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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korea hopes Russia will assist with countering “fake news” in international media coverage of the country, the head of the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said during a meeting with a visiting delegation of Russian state media executives in Pyongyang on Tuesday.
According to reports on the meeting by Russian state news agency TASS — who was represented by three of its top executives in the talks — KCNA signed a new cooperation agreement with TASS to replace the previous one signed in 2005.
Sergey Mikhailov, Director General of TASS — the only Russian outlet with a bureau in Pyongyang — said he “strongly hope[s] that we will expand” the bureau and “open a photo center there.”
Pointing to North Korean expectations in the renewed partnership, KCNA Director General Kim Chang Gwang said in the meeting that “we increasingly often see misrepresentation of information in the news environment, and we must counter the dissemination of such fake news.”
“I believe that KCNA and TASS news agencies must join efforts towards this goal,” he added, according to the TASS report.
The talks come as NK News has broken stories on various measures taken by authorities in Pyongyang in recent months meant to crack down on the spread of information to the outside world.
These include a ban enacted in late September on tourists taking photos from the top of the Juche Tower in central Pyongyang, as well as extreme new measures to block windows of residents in high-rises in the vicinity of a government building complex.
An Australian student at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University known for uploading content which revealed details of daily life in the North Korean capital was also notably arrested and detained in June for what KCNA described as “spying acts.”
These were, the KCNA press release said at the time, contributing stories to NK News and “other anti-DPRK media” which included “data and photos he collected and analyzed while combing Pyongyang” — pointing to severe sensitivities over even friendly information dissemination by foreigners in the country.
But Mikhailov appeared to suggest there were expanding opportunities for his agency, saying in the meeting that “much has changed in the politics of the [DPRK] and in relations between our agencies. Steps that would be unthinkable some time ago can be taken now.”
“The flow of information is universal, that is why we must supply news from various points of the globe, and of course from the DPRK, which is now in many respects in the focus of attention of the global media as well as political forces and resources,” Mikhailov added, according to TASS.
“That is why, it is important for us to be in the know of what is going on here, to learn this firsthand and deliver this news to our clients in Russia and across the globe.”
The Russian delegation landed in Pyongyang on Monday and is being led by the head of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media (Rospechat) Mikhail Seslavinsky.
He is joined by TASS chief Mikhailov and his subordinates first Deputy Director General Mikhail Gusman and first Deputy editor-in-chief Marat Abulkhatin, as well as Konstantin Ernst, Director General of the state-run television outlet Channel One.
Mikhailov most recently led a TASS delegation to Pyongyang in October 2017.
In another meeting Monday, director of the DPRK Foreign Ministry’s Department of Press and Information Jo Yong Sam told the delegation that Tass and Channel One are influential and well-known to North Koreans.
The outlets, Jo was quoted as saying in a TASS report, “fairly and objectively report the principal positions of leadership” of the DPRK in the ongoing disputes between Washington and Pyongyang.
He added that they also report on “the progress of the people of the DPRK in the struggle to build a strong socialist state that contributes to the positive development of relations of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.”
But Jo in the meeting Monday also reportedly said the media should “actively exercise its role … to support” the policies of DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin — a goal which may run afoul of generally understood objective media ethics.
Another potentially problematic aspect of the meetings between the two state-run media operations this week is the fact that all of the Russian delegation members were wearing loyalty badges on their lapels of deceased DPRK leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
These may send the signal that TASS is not committed to reporting objectively on the activities of the DPRK government and other developments in the country, despite an expanding bureau there.
But even the largest U.S. news agency, the AP, has struggled with freedom of movement and the ability to report on developments inside the country despite establishing their bureau in Pyongyang in 2012.
TASS later reported that the Russian media delegation also met president of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly Choe Ryong Hae and vice foreign minister in charge of Russian affairs Im Chon Il.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: KCNA