Yes, even AP reporters can do good reporting from North Korea

Finally.  An AP reporter goes to North Korea and puts the showpieces of Pyongyang into the context of how people in the rest of North Korea live.  Naturally, the reporter is Tim Sullivan.

There are no nightspots here, no modern apartment complexes, no electricity except for a few hours every evening. The shelves in most stores are noticeably half-empty, and dirt sidestreets lead to clusters of small houses, many little more than shacks, with bulging walls and broken roofs.

It is the reality of North Korean urban life — with the notable exception of the capital city, 80 miles north of here, in a carefully crafted totalitarian Oz. That contrast, between Pyongyang and every other city in the country, reflects an ever-growing chasm between North Korea’s elite and the daily struggles of everyone else.

Pyongyang has the Dolphinarium, a cavernous aquarium where smiling, fresh-faced trainers in skintight-suits make dolphins dance for ecstatic crowds. There’s the new 3,000-unit Changjon Street apartments, lit up like a movie set long into the night, a proclamation that North Korea has electricity to spare. It has the Sunrise Restaurant, the latest destination for the city’s nouveau riche, where tough-looking men drink grape Fanta from brandy snifters while their drivers wait outside with their Land Cruisers. It has good government jobs and the country’s top university.

Sullivan, who even discloses that he was accompanied by government minders (was that so hard?), even compensates for North Koreans’ inability to speak freely by interviewing a defector in Seoul:

“Pyongyang is not just another city,” said a doctor who spent most of his life in Kaesong, but who was educated in the capital. The doctor, who eventually fled to South Korea, spoke on condition of his name not be used, fearing retribution against relatives still living in the North. “It’s like another country.”

It’s not the descriptions of the Dolphinariums of Pyongyang that I mind.  If placed in context, those descriptions are also useful information.  I take issue when reporters on short leashes point their soda straws at ersatz and showpieces and leave less-informed readers with the impression that life in North Korea is all supermarkets, water slides, and mini-golf.

No, Sullivan wasn’t allowed to describe much that North Korea watchers didn’t already know, but he did his job.  When his Bureau Chief privately wonders what her most persistent critic really expects of her, she doesn’t have to look any further than this report.

Soon enough, we’ll see just how much of this kind of reporting North Korea is prepared to tolerate.


  1. Josh,

    Can you believe recent events ?! Another defection and right across the JSA ?! I just got back from another trip to the Far East and all I can say is I am as close to events there are you’d like to be, if you get my drift ! Keep doing what you are doing. You’ve got people talking and are having an impact.

  2. Barbara Demick’s story, linked by james, includes this strange sentence, at odds with its overall tone:
    The new leader also appears to be working closely with his uncle, Jang Song Taek, a longtime advocate of liberalization who has traveled widely, even to South Korea.

  3. Dateline Pyongyang: The Associated Press and the Opening of North Korea. Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll at Emory University, 1 October 2012. Questions begin at 17:40. A member of the audience asks about prison camps at 19:44. No follow-up was allowed. Here’s the Youtube video at the Halle Institute.

  4. You’d have heard it better, Sonagi, if I’d been smart enough to hold the mike closer to my mouth. Maybe next time. How did you like Kathleen Carroll’s answer? I wasn’t too impressed. I would have liked to suggest that she get the coordinates of the camps from OFK and send her journalists out with their own navigation devices and without minders, but I had already given up the mike.

  5. OK, I heard it. First, well done — delivered with a precise, understated gravitas. “Scholarly,” even. I’m sure everyone on that auditorium would have been astonished to hear that you go by the screen name “Glans.”

    Carroll’s answer really comes down to “it isn’t newsworthy if we didn’t see it.” It’s pretty obvious how the AP and North Korea would find that arrangement so mutually satisfying. I’m also glad that Carroll directly represented that AP seeks to cover North Korea as a whole, in light of the fact that their coverage is most easily condemned for misrepresenting North Korea as a whole.

  6. For the record, here’s my attempt to transcribe my question and her answer.

    Q. In an April 10, 2012 interview, your Korea bureau chief said that the two North Korean KCNA journalists in AP’s bureau have never refused to cover a story. Has AP ever asked them to cover the political prison camps that allegedly hold 200,000 men, women, and children? Can you explain why has the AP’s coverage almost completely stopped mentioning the camps since this bureau opened?

    A. It hasn’t completely stopped mentioning the camps, and the journalists who are based in Pyongyang are probably the least able to get information on something like that, based on where they are. We are covering the totality of the country, and we are striving to do so with first-hand reporting on both our part, the journalists who travel in from elsewhere in Asia monthly, as well as the work of the North Korean journalists. There’s an awful lot, as you know (you clearly know the subject very well), there is an awful lot about North Korea that is second and third hand, perhaps of necessity, but that’s the way it is. We are trying to make our journalism be about eye-witness reporting, and we have no eye-witness reporting here to date about that. But we have certainly written about the allegations, and certainly this fascinating book that was out in the last six months or so on that same topic.

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