Questions Unasked

Just days after the AP fell victim to a photo hoax by KCNA, the official North Korean “news” agency it partnered up with, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Jean H. Lee, seems not to have taken to heart that “journalist” does not mean in North Korea what it means in other places:

But this year, David and I have been granted unprecedented access as part of AP’s efforts to expand its coverage of North Korea. We traveled into the countryside, accompanied by North Korean journalists, not government minders. We had a cell phone, Internet access and a van with a driver who took us to Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west. During our wanderings, we got a glimpse of daily life in one of the most hidden nations in the world and found a country on the cusp of change. [AP, Jean H. Lee]

I can’t believe that any sensible reader with enough interest to read this story would really believe that those North Korean “journalists” did not also have the duty to carefully mind Ms. Lee and David Guttenfelder, the photographer accompanying her, while ferrying them to the cusp of change. The cusp of change, as it happens, lies just within the brink of famine, somewhere between “Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west,” which means the same tired circuit of propaganda spectacles, far from North Korea’s gulags and WMD facilities, and far from where the food crisis is always worst. Good for Lee for at least conceding that the itinerary her minders fellow journalists chose was “calculated to show the bright side.” If there is one, Guttenfelder’s strikingly bleak pictures don’t show it.

So what evidence of change did Lee see? Well, there’s glass on the Ryugyong Hotel, for one thing. Unasked: How does a nation justify that cost during an acute food crisis? Also, some people had consumer goods. Unasked: Don’t those goods come from the same black market this regime is trying to stamp out, and if so, what kind of change does that suggest? Also, Lee discovers North Koreans like to drink, eat kimchi, and sing Arirang. Amazingly, just like other Koreans! Bob Carlin turns out to be a safe sole source for Lee’s “neutral” expert analysis. Why, he’s been to North Korea almost as many times as Selig Harrison!

I realize that reporting from North Korea requires compromises that other places don’t, and that among journalists, there’s at least a perception that the access you get in North Korea is inversely proportional to the critical content in your coverage. As a news consumer, I think that raises an important question of journalistic ethics. I allow that different journalists might grapple with it differently, but the photo hoax story presented it with binary clarity. Had this happened anywhere else, the AP and the rest of the industry would have been outraged, and rightfully so. Instead, the AP quietly sent out a kill notice, said little if anything else about the matter, and went right on providing some exceptionally gullible reporting — here, of a North Korean-style press conference:

And, in an astonishing turn of events, we are invited to a briefing at the grand People’s Cultural Palace, making us the first American reporters to cover a North Korean press conference, we’re told. Journalists from the North Korean press corps snap open Compaq laptops and set up Sony video cameras, and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il serve as the backdrop.

Ten North Koreans repatriated after their fishing boat strayed into South Korean waters file into the room, the men in suits and the women in traditional Korean dresses. Tearful, emotional, they accuse the South Koreans of mistreatment.

A question-and-answer session follows: The Pyongyang Times wants to know what happened to the four North Koreans, including the boat’s captain, who stayed behind in the South. A query from the state broadcaster prompts all 10 to rise to sing an ode to Kim Jong Il

Unasked: well, pretty much any of the obvious questions that would get a North Korean “journalist” sent here. They certainly wouldn’t dream of asking the South Koreans’ side of the story, but what’s Lee’s excuse? Does she really take this charade at face value? She seems to.

In journalism, skepticism may be the ultimate virtue. But someone who doesn’t understand that might think that North Korea’s journalists are just as qualified as the AP’s.


  1. I suppose I ought to act in the spirit of fairness by pointing out that Orascom is shelling out for the get-it-done-by-next-year-or-else completion of the Ryugyong Hotel in a quid pro quo for becoming the exclusive cell phone provider to affluent Pyongyangites and market traders nationwide, so technically it should probably not be listed alongside all the regime’s other egregious mis-uses of funds.

    Which is another way of saying that I agree with everything else I see here.

    It’ll be ‘nice’ to see the rejuvenation of the Pyongyang Times in an effort to convince the AP and Reuters guys that there is a mediascape out there. If they play their cards right, the ol’ PT can grow to be as pointless and poorly edited as the Korea Herald.


  2. Chris, I agree that Orascom’s cell phones would do much good if the regime can’t monitor or control them well enough to prevent people from trading and exchanging impure thoughts. In fact, I suspect that despite the regime’s best efforts, they’ll end up having a subversive effect. But for now, do you really know who’s using those phones, and for what?

    Also, why does squandering money on the Ryugyong Hotel have to be the price for introducing cell phones? The regime might have instead demanded that Orascom set up some dairies or health clinics, or imported fertilizer or tractors. Not seeing how Ryugyong itself is anything but an obscenely expensive vanity project that’s doomed to sit empty.


  3. Sure the Ryugyong is complete silliness, and goodness knows what Orascom really thinks of its latest investment. That said, maybe the North is planning to invite enough international Juche study group members to Pyongyang for next April 15th to fill it. Sounds like a challenge, unless the rumor that half of it is empty space is true.

    Ho hum.

    Anyhow, defectors have told me (and one, last week, told a conference at USIP) that Orascom’s cell phones are a godsend, and suggest that they are making a big difference. One particularly knowledgeable fella pointed to their capacity to level out price differentials between regions in terms of areas where Chinese cell phones cannot reach, meaning that life in the interior is getting easier by virtue of getting slightly cheaper. He also insisted that anyone who is remotely serious about trade is getting hold of them, though in most cases they are bribing their way to an Orascom SIM card and putting it in a cheap Chinese phone.

    For the time being, ordinary people really do trust that their conversations are not being listened to, and they appear to be right. While domestic landlines have always been monitored as and when suspicions are raised locally, Orascom phones are only listened in to when the conversation triggers a key word in centrally located equipment. This is certainly something that can be readily avoided, once the subversive awareness sets in, but as it is, just being able to buy food at a semi-sensible price in southern areas seems like a good start, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, not to like about the movement of price information between regions. Integration is the mother of organization, perhaps~


  4. “In journalism, skepticism may be the ultimate virtue”


    That sentence loosely reminds me of the movie, “Almost Famous”, where, rock critic Lester Bangs warns the very young aspiring journalist William Miller to make his reputation off of being unmerciful and honest.

    A few quotes from the movie about not selling out:

    “And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls… they’ll try to fly you places for free…. offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars …”

    “And you should build your reputation on being honest… and unmerciful.”

    ” … don’t do it to make friends with people who are trying to use you to further the big business desire to glorify worthless rock stars like Stillwater. And don’t let those swill merchants re-write you.”


  5. I agree that these journalists are not being shown anything new, but the thing is most journalists who are in NK from abroad find the location so sensational that unfortunately they feel that each destination they reach is an exclusive. How many “Inside North Korea”, “A glimpse into North Korea”, “Daily life in the Hermit Kingdom” photo albums get published each year, all showing the same exact locations – and even guides!

    I wonder if the journalists in country worry about being too critical too. In the press conference you refer to in your piece it would have made sense to ask about how South Korea treated them, and what their living standards were like during the short time here. However, perhaps the journalist may have felt uncomfortable asking – for if you are relying on the North Koreans for everything, then it you might not want to stress relations too much by asking uncomfortable questions. This really is the nub of the problem for journalists working there.

    And even if they ever do get wind of a real story, like the explosion of the train in 2004, then how likely is it minders will drive them there? “Oh sorry mr AFP – our car is out of gas. What a shame!”

    Tad at NK News –

  6. Kaesong, Mount Myohyang and Nampo are standard stops on the tourist route — I’ve been to all of them, Kaesong and Nampo several times, as a tourist. It’s too bad to see AP — and readers everywhere — so easily taken in by this stuff.


  7. Looking at the slide show, slide 46 of the empy restaurant reminded me of the scene in VBStv’s tour of NK. The man was alone in the restaurent, he was feed, but waitresses put food out on all the tables, only to remove the food when he left. If the North Koreans are willing to go that length to fool or impress a tourist, what are the willing to do to fool and impress AP reporters and photographers.

    Slide 56 shows “students” (does one believe anything they see or are told) swimming and playing in a pool at Kim Il Sun University. Will AP be doing follow up stories and photos of these students now working construction for the next 10 month or so?

    The one thing I didn’t see in the slide show was a picture of the USS Pueblo.