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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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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.


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