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.
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.
Pyongyang bureau chief Jean Lee ignored multiple requests for comment on this article, but she has revealed elsewhere a bit about how she works in North Korea. It turns out that when she’s actually in North Korea, she’s about as free to move around as you would expect, given that she’s operating under the world’s most repressive regime. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, for example, Lee conceded, “There are very strict rules for foreign visitors in North Korea, which includes journalists. . . . You can’t even leave your hotel to go for a walk. There is no interacting with locals unless you’re in the presence of a North Korean.” She also reportedly revealed at a panel at Seoul’s Yonsei University that any time she wishes to leave the office to work on a story, she’s accompanied by a North Korean minder. (She’s likely accompanied by two, as are most foreigners in North Korea: one to mind the foreigner, one to mind the minder.) And she’s admitted elsewhere that her electronic communications are probably monitored as well, though she laughs that off, saying, “I basically have to lead a life where even if they were to access any of my private information, it wouldn’t be super shocking, which means I lead a very boring life.” AP vice president John Daniszewski has also acknowledged the bureau’s constraints, publicly allowing that “when we want to cover a story, we have to request interviews, request permissions to go to places either to government offices involved or KCNA, which arrange things.”
Nonetheless, Lee defends her ability to conduct quality journalism while in North Korea. She has said repeatedly that the North Korean authorities do not censor her reports—she doesn’t seem willing to admit that the limits placed on her movement and ability to talk to people are a form of censorship in themselves. In another display of either shocking disingenuousness or credulousness, she once explained that on one reporting trip, she was “accompanied by North Korean journalists, not government minders.”
Leaving aside the fact that “North Korean journalist” is an oxymoron, it’s important to note just how embroiled the AP is with the propaganda maestros at KCNA. The AP signed a memorandum of understanding with KCNA prior to opening its bureau—which has never been released to the public. (Odd that, given that the AP’s official Standards & Practices sheet states, “Transparency is critical to our credibility with the public and our subscribers.”) The AP actually shares its Pyongyang office with KCNA. What’s worse, the relationship between the AP and KCNA extends beyond mere shared real estate.
In March and April 2012, for example, the two organizations cohosted a photo exhibition in New York, dubbed “Window on North Korea.” The exhibit was held in commemoration of the 100th birthday of the late Kim Il-sung (Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, and the founder of the North Korean state, who ruled the country with untrammelled brutality for 46 years). Allegedly showing “what life is like in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (it’s good policy always to be suspicious of anyone who refers to North Korea by its official name), the exhibition featured 79 photos. According to the blogger Joshua Stanton, writing in the Wall Street Journal Asia, “all of the photographs portrayed the North Korean people as happy, well-fed and devoted subjects.” KCNA’s senior vice president even traveled to New York for the opening, saying, “It is our hope that this exhibition would give exhibition-goers visual understanding of the people, customs, culture and history of the DPRK, thereby helping to deepen mutual understanding and improve the bilateral relations.” As Stanton asked at the time, “Why would any international news service that values its reputation partner with the world’s least credible news agency to shill for the world’s most repressive regime?” (Funnily enough, the AP’s relationship with KCNA had gotten it into trouble even before it had established the Pyongyang bureau: In the summer of 2011, the AP distributed a KCNA-provided photograph, which it quickly retracted once it realized KCNA had doctored the image.)
But the AP-KCNA photo exhibit—egregious as it was—had only limited impact. How many people actually dragged themselves to such a ludicrous exhibition? Given its influence and extraordinary reach, what really matters is the news that’s coming out of the Pyongyang bureau.
One can hear the AP’s defenders already: Yes, they operate under repressive conditions, yes, they are partnered with an out-and-out propaganda shop, yes, the North Korean regime is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, but it’s all worth it because the AP gains access to important news about North Korea that it otherwise wouldn’t. Making a deal with the devil, in this telling, is worth it for the news benefits.
But are the defenders right?
Take the strange and instructive case of Pak Jong-suk. Last June, the AP reported, “In a rare news conference by a repatriated North Korean defector, a woman claimed she was tricked into defecting six years ago by South Korean agents but was welcomed by the North when she returned in May. Pak Jong Suk made the account to local and foreign reporters Thursday,” before adding the disclaimer, “The 66-year-old’s story could not be independently confirmed.” The article, which carried a Pyongyang dateline but no byline, then took a turn for the worse, simply repeating Pak’s statements from the obviously stage-managed “news conference” (“I am an ingrate who had betrayed my motherland to seek better living while others devoted themselves to building a thriving nation, tightening their belts”), before declaring that “it was not possible to immediately verify whether Pak spoke on government orders or of her own volition, but her comments are in line with how North Korea has tried to rebut recent claims by rights activists and the U.S. that it abuses repatriated defectors.” What the piece is obliquely alluding to is the extremely well-documented North Korean practice—referred to here as mere “claims”—of sending repatriated defectors to brutal labor camps. (Oh, and of course Pak spoke on government orders.) The story proceeded to treat North Korea’s well-known human rights abuses as a trifling matter of he-said, she-said, continuing, “The U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights report last month that the relatives of defectors face ‘collective punishment’ if a family member defects, and that defectors face harsh punishment if repatriated to North Korea. Pyongyang denies allegations of human rights abuses.”
That was bad enough. Then the AP’s coverage of the issue began to look even more problematic when, several months later, Chico Harlan of the Washington Post reported that Pak not only had, in fact, escaped to the South in 2006 completely of her own volition, but also had only returned to North Korea when she learned that the authorities there had forcibly removed her son and his family from their home and placed them under surveillance as punishment for her defection. South Korean government officials even revealed that the North Korean government had blackmailed Pak into returning by threatening her son’s safety. Apparently recognizing the potential for a major propaganda coup, the North Korean authorities then arranged Pak’s “news conference,” which the AP dutifully reported as straight news. Indeed, the AP was snookered precisely because it reported the story from inside North Korea; this was a clear case where being in North Korea actually hampered getting the full story.
That’s just one particularly telling example, but there are several recurring problems with the Pyongyang bureau’s news coverage. One hilarious—or least tragicomic—practice is the bureau’s habit of duly recounting “man in the street” interviews with ostensibly ordinary North Koreans. The idea is laughable in itself; in no country on earth are citizens more fearful of speaking freely. (Traditionally, not only have North Koreans accused of thought crimes been sent to the gulag, but three generations of their families have been, too.) So the quotations are of minimal truth-value to begin with. What’s more, as noted earlier, the AP’s Pyongyang reporters are accompanied by minders, further negating the chance of any candid thoughts being expressed. And, lest there be any doubt, the AP always names the “ordinary” people it interviews, meaning that even if they got away from the minders, citizens would put themselves in mortal danger by speaking freely.
Despite all this, the AP repeatedly relates these so-called conversations at face value. One article, for example, introduces us to a Pyongyang resident who—quelle surprise—tells the AP how grief-stricken he has been since Kim Jong-il’s death. Of the late tyrant, he says, “My eyes sting with tears whenever I think about how he provided us with such a comfortable home and always worried so much about us year after year.” Another article reports, “North Korean citizens are both defiant and dismissive about sanctions,” before quoting a worker at the Pyongyang Shoe Factory saying, “History has shown that Korea has never even thrown a stone at America, but the U.S. still continues to have a hostile policy toward my country.”
Just last week, as Kim Jong-un was again threatening war, the AP reported from Pyongyang: “ ‘I’m not at all worried. We have confidence in our young marshal’ Kim Jong Un, a cleaning lady at the Koryo Hotel said as she made up a guest’s bed. ‘The rest of the world can just squawk all they want but we have confidence in his leadership.’ ”
Other dispatches read like New York Times travel features, à la “36 Hours in Pyongyang.” “Lively NKorean capital celebrates Lunar New Year,” said an AP piece from January 2012, which reported that “hundreds of children scampered and shouted as they flew kites and played traditional Korean games in freezing temperatures.” In another dispatch, Lee wrote, “A little boy skips along grasping a classmate’s hand, his cheeks flushed and a badge of the Great Leader’s smiling face pinned to his Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt. Men in military green share a joke over beers at a German-style pub next door to the Juche tower. Schoolgirls wearing the red scarves of the Young Pioneers sway in unison as they sing a classic Korean tune.”
This points to another problem with the Pyongyang bureau’s coverage: its focus on the trivial, mundane, unimportant, and just plain wrong at the expense of genuine news—a direct consequence of the bureau’s coverage being directed by the North Korean regime. So for example, last summer, in the same week that the Washington Post was reporting how the North Korean authorities had been ramping up border security and making it even harder for the population to escape, Lee filed a story breathlessly reporting:
From Mickey Mouse and a mysterious female companion, to the whiff of economic reform and the surprising ouster of his military mentor, evidence is mounting that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will lead very differently than his secretive father.
Seven months after inheriting the country from Kim Jong Il, the 20-something leader suddenly began appearing in public with a beautiful young woman. Dressed in a chic suit with a modern cut, her hair stylishly cropped, she carried herself with the poise of a first lady as she sat by his side for an unforgettable performance: Mickey Mouse grooving with women in little black dresses jamming on electric violins.
And so instead of providing hard-hitting coverage of the world’s cruelest regime, the AP has seemingly morphed into TMZ: Pyongyang.
It’s plain to see why this is happening; the AP has put itself in a tough spot. For reasons passing understanding, it really wants to operate in North Korea. But in order to do so, it has to make sure not to offend its hosts, lest it get summarily kicked out of the country. (Malcolm Muggeridge once described a similar phenomenon among Western reporters in the Soviet Union.) Jean Lee at least appears to recognize this, sort of; while she denies that any hard censorship is occurring, she has conceded that the authorities “certainly see [her stories] after they move on the wire.” The AP, thus, is in a serious bind: If it reports real news, it will certainly get thrown out of the country. But if it softens the news, it will make its reporters look like fools. Lamentably, the AP seems to have chosen the latter course. That also explains why, ironically, some of the AP’s reporting on North Korea is still good—so long as it’s conducted from outside the country.
There are structural issues at play as well. The AP bureau, after all, is in Pyongyang, and so Lee is surrounded by the North Korean elite class (such as it is) and working alongside the relatively privileged. What’s more, all of her contact with North Koreans is closely monitored. Even if she keeps those facts in mind, they have undoubtedly affected her view of the people whom she refers to reductively as “the North Koreans.” Thus, when she speaks about “the North Koreans,” it’s frequently from the perspective of the regime and its apparatchiks. That’s a major flaw in the reporting and analysis she provides.
For example, in a panel discussion at South by Southwest in Austin this spring, Lee said that “the North Koreans are . . . very proud of the life they lead, to a certain degree . . . their system and their mentality and their society is structured around being different from the rest of the world, so they accept to a certain degree that they have access to certain things, and that’s how it is.” (Though seconds earlier she did allow that “they would never speak publicly about any kind of frustrations they may feel.”) One doubts that “the North Koreans” who are imprisoned in the brutal gulag or who are starving in the hinterlands or who risk their lives and the lives of their families to escape to China are “very proud of the [lives] they lead.” In the same panel, she admitted, “Some of these parts outside the capital are very, very poor,” before drifting into noxious relativism, averring that “like any other society, you’ve got the very poor, and a lot of very poor people, all the way up to the very rich.” Taking advantage of the regime’s recent decision to allow foreigners (and only foreigners) to access the Internet through a 3G mobile network, Lee also runs a much-ballyhooed Instagram account. It’s filled with self-shot photographs of things like heaping bowls of noodles—a curious choice (and a clear indication of the circle she’s traveling in), given that she’s reporting in a country beleaguered by chronic food deprivation.
The AP’s balancing act may have affected its putative news “analysis” as well. Take this lede from a February 12, 2013, piece, published just after the third nuclear weapons test: “The way North Korea sees it, only bigger weapons and more threatening provocations will force Washington to come to the table to discuss what Pyongyang says it really wants: peace.” Or this analysis from a March 29, 2013, article, just after Kim Jong-un’s regime threatened, yet again, to attack the United States: “But by seemingly bringing the region to the very brink of conflict with threats and provocations, Pyongyang is aiming to draw attention to the tenuousness of the armistice designed to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula, a truce North Korea recently announced it would no longer honor as it warned that war could break out at any time.” So, get that: North Korea is attempting to “draw attention” to the end of an armistice which it, itself, just ended. (That article also included this gem: “However, what North Korea really wants is legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S.—and a peace treaty.”) Is the AP peddling this putrid “analysis” because it’s all too aware that the North Korean regime monitors its work? It’s hard to say, because some of the AP’s work on North Korea is still quite good—if it is produced from outside the country. For now, let’s just say that the claim “cannot be independently confirmed.”
Other legal and ethical issues abound. For one, the AP concedes that it pays “rent” for its offices and “salaries” to its North Korean workers in Pyongyang, though it won’t reveal the amount. But paying “rent” and “salaries” in North Korea is tantamount to paying off the regime, given that all property is owned by the government and all workers are in the employ of the state. Questions have also been raised regarding whether the AP pays its “landlord” and workers in cash, which would be in direct violation of United Nations Resolution 2094, which bars bulk cash payments to North Koreans. (North Korean officials have often used cash to evade monitored wire transfers.) The AP refuses to comment on how it makes its payments. A spokesman for the Treasury Department, which enforces trade sanctions, says he won’t comment on specific cases for “privacy and trade secret reasons.” Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that the rogue regime is benefiting financially from the AP’s presence there.
One thing that is certain is that the AP reacts unpleasantly to criticism of its Pyongyang bureau—or even questions regarding its operations there. When The Weekly Standard asked Paul Colford, the AP’s director of media relations, how much the organization pays in rent and salaries for its Pyongyang bureau, Mr. Colford responded via email, “HOW MUCH DOES THE WEEKLY STANDARD PAY ITS STAFFERS AND PAY IN RENT?” Another question, pertaining to the method by which the AP pays North Korea, was met with the response “AP DOES NOT DISCUSS ITS BUSINESS DEALINGS IN THE U.S. OR ABROAD.”
Donald Kirk, a veteran reporter with the Christian Science Monitor and other respected news organizations, has also met with the AP’s fury. In a piece that Kirk wrote last year in the Monitor, he made reference to “AP coverage from North Korea that scrupulously avoids such issues as the North’s human rights record or abuse of political prisoners.” Colford erupted, and demanded the claim be retracted—even though Kirk effectively demonstrated that he was, in fact, correct. AP coverage from North Korea does avoid the human rights issues; only AP reporting sourced from elsewhere mentions it. As Kirk later wrote, “The AP went to great lengths to show that some of its reporting from Pyongyang addressed the issue, but in every instance those allusions were from material picked up in Seoul or Washington, not Pyongyang.” He noted, “The episode says a great deal not only about the AP’s misleading reporting from Pyongyang, but also the extent to which the AP will go in bullying an organization that relies on the AP for material, sometimes at extremely low rates.”
There’s a reason why so many newspapers use AP content; it’s often reliable and usually quite good. In a lot of ways, its influence is richly deserved, a testament to its dogged reporting and vast reach. Even its coverage of North Korea—so long as that coverage originates from outside the country—can sometimes impress. But the AP’s experience in Pyongyang has revealed that reporting on North Korea is a bit like viewing an Impressionist painting: Paradoxically, the closer you get, the more obscured your view becomes.
Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.