AP’s new Bureau Chief should tell us: Are these kids dead or alive?*

Last night, a reader forwarded me AP’s announcement that it had replaced Jean Lee as Bureau Chief in both Seoul and Pyongyang. The new Bureau Chief in Pyongyang will be Eric Talmadge, whose name is absent from the vast OFK archives, and whose reputation is thus a blank slate.

The AP has also caught up with the spirit of ’45 by appointing a separate Bureau Chief for Seoul, Foster Klug. Klug’s name is one of the best known in Korea journalism, and while I don’t doubt that he has strong opinions, they’ve never been evident in his reporting. It isn’t clear whether Talmadge will report to Klug, whether they will both report to the same manager, or whether the creation of a new Bureau Chief position in Pyongyang means that Talmadge will remain there full-time (Lee alternated between the two Korean capitals).

Now, the curious part:

Talmadge succeeds Jean H. Lee, who will assume a new role as a writer covering in-depth issues on the Korean Peninsula and the region. As AP’s bureau chief in Seoul the past five years, and in Pyongyang for nearly two, she has been instrumental in helping AP gain greater access to the traditionally isolated country.

The AP “news” story continues its objective self-promotion with this:

Over the years, AP journalists have been granted unprecedented access to people and places both in Pyongyang and in the countryside.

It’s difficult to pack all of my reactions to this into one paragraph, but I’ll try. AP Pyongyang has reported next to nothing from North Korea that is (1) exclusive, (2) newsworthy, and (3) true — that is to say, an accurate representation of the subject in its greater context. North Korean minders have led the AP to its “stories,” nearly all of them in and near Pyongyang, and most of them fluff stories, with short leashes. The AP reported what it saw through the soda straw the minders held up to its lens, usually without questioning it, and led readers to believe, inaccurately, that this view was representative of North Korea as a whole. From the very beginning of the experiment, the AP compromised its objectivity by co-sponsoring a propaganda exhibition for a vile and murderous regime. It also associated itself KCNA, a state propaganda organ widely known for its fabulism, fakery, mendacity, and journo-terrorism.

I may have been AP’s most strident critic, but I certainly wasn’t the only one. AP has mostly responded to its critics by trying to bully them, but it hasn’t responded to the substance of their arguments, such as by disclosing the terms of its agreements with the North Korean government’s propaganda arm. Its ham-handed (indeed, almost North Korean) approach to media relations failed to suppress rising levels discomfort from other journalists who report for Foreign PolicyThe AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, The AustralianThe Christian Science Monitor, and in greatest detail, The Weekly Standard.

By now, you’ve noticed that I needed two paragraphs to put all of that out there.

The appointment of a new Bureau Chief is an opportunity for all of this to change, of course. I hope it will be. In case the AP would like my view about how to use its “unprecedented access,” let me suggest that it tell us whether these nine children are dead or alive.

We know, of course, that the Lao government handed the kids over to North Korea, which flew them back to Pyongyang. (There is a petition to condemn the Lao government for doing this, but a more appropriate response might be to ask your member of Congress to push the State Department to classify Laos as a Tier III country for human trafficking purposes unless it promises to move future defectors speedily to Seoul.)

When this happened — during my hiatus, while I was on Capitol Hill — we took some comfort in the fact that North Korea originally have the kids the Park Jong Suk treatment and paraded them before the cameras. Knowing, or at least suspecting, that North Korea has shot adults and children alike for defecting before, we hoped that North Korea would at least feel compelled to keep these kids alive after putting them on display. But now, darker fears are obscuring our initial hopes:

Nine young North Korean defectors may have been executed upon their return from Laos, according to several media reports.

The escapees — aged 15 to 23 — were deported back to North Korea after a dangerous mission for freedom that had taken as long as four years for some of them, the Daily Mail reported. [Washington Times]

Because I haven’t graduated from the denial stage of the grieving process, I take small comfort in the fact that this report is sourced to The Daily Mail, a paper whose reputation isn’t much better than KCNA’s. But there is ample reason to fear for the safety of anyone who has been returned to North Korea, especially if the regime knows that the person has had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries.

When the AP created its new bureau, it promised to “open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world … in our usually reliable and insightful way.” Here is a story that is unquestionably newsworthy, and that the AP is a unique position to tell. It is alleged that the government of North Korea has executed nine children for what no one else on Earth would even recognize as a crime. Will the new AP Pyongyang have the courage to ask the question?

 

* Update, January 2015: Long after the fact, and no thanks to the AP, we have evidence that the kids are alive.