For nearly 20 years now, proponents of “engagement” with North Korea have promised that commerce, aid, and economic interdependence would expose the North to new ideas and transform it into a more open society. The reality has been much closer to the opposite of this. Buoyed by a stream of regime-sustaining hard currency, North Korea became (if anything) more belligerent toward its benefactors, more brazen in its proliferation, and more brutal and exploitative toward its own people. Meanwhile, those in the free world who chose to collaborate with the North have had to accommodate its demands to curb transparency, dissent, and open debate about North Korea’s political system, and about their own dealings with its regime. Once they are trapped by their own investments, they learn that North Korea always demands tribute, never tolerates criticism, and eventually makes hostages of its partners.
The Associated Press has made itself the latest, the most disturbing, and (to me) the most amusing victim of this con:
The Australian‘s Media blog is the latest news site to write about the AP’s still-undisclosed agreements with North Korea’s official “news” service, KCNA and the “criticism from within the small but active community of North Korea-watchers that it has entered into a Faustian bargain with the most evil regime in the world.” There is also the question of journalistic standards. To put it mildly, KCNA has not had the best reputation for independence, accuracy, responsibility, or integrity, and its reporters aren’t widely renowned for their journalistic acumen. Six months after the AP established its Pyongyang bureau, here is how it responds to questions about what, exactly, the bargain was, and how effectively the AP has maintained its objectivity in spite of it:
Media put a list of more than 20 questions to AP about the details and ethical considerations of its operations in North Korea and requested an interview with the correspondents involved or an executive involved establishing the bureau.
AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, initially promised an interview with one of the players involved in setting up the bureau but rescinded the offer after receiving the questions, saying they suggested “a highly sceptical view of our efforts”.
Now there is a great moment in media relations for you. I don’t know if Colford is showing us how those in the know deal with perceived media bias or if he’s just not very good at media relations, but he leaves some devastating charges unanswered:
There’s no question that AP has found its subscribers keen for its Pyongyang content, but its close collaboration with state-run media KCNA has brought questions of editorial independence. The ugly nature of its partner agency was highlighted in recent weeks as KCNA ran on its website a series of slogans threatening — among other things — to rip out the windpipe of South Korea President Lee Myung-bak and carry out attacks on the South.
In case you find that a little hard to believe, here are some screenshots.
You will remember that Colford has repeatedly refused to respond to my questions and criticisms, too. He’s the same flack who ignored my requests for the release of the AP-KCNA MOUs, and I also suspect him of demanding the suppression of my Wall Street Journal op-ed, despite his failure to identify a single inaccuracy in it. (Colford falsely claimed that I “conveniently” overlooked the presence of two North Korean so-called journalists in the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau; in fact, I specifically made an issue of their presence. I’d rather believe that Colford didn’t read the op-ed than that he lied about it. His other issues with the op-ed were mere arguments, and not particularly good ones). Still, other news organizations continue to ask the AP hard questions. The Australian, despite getting no answers from the AP, presents a balance of perspectives from an unsurprisingly supportive Leonid Petrov and a surprisingly critical Peter Beck, a pro-engagement liberal who has championed the human rights for North Koreans:
But another leading Korea scholar, the Asia Foundation’s Peter Beck, says the arrangement had not been a success so far and had the potential to sully AP’s reputation. “AP decided it was in their interests to put a high price — both in monetary terms and editorial independence — to set up a bureau,” he told Media.
Beck says claims by the AP to editorial independence while operating in Pyongyang “didn’t pass the laugh test”. “The simple fact is, they wouldn’t be able to keep their office if they were reporting accurately about what’s happening in Pyongyang. You cannot do both,” he says.
Beck says engaging with North Korea always comes at a price and, while there is the potential for a huge payoff if there is a collapse or other momentous event in North Korea, AP is not currently getting much in exchange for this price. “Any deal with North Korea is basically a deal with the devil,” he says.
I’ll expand on Peter’s first observation, that the AP’s experiment has not been a success. To the extent the AP’s reporting from Pyongyang has been exclusive, it has not been newsworthy. To the extent the reporting has been newsworthy, it has not been exclusive. The post also covers the screeds of this humble blog:
Another keen observer of the Korean peninsula, lawyer and blogger Joshua Stanton, is so enraged by AP’s move that he has started a subpage on his One Free Korea blog called AP Watch.
Stanton, who has catalogued the locations and details of various prison camps in North Korea to help lift human rights issues to prominence, has published a stream of biting posts on the blog criticising AP’s operations there and the lack of focus on human rights.
So far, AP is yet to really engage on these criticisms and has released no details of the contract it has struck to operate in North Korea.
Most reporters have been unwilling to touch the AP-North Korea story so far, but I suspect that’s in spite of the AP’s media strategy, not because of it. To the extent the AP has answered tough questions at all, it has done so with offensive moral equivalence or with prefabricated pabulum that carries all the plausibility of a typical KCNA report. Usually, this sort of evasive bumbling attracts more media attention, not less, but the AP is unusual in that it benefits from the professional courtesy of other journalists, who avoid questioning the AP for the same reason that cops avoid giving other cops speeding tickets.
Unfortunately for the AP, it can’t suppress all criticism, and the criticism is starting to show effects. Outwardly, the AP ignores it, but for the last month, its reporting from Pyongyang has been significantly less atrocious. There’s much less of it, for one thing. For another, the reporting we have seen is more skeptical about the people, places, and events North Korean minders have allowed AP reporters to see. This report on an alleged drought near Pyongyang concedes that the farm the reporter was taken to may not be representative of conditions throughout the country. (It says nothing about what efforts the AP made to see other places, such as the pockets of microfamine reported here, but that would be asking too much). This one, about a children’s festival in Pyongyang, puts the event into the context of cradle-to-grave indoctrination and mentions that the regime had just threatened to bombard the offices of South Korean newspapers that criticized the event. (It did not put the story into the context of how most kids live in North Korea, but that would also be asking too much). It’s not especially good reporting, but at least it’s not especially bad. It’s about what we’d have expected from a report filed from Pyongyang a year ago — not enlightening, courageous, or especially informative, but mercifully free of pretensions to the contrary. That is progress, even to a cynic who believes that the AP’s retreat toward minimal standards of objectivity was the product of duress.
This leaves us with two questions about the future of the AP-KCNA collaboration. First, can the AP balance the demands of a controlling totalitarian regime with those of critical readers who are unwilling to accept propaganda as a substitute for news? It hasn’t so far, I doubt that it can, and I’ll even speculate that the collaboration is already showing the strain of trying to serve these two irreconcilable masters. Second, how will we know that this dubious collaboration has ended? The AP must be desperate to keep any breach with the North Koreans out of the news, but when North Korea breaks its agreements, it doesn’t usually do that quietly.
Hat tip: James.