The question of open reporting and conducting ‘proper’ journalism when it comes to North Korea is a dilemma every media agency must face, including one such as NK News.
When up against one of the most aggressive and oblique propaganda machines in the world, with no on-the-ground resources it is extremely difficult to get a clear sense of what is going on in North Korea. A large percentage of the world’s understanding of the North comes from a handful of in-country sources and defector testimonials, but these too are often unverifiable.
But in January of this year, Associated Press made a groundbreaking move by becoming the first Western news organization to open a full-time office in Pyongyang. Since then, the agency has filed articles, photos and video reports directly from North Korea in a move that has helped widen the spectrum of information leaving the long-isolated state.
Nevertheless, because close cooperation with the North Korean government facilitated the office’s opening, the move came as controversial for some. One such individual was Joshua Stanton, a resolutely conservative blogger who since January has been on a one man mission to expose AP for what he views as “poor journalism”.
Concerned in particular by the news agency’s cooperation with North Korean state media outlet KCNA, Stanton’s blog One Free Korea: A Country Cannot Long Remain Half Slave and Half Free, has drawn attention from both North Korea experts and Asia beat journalists alike for its seemingly obsessive and persistent coverage of the issue.
While some might view him as “unqualified” to talk on the subject, the publication of a controversial article in the Wall Street Journal and support from some journalists covering North Korea suggests his views are worth exploring.
Stanton has been scathing in his commentary of AP, claiming there has been “no good reporting since they’ve been in Pyongyang”. He argues that the agency has reduced focus on issues related to human rights in the DPRK, and says that since the bureau opened, “some of the things that North Korea just doesn’t want talked about have been less visible.” But that’s not all.
Another key problem for Stanton has been AP’s role in facilitating what he alleged was a “propaganda” photo exhibition for North Korea at a New York City gallery earlier this year. Made possible via an agreement with partners KCNA, he subsequently launched a “personal jihad” to obtain photos of the exhibition, saying that they confirmed to him that AP was “prostituting itself to North Korea’s propaganda machine in exchange for preferential access to even more propaganda”. A strong, and oddly biblical charge, to be sure.
Viewed from the other side, some say AP has achieved what was previously thought to be impossible: direct reporting, on the ground, from Pyongyang. Staffed by a combination of DPRK nationals and visiting international staff, highlights have so far included a presence at Kim Jong Il’s funeral, the interviewing of senior government staff, and the occasional Tweet live from Pyongyang. And, even if that reporting has been controlled and gradual, the agency has no doubt paved the way for future news organizations to do the same.
Faced with the North Korean way of doing things, AP’s Korea Bureau Chief Jean Lee and her colleagues have unsurprisingly been accompanied by local-minders while reporting and, generally speaking, have only had access to the same areas tourists can see when visiting the DPRK.
Perhaps more surprising is that of AP’s two North Korean employees, North Korea pundit Andrei Lankov has claimed that regardless of how much journalism training they may have had, he is “99 per cent sure that they come from the secret police or intelligence services”. It is therefore easy to understand why LA Times journalist Barbara Demick argued earlier this year that, under the circumstances, Ms. Lee is currently doing “one of the most difficult [jobs] in the business”.
But even those familiar with life on the ground under North Korean surveillance believe the agency’s presence in Pyongyang must and should be welcomed. One such individual is former UK Ambassador to North Korea John Everard, who said to NK News:
“Bit-by-bit, the DPRK will get used to the way that Western journalists work and might start to loosen up a bit. Again, we went through the same kind of learning curve in China. It can be painful; there will always be people who say you’ve sold out, but AP have not. I think they’re onto a good thing and I wish them success.”
As Everard alludes, one shouldn’t forget the similar situation that others went through when it came to reporting on China during the 1970s and 1980s (and to some extent, even today). Working under surveillance, presented with Potemkin scenarios, and even being threatened with physical violence, these pioneering journalists had to deal with many of the problems now facing Ms. Lee and her AP colleagues in North Korea.
But few would suggest that the early work of these journalists wasn’t worthwhile, both giving Western media the capacity to cover the Tiananmen Square massacre in a truly historic way and playing a role in contributing to the now comparatively more open media environment we now see there.
With this in mind, we spoke to Josh Stanton and tried to get a better understanding of his disdain for Associated Press in North Korea. We also invited AP Pyongyang’s Jean Lee to comment but she declined.
Picture Credit: One Free Korea