Let’s take stock of what the AP has accomplished in the year-plus since it announced those agreements with North Korea — the ones it still hasn’t disclosed — to open a bureau in Pyongyang. It disseminated at least one faked photo globally; co-sponsored a Kim Il Sung propaganda exhibition in Manhattan with North Korea’s official “news” service; invited two North Korean propagandists into its news team; and provided us a stream of leash-and-collar journalism that repackages North Korean propaganda with just enough editing and token disclaimers to distinguish it from the original. Now, one of its reports, about what the AP describes as “a rare news conference by a repatriated North Korean defector,” has been exposed as factually false.
One of the more obvious failings of the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau has been its failure to deliver news and substituting in its place fluff stories about model schools and markets, Kim Jong Il orchid festivals, and most recently, Ri Sol Ju’s fashions. When North Korea launched a missile last spring, it invited in dozens of foreign reporters to join the AP in being scooped from Washington, where the news of the launch’s failure was first reported.
In late June of this year, however, the AP must have thought it finally had a real story when the North Koreans invited them to attend what passes for a “news conference” in North Korea, where a woman, flanked by her son and his wife, tearfully confessed to the “crime” of defecting to the South:
Pak Jong Suk made the account to local and foreign reporters Thursday at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang. The 66-year-old’s story could not be independently confirmed.
“I am an ingrate who had betrayed my motherland to seek better living while others devoted themselves to building a thriving nation, tightening their belts,” Pak, clad in a pink traditional Korean dress, told reporters in Pyongyang.
The original report is here, still hosted on the AP’s own site. Aside from the customary could-not-be-independently-confirmed disclaimer and a request for a comment from the South Korean government, the report contains no contradictions or investigation of the truth of Ms. Pak’s claims, or those of the North Koreans. At the time, I parodied the report for uncritically echoing the party line, the absurdity of the party line itself, and the AP’s failure to disclose who reported the piece. I wondered aloud (and still do) whether the reporters included any of the North Korean “journalists” seen applauding in photos of Ms. Pak’s public self-criticism.
“I deserve punishment. But Kim Jong Un did not blame me but was so kind as to enable me to enjoy the greatest happiness,” Pak said at the news conference.
Had it not been for the presence of the AP and its willingness to disinform the world to cozy up to the North Koreans — and North Korea’s certainty that the AP wouldn’t question their story — this global spectacle of mandatory masochism would not have been news, and Mrs. Pak’s family would not have become the visibly terrified instruments of this propaganda ploy.
At the time, the AP pointed out that “[i]t was not possible to immediately verify whether Pak spoke on government orders or of her own volition,” but it would have been possible for any of the AP’s staff in Seoul to pursue the story in the intervening months. (Jean H. Lee is the AP’s Korea Bureau Chief, including both Pyongyang and Seoul.) Leave aside the story’s facial implausibility; a South Korean daily, The Donga Ilbo, found evidence within days that the North Koreans had turned Mrs. Pak’s son into a hostage to force her to return. Now, months later, The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan has written a detailed report describing how the North Koreans terrorized the Pak family, including her son, his wife, and their children. In the process, Harlan also informs us that North Korea used the AP to disinform the world:
When Pak left for the South in 2006, her son, Kim Jin Myong, reported his mother dead, according to H.W. Lee, a cousin of Pak’s and the president of a company that makes energy- and aerospace-related products in Seoul. But North Korean authorities learned of the deception, Lee said, when they arrested a broker who had helped Pak defect. The broker confessed names of those he had assisted, and Pak’s son lost his job at a prestigious Pyongyang music school. The son and his wife and child were forcibly relocated to Hwanghae province in the remote, impoverished countryside and put under tight surveillance.
According to relatives and a friend of Pak’s who lived in the same Seoul apartment complex, it was 2009 or 2010 when Pak learned what had happened, in a phone conversation with her daughter-in-law’s parents, Workers’ Party members who lived in Pyongyang.
“Before she got that news,” Lee said, “she was a happy person.”
Friends of Pak’s say that after hearing of her son’s relocation, she became despondent and wondered aloud if she would live or die if she returned to the North. Her daughter-in-law’s parents encouraged her to return, saying that it was the only way to restore their family. South Korean government officials suggest that Pak could have been blackmailed by the North Korean government with a threat to her son’s safety, although those officials refused in a lengthy interview to detail the potential threats.
“I assume Pak had two options,” said Park Soo-jin, a deputy spokesman for Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, who said she based her comments on the South Korean intelligence agency’s review of the case. “Either reject the proposals from North Korea and see an uncertain future for her son. Or return to North Korea” under the belief that she would be reunited with her family. [The Washington Post, Chico Harlan]
I could forgive the AP for its fluff reporting, and for having nothing terribly interesting to say about North Korea from Pyongyang. Like all officially sanctioned reporting from North Korea, the AP’s has told us nothing newsworthy that was exclusive, and it has told us nothing exclusive that was newsworthy. But the AP’s more disturbing patten has been its consistent failure to question the misleading, suspicious, or outlandish stories that it helps the North Korean propaganda machine to disseminate globally. It betrayed its ethical commitments to independent and critical reporting, ignored and dodged questions about its relationship with North Korea, burdened itself with conflicts of interest by associating itself with North Korea’s propaganda machine, and — worst of all — it has hurt innocent North Koreans by doing these things.