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Dateline Pyongyang

The AP's problematic North Korea bureau

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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In February, North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test since 2006. The test, performed in defiance of scores of United Nations sanctions, outraged the international community. Within weeks, the U.N. had leveled more sanctions on the rogue regime, beefing up inspections of North Korean cargo, banning luxury exports to the impoverished nation’s appallingly self-indulgent ruling coterie, requiring countries to freeze all financial transactions that might somehow aid the North Korean nuclear program, and barring the transport of bulk cash into the country.

Instagram, North Korea

A shot from Lee's photojournal at

Kim Jong-un’s government, predictably, was enraged, threatening to launch a nuclear attack on the United States and to turn nearby Seoul into a sea of fire. But it wasn’t only the North Korean regime that warned against the sanctions. On March 8, the day after the U.N. penalties were levied, one venerable news agency ran a strange story under the headline, “UN Sanctions May Play Into North Korean Propaganda.”

Datelined Seoul, with reporting contributed from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and Beijing, the story informed its readers that sanctions “may have .  .  . bolstered the Kim family by giving their propaganda maestros ammunition to whip up anti-U.S. sentiment and direct attention away from government failures.” Quoting liberally from several prominent advocates of “engagement” with Pyongyang (or various apologists for the North Korean government, depending on whom you ask), the piece sought to build a case that, as the headline suggested, sanctions serve to strengthen Kim’s regime by providing it with fodder for propaganda. “[The new sanctions] may .  .  . play into Kim Jong Un’s hands,” the article concluded.

Of course, that thesis is nonsense: The North Korean propaganda apparatus is utterly untethered from the real world, and it’s going to serve up bellicose, hypernationalistic, and anti-U.S. rhetoric irrespective of whether a few new sanctions are imposed. The turgid article wouldn’t have been notable if it had been produced by some misinformed blogger; shoddy analysis of North Korea is a staple of English-language opinion journalism. But this story was published by none other than the Associated Press, one of the world’s most respected news organizations, which supplies news to thousands of newspapers and radio stations worldwide, and reported in its patented voice-of-God, “just the facts, ma’am” style.


The Associated Press is one of the most storied names in news. Based in New York, it’s a nonprofit cooperative co-owned by some 1,400 U.S. newspapers. It employs roughly 3,700 people in 300 locations across the globe, who file frequent, fact-based stories and occasional analysis. Founded in 1846, the AP claims that half of the world’s population sees one of its stories on any given day. The winner of 50 Pulitzers (one as recently as 2012), the AP states that it’s “deeply committed to fair, objective and independent journalism.”

The news agency has an interesting relationship with North Korea. In January 2012, it opened a bureau in Pyongyang, becoming the first “full-time international news organization with a full-time presence [in North Korea],” as the AP itself reported. The North Korean desk is supervised by Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee and chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder.

The AP’s Pyongyang operations are unlike those at any of its other bureaus—unsurprising, given that North Korea ranks 178th out of 179 countries for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders (Eritrea is 179th, if you were wondering). For one, neither Lee nor Guttenfelder, the titular heads of the office, lives in North Korea. Instead, they only travel there when the regime permits it. What’s more, the bureau’s full-time staff comprises two North Korean “journalists,” one of whom reportedly got his start working at KCNA, the infamous North Korean propaganda service and official voice of the North Korean government and the Korean Workers’ party. (Sample KCNA lede from a story dated March 28, 2013: “Pyongyang, March 28 (KCNA)—The army and people of the DPRK are trembling with towering anger at the U.S. and the south Korean military hooligans who dare insult the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and go desperate in their moves for confrontation and war.”) Andrei Lankov, a well-known North Korea expert (and author of the forthcoming The Real North Korea), pegs the odds at 99 percent that “they come from the secret police or intelligence services,” according to an article in Foreign Policy.

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