Undercover “Journalism” in the DPRK

October 19th, 2010
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As most people are aware, Western journalists are not typically welcome in North Korea. The case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling last year was a good example of what can happen to those too eager for an NK scoop.  But that didn’t stop David McNeill of London’s ‘The Independent’ travelling to the DPRK just

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.

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  • Maria R

    McNeill should go visit some of the off the main drag towns and villages across China and will likely see little different from North Korea with people washing their clothes in the local river, using donkeys and horses as the main forms of transport and a population of slim people.

    Thanks for your commentary and remarks about this article – what a silly man!

  • http://aidanfc.net Aidan Foster-Carter

    Tad, I fear you may have picked the wrong target here. David McNeill – whom you misspell throughout – is a serious, experienced journalist. See his work at the very useful japanfocus.org, or this interview: http://gyaku.jp/en/index.php?cmd=contentview&pid=000314

    Ditto Richard Lloyd Parry, another veteran reporter whose work is excellent.

    I’m not sure if this NK trip was either’s finest hour. But you should know who you are laying into. There are better targets than these in the undercover brigade: real know-nothings. DMcN and RLP are not of that ilk. Save your fire for the shallow sensationalists.

    Cheers

    Aidan FC

  • Joe S

    @ Aidan: That this article was published by the Independent and written by McNeill, a seasoned and quality journalist, makes Tad’s piece all the more justified.
    We all know about the dramatic coverage of N.Korea featured on the likes of Fox News, and most of us don’t take it seriously – the errors reported on these networks are not worth taking apart, such are their frequency and absurdity.
    However, that such rhetoric is now seemingly edging into quality publications such as the Indy, is worrying.

  • Paul White

    Aidan Foster-Carter’s comment doesn’t address any of the points brought up in the article. It sounds like a thuggish warning to lay off the big boys: “Nice little blog you’ve got here, Mr Farrell. Pity if anything happened to it — or you!”

  • http://www.thetimes.co.uk Richard Lloyd Parry

    Tad Farrell evidently knows North Korea well, but his sarcastic denunciation of David McNeill distorts the work of a conscientious and principled journalist. I was David’s companion during our morning walk through the back streets of Pyongyang, and I can vouch for the accuracy of his observations and for the obviously unofficial character of the street market. And, having made half a dozen visits to North Korea myself, I am taken aback by Mr Farrell’s credulous description of the friendly and inquisitive beer drinkers who have served as his guides.

    A few pints and a bit of friendly banter in the hotel bar should not blind anyone to who they are – privileged, well educated, and (by North Korean standards) well-informed servants of a totalitarian dictatorship. As human beings, they are as various as the rest of us. But putting aside their friendliness, curiosity or the lack of it, their job is to lie, bamboozle and obfuscate.

    One imagines other historical moments in which Mr Farrell might have found himself – quaffing in a bierkeller with a group of jolly Nazis in 1936, knocking back the vodkas with a party of apparatchiks in Stalin’s Russia. In those places, he would also have found genuine human warmth, curiosity and a desire to be understood among people who nonetheless served unforgivable regimes. The question of responsibility among low ranking servants of oppressive governments is a complicated one. But to suggest that the tourist guides of Pyongyang are wide eyed innocents (“working hard to give Westerners some insight into their country,” as he says in a separate correspondence) is naive in the extreme.

    Misspelling David’s name is a bad start in a critique of sloppy journalism, but the inaccuracies don’t end there. On the four visits I have made to Pyongyang, I never got a choice of hotel – in my experience, you stay where you’re put. The market to which Simon Cockerell refers is clearly not the one we saw, which would not be of any interest to resident foreigners in Pyongyang. All it amounted to was a row of traders, squatting on the pavement in front of a vegetable or two on a piece of newspaper. While not clandestine, it was clearly unofficial and provisional, tolerated, I suspect, with a nod and a wink, but liable to be shut down with little notice – hence the frisson of anxiety which spread through the traders as David and I passed, and before we had produced our cameras.

    I would love to see the other cities which Mr Farrell has been lucky enough to visit. But it isn’t easy for people like David and I, as he well understands. To imply that in failing to roam further afield in North Korea we were somehow lazy is one of the least worthy of his criticisms.

    Operating as a journalist in North Korea is not like working anywhere else. There is no “fact checking” (whom would Mr Farrell have us check with?). Simon Cockerell is to be applauded for the way in which his company has opened up North Korea for foreigner tourists. But he is a businessman who makes a living from operating smooth, trouble free tours in which the visitors listen to the guides, have a cozy drink with them in the evening, and then go home.

    There is nothing at all wrong with that. But David and I wanted to go a bit further. Our opportunity was limited, but we made of it what we could, and we came back with something – a fragment, no more – which no one to my knowledge had seen before. It puzzles me that this small contribution should excite in Mr Farrell such peevish indignation.

    Richard Lloyd Parry
    The Times

    • http://www.nknews.org admin

      Dear Mr. Lloyd Parry,

      Thank your for your comments.

      First off, apologies for the mistake on Mr. McNeill’s name. Writing this piece on a seven-hour bus journey without internet access was the reason for this, and perhaps yes, sloppy journalism too – I run this site on the side of a hectic full-time job, so don’t have much time for self-editing.

      As for the guides: In this piece I didn’t even touch on the ramifications for them. While certainly not as drastic as suggested in the response this article got when originally posted online at the Independent (gulags, etc), it would have caused some real problems for your guides nonetheless. The fact Mr. Cha (I hope this was an alias) was crying at the end goes someway to suggest this. Had you both uncovered something more significant than a market, perhaps in the greater scheme of things the ramifications on him could have been worth it. But with Cha named and shamed as your guide on the front page of “The Independent” in a country with a full DPRK diplomatic presence can’t have done him any further favors. But you “made of it what [you] could”, and you came back with “something – a fragment, no more”.

      As for socializing with the guides as a tourist, in my experience it is definitely possible beyond your “jolly Nazi / Apparatchik” analogy. I don’t think it is appropriate that I go into my own details, suffice to say that if you get to know some of them well enough – they can be very frank about life in the DPRK.

      Regarding the street market – yes, there may well have been an unofficial “character” to this, but this does not make it illegal. Speak to the diplomatic staff, NGOS and the UN there and you may be surprised by their freedom of movement- they can access areas such as these if they wish. While you might think they don’t, some working in the DPRK do actually exercise their right to travel – see Kernbeissers albums on Flickr if you’d like to see the non-tourist guide side to the DPRK: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kernbeisser/sets/72157623648797307/

      I am not aware of the circumstances of your six visits to the DPRK, but on the few I times I have been to the country it has been possible to build an itinerary and choose the places we wanted to stay and the regions we wanted to visit. And while in country, if you really want to, the guides can, and do facilitate hotel / itinerary changes, without too many problems.

      As for fact-checking – yes it is difficult, but there are ways. Daily NK, Good Friends and others have good knowledge of things on the ground there – I am sure they’d help clarify things. Then there are operators like Koryo too, Bonner and his colleagues have an excellent understanding of the country.

      I guess why I found this article so ‘peevish’ was because it merely highlights what is already known about the country, albeit in a sensationalist manner. I see DPRK related news every day while running this site, and frankly I would have not reacted to the article in the way I did had it been published on Fox or the like. That stuff does not warrant a response. But that the Independent published it, a paper I normally hold in high regard, and on their front page as I learnt yesterday, made me feel I should attempt set the record straight. Why? Because I have noticed that reporters reuse material significantly in DPRK reporting.

      Tad.

      • Richard Lloyd Parry

        Dear Mr Farrell,

        You don’t know what problems were, or were not, caused to our guides. You don’t know what opportunities we did, or didn’t, have for wider or more flexible travel. You don’t know who we did, or did not, speak to among diplomats, NGOs or the UN. You don’t know any of this because you weren’t there. I’m not ready to accept lectures about how to do my job from someone in a position of such ignorance.

        The Daily NK, Good Friends and Koryo Tours are interesting and worthy organisations. But if you think that an opposition website, a group of religious activists and a tourist business are disinterested purveyors of “facts”, then you are more naive than I thought.

        Richard

        • http://www.nknews.org admin

          Hi Richard,

          You don’t know what problems were, or were not, caused to your guides either. Even forgetting all I know about North Korea and my conversations with previous guides, I think Mr. Cha’s tears confirm there would be consequences for him.

          As for those sites I suggested, yes they all have agendas, but so do defectors. And I think Bradley K. Martin did a fine job of clarifying defector stories in “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader” by spending the time to cross-reference them all with several defectors.

          T.

  • http://www.japanfocus.org David McNeill

    I’d like to thank Tad Farrell for his response to The Independent article, and to reply in the spirit of collegiality and mutually constructive debate that, I have to say, was lacking in his pretty spiteful original posting to this blog. NK News makes serious and widely respected contributions to what we know about North Korea. I hope Tad will acknowledge that the rest of us have also tried over the years to report NK-relates issues accurately, and to resist the demonization of an entire nation of people because they suffer under dire leadership. The Fox comparison is hurtful, and inaccurate.

    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20030415zg.html
    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20050125zg.html
    http://chronicle.com/article/In-Japan-a-North-Korean/123747/

    Richard has already pasted a reply here and I don’t want to repeat what he has said, but I do take issue with the implication throughout Tad’s posting that what we wrote was inaccurate. The fact is, readers of this blog can go back and check not one but two almost identical accounts of what took place at the Pyongyang market – how often does that happen? Is Tad suggesting that Richard and I cooked up our stories together? As for sensationalist treatment, journalists at the Independent have no power of what editors do with stories, the headlines they give them or where they put them. All we can do is try to accurately report what we see.

    As Tad surely knows, the issue isn’t simply that NK is ‘poor.’ The fact is that famine in the 1990s may have killed 2.5 million people, according to the North’s highest-ranking defector Hwang Jang-Yop (I understand that he upped the estimate to 3 million in a speech this year). That is totally unforgivable negligence by the country’s rulers, but they are still in power because they can’t be voted out. The officials who herd tourists around approved sights in Pyongyang for hard cash have a vested interest in hiding this, the widespread malnutrition that continues to this day, and the deep levels of repression and brainwashing that allows the whole rotten system to function. Any journalist worth calling the name wants to see beyond this façade and report anything that might give the lie to official propaganda. The obviously illicit, ragged little street market we stumbled over was one small glimpse behind the misery ruled over the dictatorship, and I don’t for a minute regret writing about it. I’m mystified why he thinks I should be.

  • http://www.nknews.org admin

    Thanks for the response David.

    At no point was I suggesting you were making up stories, just that from my opinion, uncovering a market – however slum like – is not worth the potential cost on your guides, nor does it provide readers with any new insight on the DPRK. Daily NK / Good Friends have many articles and pictures of life inside in the DPRK, but the difference is their sources make the conscious decision to report.

    As I explained, I think that one can portray lesser known aspects of the DPRK without having to escape guides – the observations in the article “Inside North Korea September 2010″ (posted on this site) are testament to that. While the guides do have a vested interest in hiding the unsavory side of their country, it is an almost impossible task when you travel beyond PY.

    The Fox comparison was mainly due to the comment about iPods and the like, but I understand now you were doing this to provide context for readers of the Independent.

    Thanks for getting back in any case and presenting your opinion on my article, and sorry if it offended – that was not the intent.

  • arif

    i think richard’s article and corresponding editorial of the same incidents is slightly more polished and ultimately bang on – it echoes my thougts identically after visiting this year.

    Richard/ David – there are quite a few itinery options available – your agent should be able to help build an itinery.

    It is surprising that laymen seem to know more about this subject than professional and extremely well respected journalists.

  • Joe S.

    Has anyone got the link for the other piece on the same events? I can’t find it on this site. Joe

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/collections/72157624768838428/ Ray Cunningham

    I am one of those who travel with Simon Cockerell to the DPRK annually. I have been all over the country. My August photos may be viewed here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/collections/72157624768838428/
    North Korea is unlike the former socialist states which I traveled to multiple times in the 1970s and 80s. Many tend to view the DPRK through the eyes of the Cold War, the USSR or perhaps the Korean War. Journalists or anyone touring Pyongyang can draw absurd conclusions from the tour bus. Consider the notion that the elderly and handicapped are removed from Pyongyang. It is nonsense. I hear these ideas from time to time and wonder how they get started. Don’t assume that the guides lead us around and we cannot see. Sorry, some of us are trained, have university degrees in the subject area and know something of what we see. Journalists tend to draw some absurd conclusions about this society.
    The first rule in observing the DPRK is that this is Korea. The attributes pointed out as political are many times cultural. This society does not have the experiences that western or even many of the former states of the USSR had in development as a nation state. Leadership, government, and nation are viewed and valued quite differently than in the west. This also is a society isolated in a way unlike any other. Even most Cubans I spoke to know the affluence outside their society. In the DPRK they do not. This is a society not unlike Imperial Japan in the 1930s. B. R. Myers is on to something.
    This is not communism. The “C” words are Chosun and Confucian. While Demick loves the “communism” word it is meaningless. The workers are not valued here – leadership is. How many hours of propaganda from the Koreans do you have to go through to figure out that the workers are not glorified in the museums, their heroics are secondary to the wisdom of the Great Leader. This is not communism. You see red flags, marching soldiers and red scarves on children and you conclude this is communism? Put down your preconceptions and understand the society for what it is.
    I suggest that one spend time in rural China to understand the poverty issue. Spend some time in the poor urban areas of China and then visit Hamhung, Sariwon, Haeju or Nampo. There is more to the DPRK than a few days in Pyongyang. I believe that any understanding of North Korea is going to start on the ground – not viewing satellite photos, KCNA press releases or reading Good Friends. Also remember motivations. Starving people dying in the streets? Sorry. I tend to jump the tour too to find out “what is behind the screen” and what I see people eating, buying in the markets, in the kiosks, and on the streets from individual people selling (now legal again) defies what I read from the Good Friends people. You cannot hide everything and believe me, they don’t because it is impossible. I have laughed hard as the guides try to avoid something as we click our cameras. Once they told us to leave our cameras for a walk in Wonsan. Funny, it was the Koreans pulling out their small digital cameras to photograph us.
    This is the DPRK. It is a closed society. Anyone – including myself – proclaiming expertise on the North is to be scrutinized carefully. How can a bunch of pundits in a campus office know what is going on in the DPRK? I observe, listen, and learn. Look not just at what they show you but what they do not show you. The puzzle is far deeper than it was in Romania or the USSR and there are not the common cultural characteristics to compare against. Try leaving your preconceptions home. One short stay will lead to more questions than answers.

  • http://www.korea-vision.com Leonid Petrov

    Dear David and Richard,

    I am impressed by the fact that you came across such interesting phenomenon as improvised (and clearly illegal) street markets in Pyongyang. I have seen these markets myself in 2007, but at that time the reaction of NK babushkas was different — they would pack their bags and run away from us. This year they attacked you, and that shows that NK is changing. Also, I hope you have seen Aidan Foster-Carter’s recent article:

    > http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/LJ22Dg01.html
    > “Nor is he the only one. Even in Pyongyang the mask is slipping. The
    > WPK conference and subsequent military parade seem to have passed off
    > smoothly, but dissent is growing. One recent visiting group (which
    > included a Korean-speaker) heard a full-scale row between their guides
    > – it was evening, and drink had been taken – as to what right Kim
    > Jong-eun had to be foisted on them as leader. That is still dangerous
    > talk; but many more will be thinking it. The young general has much to
    > prove, and may not have long to do so. Interesting times. ”

    So, your observations have hit the nerve of many NK watchers and caused a controversy. Those who accuse you of gonzo journalism simply try to defend their trust in the future of North Korea as independent and successful. People like to believe in dreams and Kim Jong-il is the dream seller. Your approach to NK is very much down to earth and, therefore, your articles attract criticism from those who have been to North Korea and believe that it may have a future (if conditions are right, of course).

    Tad’s criticism was based on this optimistic point of view and, therefore, it looked a bit naïve to me. Before the rollback of ‘July 1, 2002 economic measures’ in 2005, I used to think that things in NK were developing in the right direction, but the last five years showed that the regime had decided to push the nation back to Military Communism. Simon’s public statements are carefully worded and, of course, he is not going to support anything that his business partners in Pyongyang might find unpalatable.

    To my taste, your stories about the Friday morning incident were perfectly fine, albeit overly sensationalist (commercial publications can be forgiven for that). Personally, I liked Richard’s description more for his humanistic approach to the tragedy of the NK people. To me it looked more convincing than David’s attempt to use the caricature images to mock the regime and its defenders (but even the minders, like Mr. Cha, are ordinary people traumatised by the system). In any case, both of your accounts gave me some additional information about the current state of affairs in the NK capital, and I am very grateful to you for that.

    Tad believes that the ‘undercover journalism’ brings more harm than good. I disagree and think that the more people know about each other (through visits, articles, images and stories) the more sensitive and sensible their actions towards each other are going to be. We all have different perceptions of North Korea, so why not sharing and discussing what we have or have not seen? It would be silly to become upset by reading something that does not really correspond with our own personal experience.

    I agree with Ray — let’s learn from each other and use any opportunity to travel to NK (even as ‘undercover journalists’) to see more and tell more to the people on the both sides of the iron curtain.

    LP

  • David Jatt

    The article was terrible, but who’s really surprised? The Independent is no longer a ‘quality’ paper. It’s the Daily Mail for people who recycle.

    This article – and the fact the editors ran it on the front page – really embodies this. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the article’s approach as such, it’s just a really, really bad piece of journalism. [Sentance removes by NKnews.org - please do not use profanities]

    The ‘story’ is essentially:

    1. Two journalists go into North Korea as tourists

    2. Journalists cleverly decide to go for a stroll in the morning, to the oh-so-secret streets of the most open and by far the most airbrushed location in the DPRK.

    3. Journalists see a makeshift market.

    4. Journalists get in a bit of bother and go back.

    That’s it. The ‘research’ is so lacking that it reads like a schoolboy essay where the student erroneously believes he can paper over a lack of work with a few finely-crafted unspecified references.

    The first seven paragraphs ultimately say completely nothing, vaguely referring to “reportedly this” or “rumours of that”. The rest is just plain dull. There are illegal markets in the DPRK? So what.

    Far more than being uninteresting, however, the writers completely abused the trust of their guides. These sorts of actions are what can, however rarely, lead to nasty consequences for the tour guides leading the group. These people may be North Koreans, but they don’t deserve to be put in danger for a journalist’s antics.

    And if you are going to risk their safety, at *least* find something worth reporting about when you’re doing it.

    Thumbs down chaps.

    • Bruce

      How do you know there are possible negative consequences for the guides? Thats just rumor with no proof.

  • Jose L. Leon

    Nice debate, indeed. I have read the reports carefully, as well as Tad’s critical points. Having nothing personal against either Mc Neill or Lloyd Parry, it seems to me that “The Independent” and “Times” have somehow lost their money. They did not have to send journalists to re-write all of the commonplaces that we read on the written press and the net everyday. It is not a secret that, despite resistance from the Kims, marketization was already undergoing by the late 1980s -albeit in in a quite modest way. In fact Mitchel argued, by 1998, that markets could account for about 20% of the DPRK´s GDP. The public distribution system (PDS) was practically shattered since the famine in the second half of the 1990s. Special economic zones were established in 1991, while Kim Il-Sung was well and alive. All of these stories began before the timid economic reforms of 2002. In sum, markets do exists all over the country, despite the aborted counter-reform launched by the government in late 2009.

    This is not to say that the DPRK is a free-market, Adam Smith-shaped paradise, but just to underline that the “news” in the reports are not new at all. It is rather clear that the “The Independent” is not “The Mirror” nor “The Sun”. For that very reason, we should ask it for more detailed, careful and well-trimmed notes.

    JLL

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  • Dave Johnson

    As I suspected, the people of the North are… just people trying to get along in this world. Its the politics that gets in the way.

  • Dave Johnson

    As I suspected, the people of the North are… just people trying to get along in this world. Its the politics that gets in the way.

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