The Black Hole of North Korea

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

North Korea might be struggling with an unprecedented crystal meth epidemic. Reporting a story on the drug trade between North Korea and China, I spoke with dozens of sources: defectors, academics, policemen and even one North Korean crystal meth dealer, and I heard estimates that anywhere from zero to 50 percent of the population have tried the drug.

I painted a picture of the drug’s abuse for my article: part escape from the desolation of North Korean life, part medicine in a country with practically no healthcare infrastructure. Yet after months of research I have to admit that I have no idea what is actually happening inside North Korea.

Reporting on North Korea, the world’s most opaque nation, is by definition conjecture. The country might be facing another famine, or it might be trying to weaken international support for U.N. sanctions by manufacturing glimpses of starvation. Kim Jong Il might be trying to transfer power to his son, or preparing to share it with his brother-in-law.

One Japanese professor believes Kim Jong Il died eight years ago and has been replaced by a body double.

North Koreans might watch South Korean DVDs and brim with rebellious hatred for their leader, or love him like the sun.

“Anyone who tells you that they know anything for certain about North Korea is either trying to kid you or trying to kid themselves,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a longtime North Korea watcher.

Why is North Korea an information black hole?

Few North Koreans communicate with the outside world. Because even mild criticism of the state could lead to imprisonment or death, those people who do talk express themselves through utopia-tinted glasses.

The approximately 20,000 defectors living in South Korea are valuable sources, but North Koreans themselves are kept in the dark about their own country. There seems to be no independent media, news travels sluggishly from one city to another, and the apparent level of secrecy and paranoia is stupefying: Pyongyang bureaucrats have said they do not know what organizations occupy the offices surrounding them.

With few exceptions foreigners cannot travel independently through North Korea. In most cases, the ones who can enter the country are not even allowed to explore the streets of Pyongyang. Reporting on sensitive subjects muddies the picture further.

I have no idea how many of my U.S. college classmates tried crystal meth, and I spent four years among them in one of the most open societies in the world. So how to judge when a North Korean, recently escaped from that dictatorship of silence, tells me she estimates that 1 out of 10 of her compatriots have consumed a drug, the possession of which might get them killed?

The Associated Press recently announced it will be opening a bureau in North Korea; half a dozen independent news stations in Northeast Asia staffed in part by North Koreans smuggle information in and out of the country. One of them, the Japan-based newspaper Rimjin-gang, released a video in late June showing a malnourished soldier saying, “Within my troop of 100 comrades, half of them are malnourished.”

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which published the video, claimed, “It’s clear that the all-powerful army — once quarantined from food shortages and famine — is starting to go hungry,” and The Atlantic’s Web site concluded, “North Korea is nearing a hunger epidemic.”

Yet this only means that one unidentified soldier said half of his unit is malnourished; there is no information on whether he belongs to a remote, second-rate unit operating in the countryside or an elite team coming from Pyongyang. Filming someone in a soldier’s uniform in Appalachia does not allow for sweeping conclusions about the strength of the U.S. Army.

Locked in a Stalinist time warp, and with the potential to plunge Asia into war, insight into any aspect of life in North Korea is valuable. While it’s too early to say how much deeper the AP will be able to probe, I’m skeptical: Their reporter recently wrote a story about the country “on the cusp of change,” the same position that countless commentators and observers have found the D.P.R.K. tottering on for the past two decades.

The solution is not to limit coverage but to communicate to readers the speculation inherent in reporting on North Korea.

My favorite story is from a defector who said that when Kim Jong Il discovered the crystal meth problem in his country in 2003, he decided to blame chemists in Hamheung, the country’s second largest city. Originally, he planned to send them to villages and camps in the North, remote areas seemingly riddled with starvation. But because doing so would destroy the field of chemistry, Kim forgave them. He decided crystal meth would be called a “strong antibiotic.” The drug flourished.