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What led you to create 38 North?
Jenny Town of 38 North: North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities pose a serious security challenge not only to South Korea and the [United States-Republic of Korea] alliance, but to regional and global security and the broader nuclear nonproliferation regime as well. At the same time, getting accurate and timely information about developments inside the country can be a difficult task, much less trying to understand how those developments factor into [North Korea’s] strategic calculus and decision making. Moreover, because of North Korea’s unique political system and culture, its importance to the broader strategic landscape is often dismissed or diminished, its capabilities underestimated, and its longevity as a state questioned over and over despite its 70+ years of survival.
In 2010, Joel Wit and I started 38 North as platform for informed discourse about what is happening inside North Korea, how those developments may impact the country’s self-perception and strategic goals, and what that means for its relations with the United States, South Korea, and other actors working to maintain peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. Through our web-journal, we provide policy and technical analysis about developments concerning North Korea’s internal and external affairs, highlighting insights from people with deep expertise and experience on these issues, to try to better understand the severity of this global security challenge as well as to examine potential pathways for managing and/or improving the situation.
Pros and cons
What do you like most about creating digital content?
Jenny Town: Having a digital platform enables us to interface with audiences instantly and frequently. We do not necessarily have a set publication schedule, although we aim to publish a few articles every week. But we also have the flexibility to do more when the situation calls for it—at times of increased activity or urgency. Digital content also enables us to integrate when possible mutimedia tools and features. The ability to track analytics helps us understand what our audiences find interesting and useful and to adjust our offerings accordingly.
What do you dislike most about creating digital content?
Jenny Town: At the end of the day, we are still a small staff trying to keep up an operation for which there is increasing demand. Keeping up, especially during times of high activity on the Korean Peninsula, can be a huge challenge, especially since we are also engaged in projects and research beyond the website itself.
What inspires you to keep writing?
Jenny Town: North Korea, despite its poor economy, holds great geostrategic importance. While we may never achieve complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a passive approach to the problem only gives it time to grow. Furthermore, taking a “lather, rinse, and repeat” approach—simply doubling down on measures taken in the past—is not going to suddenly start to achieve different results.
Personally, my drive on this issue is to see meaningful and sustainable change in relations with North Korea and to help find ways to improve the overall security environment on the Korean Peninsula so that both Koreas can prosper. That’s obviously a tall order, and changing course will take new thinking, real leadership, and a willingness to shoulder some political risk. Facilitating the exchange of ideas and seeking new solutions to this long-standing security dilemma is something that keeps me motivated.
What are some of the challenges you face as a content creator?
Jenny Town: We are not a traditional news site. Our writers are experts providing policy and technical analysis of various developments and how they may impact policy choices in the future. Each article published, whether commissioned or unsolicited, goes through a rigorous review and editing process to ensure high—quality analysis and clear argumentation. As such, we are not always the first to publish or comment on developments as they unfold—despite the frenzied demand of 24-hour news cycles. Instead, many of our contributors provide thorough and thoughtful assessments, waiting for as much information as possible before forming their views. This facilitates serious discourse, but may not do so right when the headlines are hot, requiring an additional media engagement strategy as well.
What are some other digital platforms you follow?
Why did you decide to syndicate your content with Newstex?
Jenny Town: We saw this as a great opportunity to expand our distribution. While we have good visibility within certain defense, nuclear and regional policy communities—government, academia, military, and think tanks—this issue is one that has much broader implications, especially as the situation gets worse. Increasing the overall understanding of the situation can help inform risk assessments and opportunities across a wide range of sectors and fields.
What are the top 3 tips you can give to others wanting to develop successful digital publications?
- Identify your target audience: Just because this is a digital platform, doesn’t mean we write with everyone in mind. Identifying who our target audience is helps inform the tone, style, and functionality of our site. Consistency in these matters helps us establish a solid rapport with our target audience that others can benefit from.
- Hire the right people: Our staff makes all the difference at 38 North. This is not a typical 9-5 sort of job and priorities and plans can vary from day to day depending on how events unfold in real life. Our staff are both mission- and results-driven, able to adapt to changing deadlines and publishing schedules and willing to put in the work. I could not ask for a better team.
- Set realistic goals: The possibilities of what you can do online are endless, which can also be distracting or overwhelming. Managing growth and innovation on the site is important to make sure the bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of our core deliverables.
Where do you see 38 North in 5 years?
Jenny Town: In addition to the kind of policy and technical analysis we offer now, we plan to add new geospatial and multimedia tools and resources as well as expand our work to cover more non-traditional security threat areas such as climate change and cybersecurity.
What has been your biggest scoop so far?
Jenny Town: Since we don’t really do “news,” this is hard to say. But we have had some pieces that dominated global headlines on North Korea. One instance was back in March 2012. We had just added satellite imagery analysis to our body of work and while examining the Sohae Satellite Launching Station—at the time a new facility for satellite launches in North Korea—we found clear and early signs that North Korea was preparing a satellite launch. This included the delivery of rocket stages by train, and early signs that the launch pad was being prepared. This was one of the articles that made us known globally and helped grow our audience exponentially almost over night.
Another fun example was in April 2017. We had reported on what appeared to be signs of a potential nuclear weapons test being prepared. We knew by then that the North Koreans knew how to prepare such a test without detection, so we had to hedge about why we were seeing such activity at that time. There were, however, multiple indicators that were consistent with test preparations and a couple key North Korean political and military holidays forthcoming. However, no test took place, but instead imagery showed personnel around the site engaged in what appeared to be multiple games of volleyball. This also was a popular story globally.
How many writers do you have? How do you find them?
Jenny Town: We have featured analysis by some 50+ contributors over the years. We especially look for experts who have had direct experience working with or in North Korea, such as former negotiators, intelligence officials, NGO and humanitarian practitioners, academics, and others with some real-world experience or proven track record of deep study of the issues to help our audience try to make sense of what is taking place. Some of these people we know and actively recruit, some are recommended and some eventually find us to offer us their insights as well.
Jenny Town is a Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center and the Director of Stimson’s 38 North Program. Her expertise is in North Korea, US-DPRK relations, US-ROK alliance and Northeast Asia regional security. She was named one of Worth Magazine’s “Groundbreakers 2020: 50 Women Changing the World” and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business in 2019 for her role in co-founding and managing the 38 North website, which provides policy and technical analysis on North Korea. She holds a BA in East Asian Studies and International Relations from Westmar University and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.