As one of the most isolated countries in the world, North Korea tries hard to make sure that the movement of information out of its borders is strictly controlled. The result from a journalistic perspective is that quality sources and data with which to generate news can often be thin on the ground.
Added to this, reports of the Kim regime’s excesses create a news environment unlike any other. North Korea journalists, often confronted with shaky sourcing and the need to create clicks, frequently choose the path of least resistance.
The resulting echo-chamber of stories being copied from news source to the next, coupled with the potential for generating viral content, frequently entails dips in journalistic standards. The number of outlets reporting a sensational North Korea story can become a stand in for verifying their sourcing, which is often very difficult, leading to many people believing inaccurate stories.
While seasoned North Korea watchers might be able to more often discern fact from fiction, upping the quality of available content on North Korea remains a frequently debated topic in DPRK-interested circles.
In part three of the NK News 2014 specialist opinion survey, NK News spoke to five journalists regularly working on North Korea about some of the challenges of reporting on the DPRK, what journalists are doing wrong, and what they could do more of to improve the situation.
Q1) What are the biggest challenges to reporting on North Korea at the moment?
The North Korean authorities have made a not altogether unsuccessful push to secure their northern border with China since Kim Jong Un came to power, and this has placed pressure on the kind of network that Daily NK operates inside the country.
Specifically, sources often connect through Daily NK to the outside world via Chinese cellular networks that cross the border, and this has become much more taxing for them.
However, don’t be mistaken: the border is not in lockdown. Quite the opposite, as anyone who has witnessed the state-centric economic development of the Kim Jong Un era will surely have surmised. Rather, the regime is making a very deliberate push to control access to trade and communication with China.
To achieve this, they are putting very specific pressure on users of Chinese cellular networks, up to and including public executions, and on defection and illegal border crossing for purposes such as smuggling. They are also cracking down on remittances from South to North.
However, don’t be mistaken: the border is not in lockdown
This is the natural end point of a process that started at the beginning of this year when the government amended the country’s criminal code. At this time, a number of crimes were deliberately re-classified as de jure acts of treason. This was intended to provide a thin veneer of legal-rational cover for drastic acts of repression, and to signal the regime’s intent.
The only bright side to this state of affairs is that a mere criminal code, even one backed by extreme acts of violence, is no match for the rent-seeking of persons in local positions of power, and so it won’t last.
Access is by far the biggest challenge, although I believe some headway has been made on the ground in the past few years. AP’s presence, and the increasing variety of coverage that we are able to do, provide some positive evidence of this improvement. But the changes have been hard-won, and slow in coming.
The gap between what we would like to do and what we are able to actually accomplish remains significant
While I believe we are making progress, and getting worthwhile coverage done in the meantime, the gap between what we would like to do and what we are able to actually accomplish remains significant.
I’d point to two things: lack of verifiable information and sources, both inside and outside of North Korea, on the one hand, and lack of historical context and deeper understanding of culture on the other.
The former applies to pretty much everyone reporting on North Korea, leading to some of the most irresponsible reporting one sees in international journalism, like the one that alleged that the corpse of Jang Seong-thaek had been fed to dogs. Pack journalism is prevalent among South Korean and Japanese journalists covering North Korea.
Because they would rather risk being wrong than not write about something at all, they often copy off each other even if they cannot verify stories independently. The latter problem of lacking contextual knowledge, however, applies more specifically to international journalists or those who are relatively new to the field.
Because they would rather risk being wrong than not write about something at all, they often copy off each other even if they cannot verify stories independently.
I am reminded of the countless examples of “collapse of North Korea imminent” type of headlines that have been around since the mid-1990s. Many of the journalists writing these articles lacked an understanding of the history of North Korea as well as the greater political and economic dynamics in Northeast Asia.
I have just returned to the North Korea beat after a long absence – more than six years – but so far it seems that the biggest challenges remain the same: how to get accurate information about North Korea.
We certainly can’t get that by going to North Korea: my latest trip was even more of a Potemkin village tour than previous ones, and I was even more strictly controlled than before, although that was partly because I was in a huge group of journalists and partly because I had a particularly inflexible guide.
But it’s helpful to visit to get a sense of the changes and also to see what Pyongyang considers its most brag-worthy assets. It at least gives reporters a sense of the range. I remember going into the Red Cross hospital one bitterly cold February and freezing even in my North Face coat. There were patients in their pyjamas. It made me think: if this is your best hospital, what are those out in Hyesan or Hamhung like? So I went away and tried to find out.
Overall, reporting on North Korea remains very much a jigsaw puzzle
Overall, reporting on North Korea remains very much a jigsaw puzzle: seeing what we can, talking to as many defectors as possible and reading the reports from groups who monitor what’s going in North Korea. Plus talking to people who go into North Korea and to outside experts too. All that means that it takes a lot more time and effort to write a story about North Korea than about other places.
The biggest challenge to reporting is that North Korea does not make it easy for journalists to report on the country, allowing only a handful to report on the country first-hand each year. While news agencies with offices in Pyongyang do have some access, it’s not at the levels most would like to see. This means that day-to-day, state media outlets like the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) play an overly significant role in stimulating news coverage about North Korea than would otherwise be expected.
As such, journalists who focus exclusively on the country – those who don’t have an office in North Korea – are required to either employ undercover stringers inside the country or use creative means to do their work. Using undercover North Korean reporters obviously has its benefits, as the Daily NK’s coverage on the country shows well, but it is unfortunately not without risks for those involved. And while there are numerous ways to externally identify unique story leads, they can take significant time to uncover, a good understanding of vectors in which information can emerge, and a network of sources to verify the information with.
While news agencies with offices in Pyongyang do have some access, it’s not at the levels most would like to see
Perhaps though one of the hardest parts of focusing exclusively on North Korea is maintaining enthusiasm on the subject during quiet periods, like summer. Being unable to regularly visit and report within the country and having to search for leads principally through digital means can make unfortunately make the subject seem abstract after a while.
Q2) What can journalists do better to report on North Korea?
I am a bit tired of seeing foreign journalists who hang out with English-speaking people only, be it officials or scholars. you have to understand that people who speak fluent English constitute a tiny minority of people on the Korean peninsula, and are likely to be biased one way or another.
In South Korea speaking English fluently means one has had the means to study in the US or the UK. Some of the most knowledgeable experts on North Korea speak little English. Second is to develop more stories about culture and social trends in North Korea. Journalists rarely venture outside the formula of political and economic developments, and that needs to change.
People who speak fluent English constitute a tiny minority of people on the Korean peninsula, and are likely to be biased one way or another
I’m surprised generally how little reporting there is on North Korea these days. It doesn’t seem to command much coverage compared to last time I was doing this beat. Maybe that’s the reality of the news industry these days and the general cut-backs in foreign news coverage. But the interest is still huge – readers are always so hungry to learn more about North Korea.
In the last couple of years, I think there have been some pretty high-profile cases where reporters have seized on crazy rumors apparently without even trying to check them out – like the one about Jang Song Taek being fed to a pack of hungry dogs.
Yes, trying to substantiate facts about North Korea, especially about the inner workings of the regime, is really hard, but we have to try, we have to “kick the tires” in the same way we would any other story. I don’t think it would have taken much effort to pour cold water on that tale.
When I approach reporting about North Korea, I always think about humanizing North Koreans
When I approach reporting about North Korea, I always think about humanizing North Koreans. I think there’s a tendency to lump together the North Korean regime and the North Korean people, and not to differentiate between them.
So I’ve always tried to show North Koreans as ordinary people: mothers and fathers who want their kids to have a better life than them, kids with dreams, etc. The maestro of this is Barbara Demick, of course.
Journalists can do a lot to improve reporting on North Korea, which for too long has been dominated by sensationalism and tabloid gossip. But what journalists can do to improve their work depends somewhat on the level they are working, I believe.
Mainstream journalists, particularly those working at news aggregators like Huffington Post and Business Insider, need to do much more to verify a story before publishing. While it is tempting to ride viral waves of traffic on the latest rumor, often a simple call to a DPRK travel agency or company based in the border regions can clarify the situation – proving you don’t always need to have a clandestine network to do the job.
Those with better knowledge of the country should do more to consider the motivations some groups release information, paying close attention to how outlets are funding operations, who is working both for and with the outlet, and whether the outlet may be using content to pursue an agenda. Due to the unique nature of North Korea, there are unfortunately a number of people with axes to grind, personal profiles to build, or conflicts of interest to ignore.
Those outlets and groups specializing exclusively on North Korea can do their part in helping reporters by being much more transparent about goals, funding sources, and political agendas – if any.
…consider the motivations some groups release information, paying close attention to how outlets are funding operations, who is working both for and with the outlet, and whether the outlet may be using content to pursue an agenda.
Of course, any discussion about what can be done to improve reporting on North Korea cannot ignore journalists working in South Korea. While the culture and concept of independent journalism is relatively new in South Korea, those working there need to push sources to go on-record much more. For too long anonymous sources have dominated the major stories on North Korea, and for too long journalists have only been too happy to accept the information they are given without bothering to cross-reference it. Managers of journalists who consistently get it wrong with wild stories also need to do the right thing and fire these people, just as they would with a bank manager who keeps providing bad financial advice!
First, any organization doing the type of work being done by Daily NK should focus on developing their inside source networks in order to ensure they retain the capacity to crosscheck stories with multiple separate sources.
This is what Daily NK bases its reporting on, and we consider it the only way to ensure that, as far as possible, bad stories don’t find their way into the public domain, and to try and weed out those tales that may even have been planted by the North Korean security services.
It should be noted that North Korean agents are well aware of how the rumor mill operates in North Korea’s information-poor, atomized society, and how that rumor mill can be exploited.
It should be noted that North Korean agents are well aware of how the rumor mill operates
Elsewhere, Associated Press ought to be pushing continuously for greater access at the margins through its Pyongyang bureau. At the same time, it should strive to attain the minimum requirement of an organization in such an unenviable position; namely, to avoid ever lending a veneer of legitimacy to transparent government propaganda through the AP brand.
Finally, other external news organizations that don’t have specific access to official or unofficial networks within North Korea should redouble their efforts to obtain information from external sources in order to better reflect the true situation inside the country via hard data. Reporting on North Korea this way is time consuming and thus expensive, but progress is being made.
Question their basic assumptions. Confirm. Be wary of sourcing. Seek context. Avoid treating the country and its leadership in a stereotypical or flippant manner. Pursue the news, and let it speak for itself.
Accept that some really entertaining rumors that can’t be responsibly sourced or confirmed are probably better saved for cocktail parties than for publishing with an “According to…” disclaimer.
Q3) What are journalists doing too much of in their North Korea reporting?
Stories about cognac consumption and state-mandated haircuts and underwater hotels always do well online. People love to read these stories and I get that (and I’ve writted my share of these).
But it would be good to see the balance tipped more in favor of more deeply-researched stories that gave more insight into what’s going on in North Korea: stories about the kinds of conditions that ordinary people are living under, how they’re surviving.
Those stories are illuminating and add to our knowledge of this place, but they’re hard to do in this era of 140-character snippets.
I think the constant struggle with North Korea is to avoid the “they’re all crazy” narrative
The other thing that really drives me mad is all these “exclusive insights” we’re getting into North Korea – links on Twitter which invariably turn out to be photos from the tourist traps of Pyongyang.
Yes, it’s pretty hard for journalists to get into North Korea, but you can’t claim to have gotten a “rare glimpse” of the Juche tower or Kim Il Sung Square.
There’s way too much interest in the trivia of the ruling class there, about the personal quirks and eccentricities of the Kim family. I understand that journalists are attracted to the freak aspect of North Korea, but such coverage serves mostly to entertain (and there would be nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that many of these stories are speculative), and does little to inform.
On a related note, I find journalistic sourcing of North Korean defectors problematic. As sympathetic as I am to the plight of the North Korean defectors, the practice of offering money in exchange for interviews has to stop.
On a related note, I find journalistic sourcing of North Korean defectors problematic
It would be unthinkable among reputable news organizations, for example, to offer crime victims money in exchange for interviews, as victims would be incentivized to dramatize their stories. But such has been happening for more than a decade in North Korea reporting, and I really blame the journalists – especially the Japanese and Korean ones who have started the trend.
Naturally, that depends on which journalist you are referring to! Put it this way: there is no longer any need to report on a parade in Kim Il Sung Square as though it were news, unless it is in the same way that one might report on any event that is annual, entirely predictable, and never revelatory.
Moreover, there is no justification for ever publishing a photo article based upon travel images. Fortunately, any editor or journalist can adopt a litmus test to deal decisively with this type of dilemma.
Simply, if one is tempted to brand the images a “rare glimpse” of North Korea, but cannot offer evidence of rarity concealed therein, kill the article. It’s not rare, and it isn’t news!
If one is tempted to brand the images a “rare glimpse” of North Korea, but cannot offer evidence of rarity concealed therein, kill the article. It’s not rare, and it isn’t news!
Caricaturizing and oversimplifying are the two things that stand out most to me. Journalists are almost always guilty to some degree or another of the latter, since we work under tight space and deadline limitations, and often write for readers who are not experts seeking lengthy dissertations. But more nuanced reporting on North Korea would definitely be a plus.
Caricaturizing and oversimplifying are the two things that stand out most to me
Mainstream journalists are focused too much on either showcasing what they think is the “bizarre” nature of the North Korean leadership, attempting to offer “glimpses” of the “real” North Korea, or talking only to the observers and analysts with the loudest voices.
With no other country on earth could a fact, such as Kim Jong Un having not made public appearances in recent weeks, be wed to unverified claims that North Korea expressed interest in foreign cheese production to come up with headlines such as: Kim Jong-un ‘is so fat from eating cheese that he has broken his ankles’. Although social share counts indicate that such stories are popular with the general masses, at the very least all journalists have a responsibility to not just make news up.
Those journalists do get to visit North Korea, either undercover or with Pyongyang’s permission, should also remember that they were not the first to do so. “Exposés” or “glimpses of the real North Korea” continue to arise on an almost weekly basis, the majority of which are compilations of safari-style photos showing little more than normal North Koreans going about their every day business. While the experience of being in North Korea might feel like walking on the moon for some, it should be remembered that journalism inside North Korea has been done many, many times – the majority of which uncovered nothing of significance.
Finally, when big news does emerge, mainstream outlets could consider speaking to some of the lesser known observers and specialists working on the country – and in particular, to the growing populace of North Korean refugees in South Korea. While it’s tempting to look for strident voices in Washington to interpret the latest breaking news, consumers will undoubtedly benefit more from a nuanced interpretation – or indeed what North Koreans think themselves.
Anna Fifield – Washington Post’s Tokyo bureau chief, who has travelled to the DPRK several times on reporting assignments
Chad O’Carroll – founder of NK News and regular contributor to the site
Chris Green – Daily NK’s International Editor and PhD candidate at Leiden University
Eric Talmadge – the current Associated Press bureau chief for Pyongyang
Soomin Seo – Former Korea Times staffer that focused on North Korea during the sunshine era, currently studying a PhD at Columbia University on journalism
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 3564 words of this article.