outbreak, the general age of the victims, the school closure response, and, depending on the unclear meaning of the North Korean reporting and use of the term quarantine, may have correctly identified the border closure and/or the sealing off of transportation links to the city of Sinuiju.

While it is hard to establish a causal relationship between the defector reporting and the North’s decision to confirm the outbreak to the WHO, it is clear that the defector network made the first, accurate, open-source announcement of the swine flu pandemic reaching North Korea. This case provides the clearest proof of concept for the effectiveness, reliability, and trustworthiness of the defector collection networks.

The cases for tuberculosis and malaria are less clear. Both diseases exist throughout the Korean peninsula, with South Korea reporting the highest prevalence of TB in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)[10], thereby making the type of binary clarity (it exists or doesn’t exist) achieved in the swine flu example more difficult to achieve. The timing with the swine flu case was also beneficial – it started in late 2009, when the defector networks were up and running.

For tuberculosis, only three reports specifically mentioning TB in the North were found in the 2008-2010 period under investigation. An 18 February 2010 report said that, as of 22 January, there were 47,000 cases of the disease nationwide in the North, with more awaiting diagnosis, and deaths in the country were rising due to a combination of food shortages, influenza, and tuberculosis[11]. A report from 3 November 2010 had 9-10 people dying from the disease everyday in the city of Hamhung and stated that “drug-resistant” forms (XDR TB or MDR TB not specified) of the disease had become a worse problem than general TB, due to shortages of food and medicine[12].

The most interesting report, and the only one not from Goodfriends, was an article published by DailyNK on 20 April 2009 that reported “high levels” of tuberculosis (in addition to hepatitis) at the military unit in charge of guarding North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility[13]. According to the article, the tuberculosis ward at the local hospital, “is always filled to capacity,” which has led to the evacuation of “countless” soldiers to a different, tuberculosis-focused hospital for treatment.

While the defectors’ TB reports are interesting, and provide a glimpse inside the North, using them to reliably monitor disease morbidity and public health in the North is problematic. The reports offer little geographic dispersion, few hard numbers, and no method for verification. At best, the TB reports from the North can be used for a general understanding of the existence and severity of the disease in the North, but WHO verification is required before the reporting can be called definitive.

The case for malaria is even less useful, with zero defector reports on the disease in the North in 2008, 2009, or 2010. During this time period, reporting would have been especially useful to determine the effect, on the North Korean side of the border, of the suspension of malaria aid from the South.

This brief examination of defector-based disease reporting shows that defector networks, as shown by Goodfriends’ reporting on the North’s swine flu outbreak, can be an accurate, effective, and timely method for acquiring information from inside the North. The cases of TB and malaria show, however, that the scope of defector reporting can be limited and difficult to verify. While these case studies provide an interesting proof of concept of the usefulness of defector reporting from inside North Korea, the ‘black hole’ of intelligence collection, further research is needed to determine the overall capabilities and accuracy of the networks.


[1] Jeong Rak-in. “There is no DMZ blocking cellphones”. Sisa Journal, 16 February 2011. <>. Accessed 23 February 2011. Translation by author.

[2] Various sources describe the defector networks, with the best description coming from a recent series of articles on the cellphone-based collection systems by Sisa Journal, a leading South Korean weekly newsmagazine. The two articles cited here are: Jeong Rak-in. “There is no DMZ blocking cellphones”. Sisa Journal, 16 February 2011. <>. Accessed 23 February 2011. Translation by author. And Jeong Rak-in. “Defector Broker: Managing 200 People”. Sisa Journal, 16 February 2011. <>. Accessed 23 February 2011. Translation by author.

[3] The websites for the organizations are:,, and

[4] World Health Organisation, “Influenza A(H1N1) – update 9”, 2 May 2009. <>. Accessed 12 December, 2010.

[5] “Swine Flu in Sinuiju”, Good Friends, 3 December, 2009. Translation by author. <>. Accessed 13 December, 2010.

[6] Good Friends, 7 December, 2009. Translation by author. Series of bulletin board website postings:,,,, All last accessed on 13 December 2010.

[7] Kang Rhee-ruk, “Monotoring of Swine Flu Strengthened, School, Kindergarten Winter Vacations Started 7 December” and “Swine Flu Outbreaks in Sinuiju and Pyonyang, Quarantine Measures Strengthened”, The Choson Sinbo, 9 December, 2009. Translation by author. <> and <>. Accessed 13 December, 2010.

[8] “Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 – update 78”. World Health Organization, 11 December 2009. <>. Accessed 12 December 2010.

[9] Chang, Tony. “N. Korean H1N1 patients all children, receiving treatment: WHO ”, Yonhap News, 10 December, 2009. <>. Accessed 13 December 2010.

[10] Jang Eunju, “Research in Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis Treatment Intensifies”, Medical Today, 16 November, 2010. Translation by author. <>. Accessed 13 December 2010.

[11] Good Friends, 18 February, 2010, Translation by author. <>. Accessed 13 December 2010.

[12] Good Friends, 3 November, 2010, Translation by author. <>. Accessed 13 December 2010.

[13] Yoo Gwan Hee. “Can Foreign Special Forces Penetrate Yongbyon?” Daily NK, 20 April, 2009. <>. Accessed 13 December 2010.

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