Some advice for AFP, on the opening of its Pyongyang bureau

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.


  1. The French article posits something interesting: organizations like the AP know full well they can’t get the juiciest intel, but they want to be on the front lines, waiting “in ambush” (the French term “embuscade” is used) for that moment when the regime collapses and the time really comes to disseminate some meaningful news.

    No idea how plausible or sensible such a strategy is, but the article is asserting that establishing a beachhead inside NK is an investment in the future.

    Crucial quote:

    “Les agences ne sont pas dupes : leur bureau de Pyongyang a peu de chances de sortir des scoops, mais c’est un investissement à long terme. Elles se positionnent en embuscade avec l’espoir d’être aux premières loges lors du “Grand Soir”, annoncé, en vain, depuis la chute du mur de Berlin…”

    Rough translation:

    “The [press] agencies aren’t dupes: their Pyongyang office has little chance of gaining scoops, but it’s a long-term investment. They’re positioning themselves in ambush in the hope of being in the front-row seats for the “Big Night,” announced, in vain, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”


  2. That could be a plausible strategy, but it gambles on foreign journalists not being locked down and cut off immediately in the event of some sort of contingency. It’s certainly more realistic than the idea of AFP supposing it can be a change agent, although I saw hints of that theory in the article, too.


  3. “Front row seats for the big night” must have been a prime motivation for the foreign journalists who came to Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel in 2011, putting up with government-minded dog and pony shows for six months:

    Doesn’t exactly sound like it was worth it in the end.

    Journalists were very also restricted in their activities during the protests following the Iranian elections of 2009 and didn’t produce much of value that I could find there either.

    Maybe things could turn out differently in a North Korean scenario but I just don’t see much reason for optimism on that front.


  4. The more I think about it, the weirder I think the front-row-seat strategy is. Journalists don’t have to finagle a beachhead far in advance: they can be in place almost immediately in the event of a cascade failure of the NK government. They can arrive embedded in the first wave of soldiers, for example, or they can be shuttled in by other, equally rapid means. It just seems strange to think of journalists perched like buzzards on a fence, waiting for the dying animal to collapse.

    Actually, vulturine behavior isn’t so weird for journalists, is it.