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

This paper excerpt is a follow-up to a previous posting examining the accuracy and timeliness of disease outbreaks in North Korea, outbreaks reported by North Korean defectors living in the South.  The previous posting examined the reliability of defector reporting using Chinese cellphones along the North’s border with China – where the signal from Chinese cellphone towers bleeds a few miles into the North. This posting looks at defector reporting of the North’s late 2009 currency reform that used satellite phones to make the initial reports.  Satellite phones, just like Chinese cellphones, are illegal in North Korea and using them to report on conditions inside the North to a foreign audience would likely result in the caller being jailed,  or worse.

This case study, and one arguably more important to those monitoring North Korean economics and stability, examines the North’s late-2009 currency reform. On 30 November 2009, South Korean media first reported[1] that a currency reform was taking place in North Korea, with a Reuters report[2] the following day taking the story international. The source for both stories was a series of five website postings[3] on the currency reform by the defector website DailyNK. Between 5:06pm and 6:46pm that day, starting with two postings by a correspondent located in China, then concluding with three postings by reporters in the South, DailyNK announced that multiple sources inside the North confirmed a currency reform had started that morning at 11am in Pyongyang. Thus, within six hours of the start of the reform in North Korea, the information had leaked out and was making headlines in South Korea.

The currency reforms were confirmed by a pro-North organization of Koreans in Japan (that often serves as an international press outlet for Pyongyang) on 4 December.[4] The South Korean Ministry of Unification also declared on 4 December that it believed the currency reform had occurred.[5] In the days following the initial report of the reform, the defector organizations, both DailyNK and Goodfriends, continued to provide details on the reforms from inside the North. However, no information on the reform has emerged that predates the DailyNK’s initial reporting.

Including the previously examined case of swine flu reporting, the currency reform offers a second proof-of-concept for the defector reporting networks. This time DailyNK provided the initial reporting of the event, followed five days later by confirmations from a North Korean mouthpiece and the South Korean government. The binary nature of this event – it happened, or it didn’t; either the defector sources were the first to report it, or they weren’t, again demonstrates the accuracy and timeliness of the defector reporting.

The success demonstrated here with the currency reform, combined with the success shown previously in the case of swine flu, highlights the capabilities and possible rewards of harnessing the defector networks to gather timely, accurate information from inside North Korea. An additional critical point about the reporting on the currency reform is that the initial reports all came in by satellite phone. The information was apparently judged important enough to employ this, much more expensive, reporting option, raising the question of what increased funding for the defector organizations might mean for future reporting.

Overall, of the cases examined here and in the previous posting, the defector organizations verifiably succeeded in two cases: swine flu and the currency reform. This success provides an intriguing proof of concept for the ability of the defector organizations to effectively report accurate, timely information from inside North Korea. In the case of the currency reform, which affected nearly everyone in the North, the availability of information would seem higher than in the other cases, perhaps a contributor to the success of this test case. The entry of a new strain of influenza, however, would seem somewhat esoteric and may provide a more interesting example of the defectors’ ability to collect less conventional information from inside the North.


[1] Cho Moo-hwan. “North Korea Undertakes First Currency Reform in 17 Years … Confirmation Pending”. SBS, 30 November 2009. <>. Accessed 11 February 2011. Translation by author. Also: “North Korea Undertakes Currency Reform … 100 to 1 Ratio”. YTN, 30 November 2009. <>. Accessed 12 June 2011. Translation by author. Also: “North Korea Undertakes Currency Reform”. MBC News, 30 November 2009. <> Accessed 12 June, 2011. Translation by author.

[2] “World Business Briefing | Asia; North Korea: Currency is Reconfigured”. New York Times, 1 December 2009. <> Accessed 12 June 2011.

[3] Jeong Gwan-ho, “North Suddenly Launches First Currency Reform in 17 Years”. DailyNK, 30 November 2009. <>. Accessed 12 June, 2011. Translation by author. Also: <>, <>, <>, <>. All last accessed 11 February 2011.

[4] “Formal Confirmation of North’s Currency Reform”. Hankyung, 4 December 2009. <>. Accessed 11 February 2011. Translation by author.

[5] Cho Jun-hyoung, “Unification Ministry: North’s Currency Reform Judged Factual”. Daum, 4 December 2009. <>. Accessed 11 February 2011. Translation by author.

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