A reader (thank you) forwards me this French-language article indicating that Agence France-Presse will soon ink its own deal to open a bureau in Pyongyang. I’m sorry to have disappointed this reader by not expressing immediate and ferocious opposition to this, but then, I wasn’t opposed to the AP opening a bureau when it was first announced, either. I became opposed to AP’s experiment when I began to see troubling signs like this, and especially this. My opposition — and my own enjoyment of that opposition — deepened as I saw the awful quality of its coverage, the ethical liberties AP was willing to take for the sake of access, the lack of transparency about restrictions on its reporting, and the very limited amount of newsworthy information AP has provided since it opened its bureau.
Lately, the AP hasn’t published much news at all from Pyongyang, despite the occurrence of some very newsworthy events within a ten-minute drive of its bureau. But at least the stories AP has published under Bureau Chief Eric Talmadge haven’t been awful, which is more than I could say of most of Jean Lee’s work.
AP made much of being the first “Western” news agency to have a bureau in Pyongyang, but of course, Kyodo News has been in Pyongyang since 2006, but without all of the pretentious self-promotion that inflated our expectations of the AP so much. Kyodo hasn’t been a transformational window into Pyongyang, either, but I’ve never seen it claim that it was. Rather, when Kyodo opened its bureau, it stressed its aim to provide “accurate and objective” news from North Korea.
The opening of the AFP bureau will mean more competition for the AP and Kyodo, which could have both good and bad aspects. On one hand, they may be tempted to compete in a grand suck-up contest, the sort of competition Pyongyang is accustomed to setting up. On the other hand, news outlets will be in a better position to be selective about the quality of the content from Pyongyang they produce. If AFP is significantly more objective and transparent than AP, it will have an opportunity to distinguish its brand with editors and readers.
I hope AFP will take that opportunity, because we do need more reliable information from North Korea. I’m not terribly optimistic that AFP will succeed at doing what AP failed to do, but if AFP sticks to principle, is open with its readers, obeys applicable sanctions laws, and doesn’t compromise its coverage, you may be surprised to see me become a fan of their work. On the other hand, if AFP is seduced by the illusion that it’s going to be a change agent, as opposed to just another business competitor against AP and Kyodo, they should get over themselves. The more you think you will change Pyongyang, the more Pyongyang changes you.