When President Trump emerged from his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un last June and announced that North Korea had offered to dismantle one of its nuclear sites, the website 38 North used satellite imagery to confirm that deconstruction was underway at key facilities at the Sohae launching station. After Trump’s summit with the dictator in Hanoi, Vietnam, seven months later, 38 North was able to document that Kim had begun rebuilding the Sohae site. Managing editor Jenny Town, who was born in South Korea, cofounded 38 North in 2010 at Johns Hopkins with former State Department official Joel Wit to provide accurate, ideologically balanced coverage of North Korea by tapping experts who have real experience working there—former diplomats, NGO workers, businesspeople, military analysts, and foreign scholars. Now part of the nonpartisan Stimson Center and financed through foundation grants and private donors, 38 North‘s five-person staff is expanding coverage of North Korean economic activity, analyzing energy and infrastructure developments, border crossings, and ports.
Fast Company: What prompted you to start 38 North?
Jenny Town: Joel and I shared a concern about how North Korea was being talked about in policy circles and how much bad and lazy analysis there was.
FC: What are the major misconceptions you’re trying to address?
JT: One of the biggest is that there’s this monolithic experience in North Korea, that they’re this Potemkin village, all living the same life in the same conditions, and that those conditions are static. [The truth is] there’s a multiplicity of experiences, depending on where you live, who your parents are, how close to the border or Pyongyang you are, how close to the regime you are—and those experiences and social constraints have changed over time.
FC: How has interest in North Korea evolved in the Trump era?
JT: The polarization on this issue has become more pronounced. Some because of distrust or disdain of North Korea, some because of distrust or disdain of Trump.