Can Tim Sullivan Save the Associated Press from KCNA?

If anything comes of the Richardson-Schmidt visit to Pyongyang, Jean Lee will be the first foreign journalist to break the story of the visit.  Huzzah for her, then, because Ms. Lee desperately needs to show that AP can report anything from Pyongyang that is (a) true, (b) newsworthy, and (c) exclusive to justify the existence of her new bureau.  Still, I’d nominate Lee’s exclusive coverage of the opening of Kim Jong Il’s mausoleum as her magnum opus, apparently filed from some alternative Red Dawn universe after KCNA’s hostile takeover of TMZ:

Wails echoed through the chilly hall as a group of North Korean women sobbed into the sashes of their traditional Korean dresses as they bowed before his body. The hall bearing the glass coffin was opened to select visitors — including The Associated Press — for the first time since his death.

North Korea also unveiled Kim’s yacht and his armored train carriage, where he is said to have died. Among the personal belongings featured in the mausoleum are the parka, sunglasses and pointy platform shoes he famously wore in the last decades of his life. A MacBook Pro lay open on his desk.

North Koreans paid homage to Kim and basked in the success of last week’s launch of a long-range rocket that sent a satellite named after him to space.  [AP, Jean H. Lee]

Lee then interviews fellow mausoleum visitors to provide unimpeachable absolute proof that 100% of North Koreans simply adored Kim Jong Il.  Lee never references, much less explains, why Kim Jong Un would need to issue directives to “weed out impure elements,” crush dissent, or “find all the notorious dissidents, who are hiding a knife behind their backs and waiting for the right time to trigger a riot.”  Or the report that these directives are necessary because “criticisms from citizens, high-ranking officials, and the elite against the North Korean system, Kim Jong Eun and his people are spreading” in the Northeast.  She never tests the accuracy of her Pyongyang vox populi by escaping her minders:


In fact, Jean H. Lee may be the only journalist who can use words like “upbeat” and “euphoria” in the same sentence as “Pyongyang.”  Aside from burying the word “impoverished” near the bottom of her piece, she never refers to the less flattering aspects of Kim Jong Il’s legacy — the families who went hungry so daddy could have his new yacht, the public executions of those who tried to flee, the children growing up in concentration camps, the orphans dying in front train stations on cold nights, possibly as they wondered why they lived at all.  But Lee does see fit to mention the “baby bump” under Ri Sol Ju’s billowing black dress.

Overall, however, the AP’s Pyongyang experiment shows signs of fading away.  The AP’s Pyongyang Journal page, set up to showcase that experiment, is moribund.  The most recent report published there is months old, and most of Lee’s recent contributions from Pyongyang have been sewn into other AP reports and bylined from other cities.  Not even the photographs and tweets posted there are recent.  This isn’t because nothing newsworthy has happened in North Korea recently.

It may be ironic to some (but not to me) that as AP Pyongyang shows signs of fading away, the quality of AP’s North Korea’s reporting as a whole has taken a sharp turn for the better.  For this, the AP can thank Tim Sullivan for a series of reports filed from outside the geographical boundaries and professional captivity of North Korea.  What makes these reports different from Lee’s is that they tell us interesting things about everyday life in North Korea.

In the first of these, bylined from Seoul, Sullivan updates us on the status of North Korea’s songbun, or political caste, system:

The power of caste remains potent, exiles and scholars say, generations after it was permanently branded onto every family based on their supposed ideological purity. But today it is also quietly fraying, weakened by the growing importance of something that barely existed until recently in socialist North Korea: wealth.

Like almost all change in North Korea’s deeply opaque society, where so much is hidden to outsiders, the shift is happening slowly and often silently. But in the contest for power within the closed world that Pyongyang has created, defectors, analysts and activists say money is now competing with the domination of political caste.

“There’s one place where songbun doesn’t matter, and that’s in business,” said a North Korean soldier-turned-businessman who fled to South Korea after a prison stint, and who now lives in a working-class apartment building on the fringes of Seoul. “Songbun means nothing to people who want to make money.”

Sullivan even goes the extra mile and seeks out the Official View:

“This is all nonsense!” a North Korean government minder said, interrupting a visiting American journalist when he tried to ask a woman about her family’s songbun. “People make up lies about my country!”

And in a report bylined in Hunchun, China, Sullivan gives us our latest installment of North Korea Perestroika Watch, about Kim Jong Un’s latest efforts to reimpose total information isolation on his squalid little kingdom:

“We must extend the fight against the enemy’s ideological and cultural infiltration,” Kim said in an October speech at the headquarters of his immensely powerful internal security service. Kim, who became North Korea’s supreme leader after the death of his father a year ago, called upon his vast security network to “ruthlessly crush those hostile elements.”

Over the past year, Kim has intensified a border crackdown that has attempted to seal the once-porous 1,420-kilometer (880-mile) frontier with China, smugglers and analysts say, trying to hold back the onslaught.

The assault that he fears? It’s being waged with cheap televisions rigged to receive foreign broadcasts, and with smuggled mobile phones that — if you can get a Chinese signal along the border — can call the outside world. Very often, it arrives in the form of wildly popular South Korean soap operas smuggled in on DVDs or computer thumb drives.

He even pulls off some droll humor:

But if it looks absurd — a Stalinist nation vowing to crush an assault of bad lighting and overacting — the dilemma is deadly serious for Kim, who needs to find a way to modernize his country and its economy while holding onto absolute power.

All of which gives a very different image of the Kim Jong Un-era North Korea than the reformist, progressive, and manipulated one that Lee and David Guttenfelder have shown us from Pyongyang.  The difference between Sullivan and some of his colleagues is that Sullivan’s main interest lies in covering how the majority of North Koreans live.  His reporting is detailed, comprehensive, multi-faceted, and fun to read.  It presents the “bad” facts along with the “good” ones.  He seeks out a diversity of views to achieve a balanced perspective.  Sullivan writes like someone who isn’t afraid of being expelled from Pyongyang.  His work makes Lee’s look like a Parade magazine tour of the zoo.

To an extent, the AP’s defenders can now argue that Sullivan’s work balances Lee’s, but they’d still be wrong.  Journalism is distinguished for what makes it unique, and the easiest way to distinguish yourself is by telling falsehoods.  Every story must stand on its own, and few of Lee’s reports, standing alone, can be described as “objective” or even “true.”  Besides which, the hardest behavior to defend is that of the AP’s corporate management.

Is it possible that the AP has seen the folly of its Pyongyang experiment and adjusted its compromises accordingly?  Might the North Koreans have reacted poorly to Sullivan’s past reporting by limiting AP’s access?  Could the decline in reporting from Pyongyang be related to last year’s retirement of CEO Tom Curley, who personally flew to Pyongyang to open AP’s Pyongyang Bureau?  To what extent was AP simply embarrassed by the criticism it faced, or the conduct of its partner, KCNA?  The AP has been less than transparent about such matters, so I can only guess.  But what anyone can see is that, despite all of the AP’s promises, a reporter can still get closer to the truth about North Korea by staying out of it.

One day, that will change, too, when an established wire service joins its funds, skills, and clout with the raw courage and local knowledge of Rimjingang, NK Net, the Daily NK, or Open News.  That will be the reporting breakthrough that North Korea really needs.