What we learned from the Koryo Hotel fire: AP Pyongyang is not a news bureau (updated)

If one place in North Korea is the vortex of “engagement” with Kim Jong Un’s regime, and of every tendentious argument that this engagement will coax him into glasnost and perestroika, Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel is that place. By North Korean standards, it’s luxurious, with a casino, a revolving restaurant, a hard-currency gift shop, and a lovely selection of listening devices. For years, it had been the favored venue for diplomats, tourists, investors, aid workers, and the occasional imbecile with more debts than morals, who could not attract the world’s attention in any city but Pyongyang.

koryo hotel

[Yonhap Photo]

And then, last week, this happened:

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[Yonhap Photo]

There is no question that the Koryo Hotel fire was a story of global interest. It was covered by Reuters, The Washington Post, the BBC, The New York Times, and many other news outlets. NGOs must have worried about the safety of their workers. Relatives must have worried about tourists who were unwise enough to be in Pyongyang in the first place. Governments and foreign ministries must have worried about the safety of their diplomats, and their nationals. The British Foreign Office warned tourists of “a culture of low safety awareness,” and suggested that they “check hotel fire procedures or consult tour operators,” which makes about as much sense as asking the White Star Line about the risk of icebergs.

Since AP opened its bureau there in 2011, Pyongyang has been the scene of multiple purges and rumors that Kim Jong Un was sick or overthrown. A new apartment building collapsed due to shoddy construction work, and may or may not have killed hundreds of people (we still don’t know). All of these stories were matters of intense global speculation, but AP Pyongyang elucidated none of them. Perhaps St. Francis de Sales thought that surely, AP would find the story at last if he asked God to send down a lightning bolt from the heavens to beacon its reporters with blazing flame and a tall column of smoke. Technically, AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Eric Talmadge, did cover this story.

From Tokyo.

Talmadge filed this terse dispatch, which was mostly notable for its nothing-to-see-here flavor, reminiscent of Pravda’s coverage of the Chernoybl disaster. Although AP Pyongyang employs two “journalists” seconded by North Korea’s KCNA, AP provided no on-the-scene reporting, no photographs, and no video of the fire. AP’s report said nothing about whether anyone died or was hurt, or what caused the fire. The only unique and interesting fact was offered by an anonymous source, who saw “fire and lots of black smoke from several top floors” of the hotel. (Update:)

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 11.27.22 PM

Even more embarrassing for AP was its reliance on two anonymous witnesses, because “North Korea severely restricts information shared with outsiders.” Today, “outsiders” includes a news service that boasted in 2011 that its “historic and significant” MOU with KCNA would make it “the exclusive distributor of contemporary and historic video from KCNA’s archive, providing a new source of video content from North Korea to AP’s members and customers around the world.” Then, AP President and CEO Tom Curley said, “AP is once again being trusted to open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world” in its “usually reliable and insightful way.” Emphasis mine.

You know the MOU I’m talking about, of course. That’s the MOU between the AP and KCNA, North Korea’s state propaganda agency, that the AP has never released, while denying the authenticity of a draft leaked by the inestimable Nate Thayer in his landmark report for NK News. Today, Thayer is pointing out that although AP told us nothing exclusive from Pyongyang about the Koryo Hotel fire, it did manage to provide extensive coverage of the transparent propaganda spectacle called Women Cross DMZ.

Incidentally, follow that “boasted” link two paragraphs up and you’ll see that it goes to The Wayback Machine; the original url and press release have been flushed down the memory hole. Similarly, AP’s North Korea Journal site, which once proudly featured its reporting from North Korea, hasn’t been updated in two years. But if the Koryo fire made a mockery of AP’s promise to “open a door to … the world,” can’t someone at least open a door to the AP’s reporting?

The BBC couldn’t. It also commented on the fact that “[n]o-one from Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, appears to have witnessed the fire.” It even went so far as to ask Talmadge, the AP’s Bureau Chief, “why the bureau did not file images of the fire.” Talmadge “did not respond.”

Reuters, which does not have a bureau in Pyongyang, did manage to publish a slightly more detailed report and tweet this photograph. In other words, news agencies that haven’t negotiated a permanent presence in Pyongyang actually did a slightly better job of covering this story from across the Korean Demilitarized zone than the AP, whose bureau can’t be more than a few minutes away from the Koryo Hotel.

Reuters, which also quoted an anonymous source, reported that “[s]everal foreigners were apprehended for trying to take pictures of the scene.” We may not condone North Korean censorship, but we all expect it. Of course the AP can’t bring us live coverage. Of course the reporting is censored. Who would ever have expected anything else? Only everyone who ever read AP’s promises that it would never yield to censorship, and that it would rather be kicked out of North Korea than submit to it:

He stressed that reports will not be censored but conceded that reporters’ access would be limited at this point, though he hoped that will change with time. [John Daniszewski, AP Senior Managing Editor, Jan. 24, 2012]

We’ve communicated our standards of journalism and won’t compromise.  We will adhere to AP standards.  The North Korean government doesn’t screen anything we write. They give feedback and complain sometimes…. We apply the same standards in North Korea as in South Korea. We’re raising the bar because the Western media often lose sight of standards when covering North Korea. [Former AP Pyongyang Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee, Apr. 10, 2012]

We do not submit to censorship. We would not ever have agreed to anything like that. We are going to write things and take pictures of things and make videos of things, both inside North Korea and outside North Korea that they might not necessarily like. It happens sometimes, and the argument is loud, sometimes. [LAUGHS] We both know that there are going to be some healthy disagreements ahead of us. Obviously, if one of those disagreements led to AP being booted from the country, we would choose to be booted rather than to stay and be asked to compromise how we operate. [Kathleen Carroll, AP Executive Editor and Senior Vice-President, Apr. 13, 2012]

Since then, Lee has been replaced as Bureau Chief by Talmadge, who said this to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi earlier this year:

For the record, Talmadge says that no North Korean official has ever screened one of his articles. “I can write whatever I want,” he says flatly. “The North Korean authorities see my work at the same time everyone else does, [which is] when it hits the wire. They don’t get previews [and] they don’t get to censor content.” [WaPo, Jan. 18, 2015]

Talmadge also offered this comment:

“I think there is a tendency abroad to caricature North Korea in ways that aren’t constructive, and to resort to dismissiveness or mockery much too easily,” says the 53-year-old Talmadge, who has covered Asia for decades. “During my time there, I have been surprised, and reassured in a way, to see how average North Koreans care about the same things everybody else does — their family, their finances, their health, their friends, how to get by. It’s too easy to treat North Korea as an incomprehensible place. Fundamentally, of course, it’s not.”

Today, the caricature — which made fodder for some exquisite mockery on Reddit — bears a much closer resemblance to last week’s events than the alternative reality Talmadge describes. As of today, several days later, the Korean Central News Service still hasn’t covered the story, but did feature a story about a Guinean organization that praised Kim Il Sung’s exploits.

Had the AP promised us a questionable propaganda exhibition, reporting that often read like propaganda, and ultimately, a glorified Instagram account, we could have judged that promise on its own merit. But that’s not what AP promised us. It promised us straight, objective, uncensored news. It promised us a breakthrough in openness by the regime, and a consequent breakthrough in the reporting of important news happening in North Korea. That’s not what the AP delivered. Instead, it made some jarring compromises of its objectivity and hopped into Kim Jong Un’s bed.

And then, Kim Jong Un rolled over.

The experiment has failed. It’s time for the Associated Press to admit that.

6 Comments

  1. The problem with Talmadge is not that he seemingly does not even make an effort to be a William Shirer, but rather that he is increasingly appearing to many observers as a Walter Duranty.

  2. I think Talmadge’s reports are fine, if infrequent. He doesn’t do nearly as much of the questionable reporting from political monuments or kindergartens, or “random-man-on-the-street” interviews that were Jean Lee’s stock in trade. I thought his report from the Masikryong Ski Resort was good, and his road trip report was interesting, even if it wasn’t terribly newsworthy.

    I’m much more concerned about what Talmadge doesn’t report than what he does report. What worries me is that the AP pulls punches because it’s afraid for its relationship with the regime. I could even accept that if the AP would be transparent about it.

  3. At this point the AP may as well bow out and just report from just about anywhere else in the world as more viable and honest reporting is originating from outside of the country than could ever be inside. The only way the AP has an advantage being in country is if there is a successful coup and they are on the front lines before anyone else gets there.

  4. Duranty did sometimes wrote terrible reports, but he also sometimes
    wrote acceptable reports. The PROBLEM was what he DID NOT report!

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