The Magazine

Dateline Pyongyang

The AP's problematic North Korea bureau

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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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.

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