AP Watch Media Criticism

Irony Alert: North Korea Reveals the Truth about the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch (Updated)

I’d like to interrupt my advocacy of the violent overthrow of the North Korean government to thank the Korea Central News Agency, North Korea’s official “news” service, for being so much more transparent than the Associated Press has been about the new relationship between the two agencies. For the last few weeks, I’ve made a personal jihad of obtaining photographic proof that the joint photo exhibit by the AP and KCNA, which opened this week in New York, is not (as the AP justifies it) a window into everyday life in North Korea, but is instead (as the AP can’t quite manage to deny) a case of an ostensibly objective news service, one that touts itself as a fearless speaker of truth to power, prostituting itself to North Korea’s propaganda machine in exchange for preferential access to even more propaganda. It does so by co-sponsoring a photo exhibit commemorating the life of dead North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, an exhibit that North Korea is justifiably touting as a propaganda triumph commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the elder Kim’s birth.

So far, my efforts to obtain this proof by indirect means have failed, which is why I’m so grateful to KCNA for posting dozens of incriminating photos of the exhibit online, which I now share with you below the fold. When you’ve seen those photos, you won’t have any doubts about the exhibition’s hagiographic and propagandistic character. Unfortunately, North Korea is better equipped with rocket scientists than competent web designers, so there are no permlinks to the KCNA article, or to the slide show or video accompanying it. Rather than send you hunting for the photos, and because North Korea has a way of disappearing things, facts, and people, I’ve uploaded them to this post, below the fold. If you want to read the KCNA article yourself, click here, then look for an article dated March 16th that begins this way:

New York, March 16 (KCNA) — A photo exhibition co-sponsored by the Korean Central News Agency and the Associated Press of the U.S. opened with due ceremony at the Rubin Art Museum on March 15 in New York to mark the centenary of birth of President Kim Il Sung.

On display at the exhibition under the theme “True Picture of Korea” are photos of undying revolutionary exploits President Kim Il Sung, leader Kim Jong Il and the dear respected Kim Jong Un performed for the building of a thriving nation, people’s happiness, independent and peaceful reunification of Korea and global independence. Photos also deal with their revolutionary activities and great personalities.

Among them are photos of the might of a harmonious whole of the leader and people, achievements made by the DPRK in different fields including politics, economy and culture under the leadership of the Party and the leader and happy life of the Korean people.

Not surprisingly, the AP has a slightly different way of marketing this outrage. A few days ago, it blunderbussed a press release off to the nation’s major newspapers to plug this propaganda exhibit. I’m still waiting for the AP to respond to my e-mailed questions, but as it turns out, the AP does respond to questions from bloggers who don’t ask uncomfortable questions. Here are two additional photographs of the exhibit, via German blogger Ronda Hauben (ht: Spelunker):

ap-nyc-1.jpg ap-nyc-2.jpg

If that doesn’t seem conclusive enough, perhaps you didn’t notice the text:

A joint exhibition by The Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency

Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung

In her post, Hauben thanks the AP’s media relations staff for granting her permission to post these photographs. You’ll see from the tone of Hauben’s post — she uses phrases like “hostile U.S. policy toward North Korea” without giving the impression of intentional irony — that she’s a willing consumer of the AP’s product who harbors little skepticism about the AP’s ethical choices.

By contrast, I have a lot of questions for the AP now that I’ve seen what KCNA has revealed. For example, who pays the salaries of the two KCNA “journalists” embedded in the AP’s Pyongyang bureau, and if so, how much are those salaries? What are the professional journalistic qualifications of these men, in light of Reporters Without Borders having recently “found that the government media have evolved little and continue to act as Kim Jong-il’s propaganda outlets,” while independent journalism is punishable by death? Did the AP have the option of not employing them? What is the AP is paying the North Korean government for its office space, equipment, and other various charges? Was it the AP that paid for the art gallery in New York? How about the air fare for the North Korean propagandists? How about those glossy foam core portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — did the AP pay for those, too? If money changed hands, did the AP obtain a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, given all of the financial sanctions against North Korea? You’ll notice that the captions below the icons of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lack the tortured prose for which KCNA is so justly famous. Did the AP give KCNA any editorial assistance with its propaganda this time, you know, to make it more marketable to American audiences? As a reader, I’d like to know what those agreements with the North Korean government say about the content of the AP’s articles, whether the North Koreans have the right to censor them, whether the AP correspondents have to have minders accompany them at all times. And speaking of those agreements, can we please see those, at last? If you want to know the answers to those questions, or if you have questions of your own, why not e-mail them yourself? Their addresses are pcolford@ap.org and jstokes@ap.org. You’d be luckier than me to get even one response, but I doubt you’ll get two. It seems that the AP is looking for a new Manager of Media Relations.

When I consider the banality of such compromises, I sometimes wonder if I’ve lost the capacity to be outraged that we’re speaking of a regime that does this to people:

Or this:

Or herds hundreds of thousands of them into places like Camp 22, quite possibly the closet thing this Earth has to a hell for the living.

In these times, any journalist with internet access can be a virtual Walter Duranty. The AP’s correspondents haven’t been to Camp 22 and won Pulitzers for telling us it’s a spa, but they aren’t asking to go there, either. They know that it exists, and have as good an idea of what goes on there as the rest of us, and yet they still have the unmitigated gall to tell their readers that this is what life is really like for the people of North Korea. Consider: a reader who actually believes the AP’s reporting knows less about North Korea than someone who hasn’t read it. If there’s a better operational definition of journalistic malpractice, I can’t think of one.

But back to that press release. The newspapers that published it included the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle. The Times decided not to enable comments. This was an interesting choice for America’s newspaper of record, given that (1) it printed the AP’s press release wholesale, (2) the press release was essentially an unlabeled advertisement for the AP and its North Korean love interest, and (3) the last time the Times printed a sampling of David Guttenfelder’s “exclusive” images of North Korea — even without the KCNA’s added flavoring — many Times commenters reacted skeptically to the AP’s suggestion that it was showing us a unique and unfiltered view of life in North Korea. The AP’s latest press release wasn’t labeled as such, of course, or as an advertisement, or commentary. Instead, the Times, the Post and the Chronicle printed it as a news article. And as further proof that engagement does work, just in unexpected ways, the AP’s objectivity in reporting about itself is about on par with KCNA’s objectivity in reporting about Kim Il Sung. The vanity is breathtaking.

“My expectation is that this will be the first step in some peaceful reconciliation, and in a few years there will be trade, cultural exchange and tourists from each country coming to (the) other,” said Donald Rubin, who co-founded the 8th Floor gallery hosting the exhibit.


“It is our hope that this exhibition would give exhibition-goers visual understanding of the people, customs, culture and history of the DPRK, thereby helping to deepen mutual understanding and improve the bilateral relations,” Kim Chang Gwang, KCNA’s senior vice president, said in an address at the show’s opening.

“In this exhibit, we are offered two perspectives of the DPRK – as viewed by her native daughters and sons from KCNA and by AP journalists visiting to chronicle news and daily life there. We can appreciate the different styles and techniques and points of view,” Carroll said. “These photographs also show us that different people can find common ground.” [SF Gate]

Fortunately, the Chronicle did enable comments when it printed the AP piece. You might think a liberal town like San Francisco would have generated at least a few approving comments, but no. It’s about as positive a reaction as you’d likely get if Carrot Top played the Apollo, or if the Village People played Bob’s Country Bunker. Behold. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen such a wider chasm between media self-image and public reaction. The AP’s oblivious narcissism evokes the image of geriatric playboy unfolding his beach chair, rubbing lotion on himself, and waiting for the adorers to arrive, not quite noticing how parents shield the eyes of their children and order them to get dressed and run to the car. And while the AP surely deserves all of the abuse it gets here — with the possible exception of the comments that had to be removed by the moderators(!) — this comment is still my favorite:

The AP still hasn’t released the terms of its agreement with North Korea. This propaganda show is apparently one of them.

A final lesson we learn from this experience is that watchdogs need watchdogs of their own. I know for a fact that the AP’s ethical compromises are deeply concerning to journalists who report for well-respected and widely-circulated services, and who’ve privately e-mailed me about this story. Because they, too, know how rotten this is, several of them have been surreptitiously feeding me tips about this story, including the first KCNA report about this exhibition. But for whatever reason, the news services that employ them haven’t questioned the AP or demanded the release of its agreements with the North Korean government. Maybe they’re afraid of the perception that they’re just attacking the AP because they’re competitors, but it seems more likely to me that journalists, like other people, don’t want to alienate people they work with and like. The watchdog role, unfortunately, has been relegated to bloggers.

It gets worse. The location of the exhibit was the 8th Floor Gallery, slightly misidentified by KCNA “journalists” as the Rubin Museum of Art. In fact, it’s a distinction without much difference, because, according to the 8th Floor Gallery’s web site, it was established by “Shelley and Donald Rubin to promote cultural and philanthropic initiative,” and seems to specialize in promoting the culture of Cuba in particular. Want to know what else Shelley F. Rubin does? Thanks to commenter Spelunker, we learn that Rubin is a member of the Board of Directors of … Human Rights Watch, where her title is listed as “Co-Founder, The Rubin Museum of Art.” HRW’s official position on the legacy of Kim Jong Il is that he was a “brutal overseer of massive and systematic oppression that included a willingness to let his people starve.” Indeed, HRW’s Kay Seok had done some excellent research on North Korea, at least until a few years ago, although North Korea is hardly among HRW’s top priorities. The co-existence of that last fact with the fact that North Korea is probably the locus of the greatest number of and intensity of human rights violations anywhere on earth today is highly significant by itself. But the other problem with this is the same problem observers had when a HRW researcher was recently exposed as a collector of Nazi memorabilia. A credible human rights organization can’t be ambivalent about the ideology and iconography that enable concentration camps and genocide even as you are reading this now. If your Board of Directors is glorifying what your researchers decry, you’re ambivalent. If Human Rights Watch has a conscience, it will ask Ms. Rubin to resign from its board.

All photos that follow are from KCNA. [See updates at the bottom of this post.]

316238-2.jpg 316238-4.jpg 316238-5.jpg 316238-6.jpg

316238-1.jpg 316238-7.jpg 316238-8.jpg 316238-9.jpg

316238-10.jpg 316238-11.jpg 316238-12.jpg 316238-13.jpg

316238-14.jpg 316238-15.jpg 316238-16.jpg 316238-17.jpg

316238-18.jpg 316238-191.jpg 316238-20.jpg 316238-21.jpg

316238-22.jpg 316238-23.jpg 316238-24.jpg 316238-25.jpg

316238-27.jpg 316238-28.jpg 316238-29.jpg 316238-30.jpg

316238-31.jpg 316238-32.jpg 316238-33.jpg 316238-34.jpg

316238-3.jpg ap-nyc-2.jpg ap-nyc-1.jpg


Adam Cathcart points us to this slide show, posted on North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, showing screen grabs of North Korean-approved, AP-generated coverage in U.S. newspapers. North Korea considers this to be the biggest propaganda coup in its history, which it is. It’s also an ethical disgrace for the AP, although I hesitate to say that it’s the greatest of them.

Meanwhile, we’ve reached a new low now that KCNA “journalists” are now writing propaganda under the AP’s byline, which is the only newsworthy part of this report: “Associated Press writer Pak Won Il contributed to this story from Pyongyang.” See this post for a little more about Pak. The AP doesn’t say much about Pak’s journalistic credentials, leaving the rest of us to speculate that he’s (at best) merely a career propagandist, a spy, or both.

Now that North Korean propagandists are writing the AP’s “news” about North Korea, we’re starting to see some interesting editorial decisions. Consider: in a country with 200,000 people in political prison camps, wracked by a completely preventable mass famine, locked in a nuclear standoff with the entire world, and escalating its limited war against its southern neighbor, what do you suppose the AP deems fit to print? The fact that North Koreans are capable of learning to play a one-hit-wonder pop song that sucked when it was new, back in the Mesozoic era when was in high school, notable only for its maddening tendency to stick in your head until the voices tell you to free the trapped thetans of the people in your subway car with an ice pick (if you’ve ever been to the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney, you can identify). What else is significant about this story? If you want to hear accordion renditions of 80’s pop songs that aren’t played by Wierd Al Yankovic, you can get that at pretty much any noraebang parlor within a ten-block radius of Seoul’s main bus station (just watch where you step on a Friday night). On the other hand, the story makes a suitable vehicle to give North Korea an image makeover by marketing it as misunderstood, or as the headline puts it, to “challenge perceptions of North Koreans.”

In related news, but from a completely different perspective, another corporation in the Human Rights Industry has decided that it, too, is ambivalent about the world’s worst human rights abuser. This reporter’s opening line puts things in a somewhat different perspective that the AP has been showing us:

A humanitarian group is working to bring the National Symphony Orchestra of North Korea on a tour of the United States — with the full blessing of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one of the most repressive countries in the world.

When our society allowed the political left to hijack the banner of human rights, it was just a matter of time before human rights became just another vehicle for anti-anti-anti-Americanism. Today, any dictator who hates America as much as the organization’s board of directors was given amnesty (or more often, deferred prosecution) for his crimes against humanity.


  1. The KCNA story,with slideshow and video, is still out there. I reckon the Norks are proud of it. Maybe our own conservatives will admire Kim Chang Gwang, first vice director of KCNA, who speaks without a teleprompter at 01:28.


  2. Why dump on Walter Duranty? He was only a Stalinist in the USSR.

    Remember instead the foul Wilfred Burchett, a KGB stooge who gleefully spread lies and propaganda during the Korean war about the wonderful treatment of US POWs and the sadistic practices of US troops. In his admiration of the enemy he was the equivalent in those days of Jane Hanoi Fonda Vadim Haydon Turner. Burchett willfully caused enormous misery as required by his Soviet handlers.

    Dishonorable mention should also go to the Rev. James Endicott, a DPRK mouthpiece for lies that the USA spread plague and cholera, and these he continued till his death. The allegations are untrue (see Leichtenberg’s new Evidence.) At the time a very great scientist, Sinologist and Marxist-Christian, Joseph Needham, was co-opted, but allowed a 3% doubt that the whole story was a ploy. Later, our very own Bruce Cumings adopted the Needham ploy (do you really think that thousands of false testimonies could be assembled by the truth-loving NorKs?) This was his least celebrated idea as an academic, since it relied upon supposition rather than fact.

    There will always be fellow-travelers and stooges, and I would expect that quick research would disclose that Burchett wrote for AP in his day.


  3. someone should have organized a protest outside of the gallery with protestors showing off some photos of their own to balance those in the gallery…


  4. The press has rights but no enforceable duties. That has negative effects, which Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler website studies. Today, Bob shows how the press corps interferes in elections, with its phony reporting on candidates’ “gaffes”.


  5. We do get one clue with regard to the official AP-KCNA agreement from the German lady’s blog; she actually quotes a revealing statement made at the photo exhibit’s reception by KCNA’s visiting VIP Kim Chang-gwang: “AP pledged to report on North Korea with fairness, balance, and accuracy.”. Here is Spelunker’s North Korean-English translation: “Don’t fall off the tightrope (balance and accuracy) AP comrades or you’ll get what you deserve (fairness)!!

    I have a theory concerning the 2 different venues. We know the photo exhibition is indeed at the 8th Floor Gallery. However the evening reception was likely held at the nearby Rubin Museum of Art down the street in a clandestine attempt to keep possible uninvited guests away. I recall the 8th Floor Gallery’s website claiming last month that there would be no special opening; that was changed as soon as KCNA announced that Kim Chang-gwang’s plane departed from Pyongyang.

    Try to find the name “Rubin” on the 8th Floor Gallery’s website. It takes quite a bit of effort; I had to resort to using the website’s own search function for brief mention of the Foundation. Of course it’s much harder to hide at the “Rubin Museum of Art”, thus there was no mention that the opening ceremony’s wine reception was to be held there instead. Getting invited to that exclusive party was harder than getting seats behind the Pittsburgh penalty box at the Penguins-Rangers game in Madison Square Garden.

    I don’t live in the vicinity of New York City, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to make an appearance at a wine reception honoring KCNA and Kim Il Sung. Sure, the idea of some sort of protest is very tempting; but on the other hand you risk waking up Saturday morning with your photo prominently featured on KCNA’s website. Good luck explaining that one at the US congressional inquiry.



Comments are closed.