As a nine-year-old child in North Korea, Chol-Hwan Kang was sent with his family to a concentration camp after his grandfather was accused of treason.

The next 10 years were a constant struggle to stay alive. He ate rats to survive. He watched friends die from exhaustion and hunger.

Kang attributes his escape to South Korea – after hiding in China for half a year – to a “miracle”.

Today, Kang, 43, is a reporter with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper in Seoul, and one of the few reporters to know North Korea as both outsider and insider.

“North Korea is a closed society,” he said at a panel on covering North Korea at the International Press Institute’s 2011 World Congress in Taipei, Taiwan. “It is very difficult to find out what is actually going on there.”

Foreign reporters who gain permission to visit are accompanied constantly by government minders. Without permission to travel independently, it’s almost impossible to discern what is real, and what is staged.

This difficulty in verifying even basic facts became evident at Sunday’s IPI discussion on North Korea, where each panellist had a different take on a recent event: North Korea’s decision in June to disband university classes across the country.

Jeremy Laurence, chief Korea political and general news correspondent for Reuters, said he was told that the students were conscripted to complete housing construction, which had been promised by Kim Jong-Il but was badly behind schedule.

Kang heard a very different story from his sources, mainly defectors from North Korea. They told him that anti-government graffiti at a university stoked fears of ‘Jasmine’-esque protests, so schools were disbanded until next year.

AP Vice President John Daniszewski added that on a recent trip to Pyongyang he was taken to tour a university campus that appeared to be operating as normal.

The three differing accounts from three veteran journalists revealed how information from North Korea is often tangential and unverifiable.

Although the country’s constitution includes freedom of speech and of the press, in reality all media is controlled by the state. Few North Koreans can access the Internet. The country has bottomed out Freedom House’s list of repressive countries for 40 years.

However, the door may be creaking open – just a bit. Daniszewski said more foreign journalists have been allowed in recently.

“What they are perhaps hoping for is that people will see the country, not as interpreted from a U.S. point of view, or a Chinese point of view, or a Japanese point of view,” he said.

The slight thaw toward foreign press is part of how AP was able to gain approval for a Pyongyang text and photo bureau this summer – a first for a Western news company.

As for Kang, he continues to report on North Korea from Seoul, relying on the steady stream of defectors as sources. The memories from his concentration camp days remain deep scars, spurring him on in his reporting today. He urged other journalists to look at North Korea.

“The most important thing right now is the crimes against humanity,” Kang
said. “If we are letting this go on, then 50 years, 20 years down the road,
we will all regret this.”