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NK News founder Chad O’Carroll once received a death threat. However it had nothing do with his current professional focus – a country whose intelligence operatives certainly undertake assassinations.
The threat came during a previous life – when, as a DJ in the seaside city of Brighton, in southern England, he strayed onto the turf of a notorious local competitor.
“You would have to put posters up with your line-up, and you would have to take other peoples’ posters down, and I got in a spot of bother with another promoter and got a death threat on my phone,” the 35-year-old Briton recalled. “A guy was going to come down with a golf club and smash me and my system up. This guy was renowned, he was one of the old guard, and I had pissed him off.”
In the event, the threat proved groundless.
That left O’Carroll free to make a subsequent career leap: He has established and runs a highly respected news media and intelligence service on North Korea from Seoul.
That is a long way off his original career plan of being a disc jockey. The Camberwell, south London native started working as a promoter at the age of 17 at the Mass Club in trendy Brixton, which offered US hip-hop and drum ‘n bass nights. He then moved on to promoting in Brighton, where he was attending university.
Having graduated with a degree in international relations in 2007, he interned at the UN in New York. By then the joys of DJ life were fading. “After six years of trying, there was a real glass ceiling,” he said. “I realized it would not work out – and in New York, they were not into that type of music.”
In New York, given the educational level of his contemporaries, O’Carroll realized he needed a masters degree – which he duly signed up for at Kings College, London, on nuclear non-proliferation. In the midst of his studies, he watched a Vice documentary on North Korea, and made a snap decision to visit. He arrived, on a tour, in 2009.
“It felt like going back in time 50 years,” he recalled. “I guess it was a game changer for me. It gave me a taste for how this could be, in the future, a really dynamic place.”
Returning to the US, he interned at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where he “fell into the blogger-intern role.” A risk analyst advised O’Carroll to do North Korean analysis professionally. That was the spark. A week later, O’Carroll set up a North Korea-focused website, aggregating reports – the genesis of NK News.
In 2013, his US visa expired – “a bit embarrassing” – and O’Carroll returned to the UK. Not wanting to “do a random job”, he met a senior journalist who encouraged him to professionalize NK News. Two investors put down some finance.
The obvious next step was a paywall. “We did surveys about potential users and got about 700 [email addresses],” O’Carroll recalled. “I thought, ‘Great! We will get loads of subscribers!’ We priced at $99 per month. On the first day we sent out emails, and got one subscriber! It was kind of gutting.”
But his previous DJ experience helped. “My job was promoting and building recognition among our target audience. I learned a lot on how to build audiences.” He persevered with the site and “started tweaking.”
The next milestone was 2014 when, he interviewed US investor Jim Rogers, who is famously upbeat on North Korea. O’Carroll suggested Rogers invest in NK News. Rogers declined, but some of his research staff assisted.
Meanwhile, O’Carroll was educating himself in Korean (in Seoul) and in journalism (at City University of New York). Relocating to Seoul for reasons of romance, the city “instantly seemed like a really great place to be working from on this beat: Lots of sources going to North Korea, lots of diplomats, lots on interest.”
Seoul shares the same time-zone as Pyongyang, and was financially more viable than the US, “which is obscene in terms of costs.” NK News now operates from a fulltime office in a high-rise block in Seoul’s central business district.
Still, there is one drawback to the location that irks O’Carroll – the lack of local respect.
“When I came here, I was thinking we would have lots of relations with think tanks and government and academia and I started doing the rounds, but found older-generation Koreans, who tend to be decision-makers, would not give me the time of day. They still do not.”
There is disbelief that a non-Korean can offer insight. “They overlook the value foreigners can bring to the table,” O’Carroll said. “We go to North Korea, they can’t, and we can talk to people in North Korea without breaking the law.”
He has discovered that most researchers are either strongly pro-engagement or anti-communist, and their work is based “around these emotional goal posts… there is less interest in data or primary source material that can quantitatively evidence their arguments.”
O’Carroll established NK News in a mediascape where outlets were dying slow deaths, and at a time when political risk analyses are increasingly being packaged, free of charge, with other services. “The trend is that general-interest media find it very hard to create value,” he said. “But trade press and specialist media are continuing to thrive, and that is where we started.”
Objectivity is a selling point. “We are mostly foreigners, [and] we do not really have any skin in the game,” he said. “I am not American, none of the senior people are. We have South Korean staff, but nobody in management. That helps us look at this is a more clear-headed way.”
Still, North Korea is a niche where companies struggle. “As the service evolved, we figured out ways to build value into the niche,” O’Carroll said. “That resulted in a growing range of opportunities with well-financed clients.”
Beyond the basic free window that is NK News, is NK Pro, a paid service with a suite of tools that offer recent or real-time intelligence. These tools include North Korean aircraft and ship-tracking services – obtained via open-source data – and weekly updates on gas prices and exchange rates (dollar and euro) from Pyongyang.
There are also graphs on what proportion of Kim Jong Un’s visits are related to economic, cultural, military or other purposes, and a database of elite figures, complete with titles and bios. NK Pro also offers information from the annual Pyongyang trade fair, including photos of booths and a list of companies, “which has value for sanctions compliance, for understanding the economy,” O’Carroll claimed. There is also a database of 3,000 North Korean companies.
Who is buying? In addition to the United Nations, subscribers to NK Pro include investment banks,
“dozens of embassies,” “lots of think tanks” and some 45 universities with Korean studies programs, O’Carroll said. He declined to cite prices, saying only, “we have a starting figure and then we go from there.”
Obviously, though, it is enough to fund 16 staffers and a network of around 20 part-time contributors. Currently, NK News is seeking a Washington correspondent.
In the news
NK News has also made the news. In late June, its Pyongyang contributor – Alek Sigley, an Australian student studying at Kim Il Sung University, who has written articles on such issues ranging from the restaurant scene in the capital to North Korean mobile apps, was detained, just before President Trump visited the DMZ. The move generated a global news storm. Following his release, aided by Swedish diplomatic efforts, North Korean state media cited Sigley’s contributions to NK News as the reason he was detained and expelled.
Pyongyang said: “Investigation revealed that at the instigation of the NK News and other anti-[North Korea] media he handed over several times the data and photos he collected and analyzed while combing Pyongyang, by making use of the identity card of a foreign student.” It claimed that Sigley “honestly admitted his spying acts.”
But O’Carroll said the spying allegations were groundless. “I am confident that if they went through his devices they would not have found anything [incriminating],” he said.
His job has also granted O’Carroll some profile – most notably, when he questioned US President Donald Trump at a press conference in Hanoi in February. That was enabled by some fast footwork. “I noticed all these journalists slowly walking, and I decided to sprint past them to get a front seat, as I knew that would help,” he said. “So I got there, stood up, waved a lot, and got a question in.”
But his career highlight so far was attending Pyongyang’s military parade in 2017: the first time North Korea had wheeled out its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). “It was very exciting to see all that hardware, but also the glimpse we got into seeing how security works around Kim Jong Un,” he said. “Seeing every resident in eye-shot being cleared, and seeing all the security with grenades and guns under their jackets – for a country where everyone ‘loves’ their leader, that was very high security!”
His most gratifying moment came when his state minder – who monitors NK News – told him that the site “used to be very bad, and is still bad” but had improved after it started including North Korean media. (As well as its own reports, NK News includes searchable, English-language feeds from North Korean state media.)
Today and tomorrow
The biggest misperception people have about North Korea is “that it is communist or that there is no capitalism there,” O’Carroll said. For example, there are at least six private taxi firms in Pyongyang, and seven TV producers nationwide. “This is evidence that the economy is growing and diversifying,” he noted.
Another issue is the increasing acceptance of South Korean trends, which were formerly taboo. “In the food and beverage sector, they have completely copied South Korean brands – soft drinks, ice creams, chips,” he said. “That means North Koreans, en masse, are aware of what South Korean products look like” – and state authorities do not seem to care.”
But politics remains frozen, and Kim seems to have a fellow traveler in Chinese President Xi Jinping. “I think, if I was Kim, I would be hoping that China continues going hardline and developing North Korea-style tendencies in surveillance and information control, I would hope China would keep going down that road and legitimizing it,” O’Carroll commented.
So what does the future hold? For NK News, O’Carroll wants an office in Pyongyang – not a hugely far fetched notion, given that Tass, Xinhua, AP and AFP maintain bureaus in the country.
And personally, O’Carroll is keeping his eye on the ball. “I don’t think I can stop before there is some kind of end to the story,” he said. “It is like a Korean drama that goes on and I think I would always be watching even if I was doing something else.”