AP Watch

Defectors spread rumors, warns news service that spreads propaganda, disinformation, and fake photos

The Associated Press, the guardian of the grotto that holds the cuneiform clay tablets recording the sacred commandments of the journalistic profession, has published a hit piece warning its readers to beware of the North Korean guerrilla news services that have stepped forward to fill the void left by corporate news organizations, including the AP. Its lede:

Video secretly taken in North Korea shows public executions by firing squad. The country is said to begin a currency revaluation that turns disastrous. Leader Kim Jong Un is reported to have thrown South Korean leaflets containing rumors about his wife in his aides’ faces.

Two of those stories are true. The third, who knows? All came from people in North Korea, through networks of defectors determined to get out information on the authoritarian, highly insular country they left behind. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

Please allow me to improve on that:

Video of a regime-staged press conference in Pyongyang shows a terrified woman standing next to her son and grandson, as she “confesses” to being tricked into defecting, while journalists applaud. A propaganda exhibition in New York, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, portrays the people of North Korea as content, well-fed, and adoring their leaders. A photograph of a 2011 flood in Pyongyang shows water reaching nearly to waist-level as Pyongyang appeals for international aid.

Neither the report of the press conference nor the content of exhibition was true, and the photograph had been altered. All came from the Associated Press, and were produced under the supervision of North Korea’s official “news” agency, the Korean Central News Agency, pursuant to two memoranda of agreement that have never been disclosed. [OFK]

More than three years after AP signed its agreements with the North Korean government, and despite its promise “to open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world,” the Comcast of journalism hasn’t kept its promise. Instead, it’s tearing down the guerrilla journalists who are trying — some with more success than others — to report the news that the AP isn’t.

I could write a whole new fake lede from all the news that has happened right under AP Pyongyang’s nose, that guerrilla news services and start-ups have covered better than AP has. I can’t think of a better example than the deadly collapse of an apartment building in downtown Pyongyang, just a short drive from the AP’s Pyongyang bureau, earlier this year. Some reports say that collapse killed hundreds of people, mostly wives, children, and parents of government officials.

Months before the disaster, a guerrilla reporter for Rimjin-gang brought us photographs and video of the shoddy construction and horrible working conditions, almost predicting what would come.

Then, weeks after the disaster, upstart NK News–despite having no presence in Pyongyang — published time-lapse photography of the collapse and interviews with experts on its causes.


The Daily NK followed that with a report on the botched rescue of survivors, which may have contributed to the death toll.

AP never reported from the scene, except for publishing a KCNA image of the scene after the rubble was cleared, and quoting statements released by KCNA and the North Korean government. Months later, it made a half-hearted effort to explain the disaster. It never told us how many people died, or what the North Korean government has done to ensure the safety of thousands of people still living in other rushed, shoddily built apartments.

Most of this year’s “rumors” involved Kim Jong Un’s health or purges within the North Korean government. Many of those reports were apocryphal, and I questioned them myself. I wish the AP had elucidated us about the truth of those matters; it didn’t. It has never explained why Kim Jong Un is limping, exactly how and when Jang Song-Taek was executed, who else was purged later, or exactly what Choe Ryong-Hae’s status is today.

(Update: I should have noted what may be the single most important story of Kim Jong-Un’s reign — his successful crackdowns on refugees, information flows, cross-border smuggling, remittances, and other trends that were driving economic and social changes in North Korea, from the bottom up. Guerrilla journalists have reported that story. The AP has almost completely missed it, although it has kept us up-to-date on Pyongyang’s latest trends in ladies’ footwear and hairstyles.)

AP reported some of the year’s biggest North Korea stories, including the releases of three U.S. hostages, from Washington or Seoul. Amid a rising debate about human rights in North Korea, the AP has yet to offer any original reporting to corroborate Pyongyang’s denials of public executions, the denial of the right to food, or the existence of political prison camps. As for North Korea’s nuclear or missile tests, AP Pyongyang was either scooped from Washington or by other news services.

And of course, AP has also produced many saccharine non-stories about the glories of life in Pyongyang, as guerrilla journalists risked their lives to tell us the hard and bitter truth behind the facade.

I’m the first to agree that people should read reports from North Korea skeptically, especially the ones that come from inside Kim Jong Un’s court. I probably have a better record than most for calling bullshit on the false ones, and I discussed that topic at length in an interview with the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, a few months before the CBC fired him over allegations relating to his personal life. Even so, this was a particularly mean and hypocritical charge for the AP to make:

The sources may not be particularly well informed: They could be ruling-party officials or factory workers. Or smugglers, professors or soldiers. Generally, they are in it for the money, not a desire to force change in their homeland, according to the defectors they communicate with.

What a galling thing to say about people who have risked torture and death — for themselves, and for their families — to reveal the truth about their homeland. Indeed, as the AP’s report notes, some of the correspondents were captured and tortured to death after bringing us important video and reports. Those reports have been invaluable in informing our public debate about conditions inside North Korea, and how the U.N. and the U.S. government should respond to allegations of crimes against humanity there. We often overuse the word “hero,” but these guerrilla journalists are unarmed, non-violent heroes. And many of them aren’t defectors at all.

Watch this video and decide for yourself whether these people do it for the money.

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If the AP were really as interested in reporting the truth as it is in maintaining its lazy market hegemony over the supply of “news” from inside North Korea, it would train and equip some of those guerrilla journalists with satellite phones and other technologies that would allow them to upload their video, photographs, and reports from inside North Korea, without taking the extreme risk of crossing the border.

Also, while we’re on the topic of money, and speaking as one of the few North Korea watchers who doesn’t do it for the money, I’d like to know whether the AP expects to make money from its own dealings with Kim Jong Un’s official, state-controlled propaganda agency.

Unfortunately, the AP has never disclosed the extent or content of its own editorial and financial agreements with the North Korean government. I’d say that makes the AP considerably less transparent about its financial motives than the defector news services the AP interviewed, wouldn’t you?

Hat tip to a reader.


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