In Pyongyang, the ghost of Goebbels haunts the Associated Press

Why won’t the Associated Press release the Memoranda of Understanding it signed with the North Korean regime in 2011, in exchange for permission to set up a bureau in Pyongyang? What is it hiding? Plenty of possibilities come to mind, including the signature block. Imagine the AP’s embarrassment if it turned out that, to save time, someone had just pulled an old MOU out of a filing cabinet, crossed out “Josef Goebbels,” and written “Kim Jong-un” underneath it. Practically speaking, that’s about what the AP appears to have done.

The Associated Press news agency entered a formal cooperation with the Hitler regime in the 1930s, supplying American newspapers with material directly produced and selected by the Nazi propaganda ministry, archive material unearthed by a German historian has revealed. [The Guardian]

The AP’s agreement with Goebbels’s propaganda ministry has several disturbing parallels to the AP’s agreement with the Korean Central News Agency, a subsidiary of Kim Yo-jong’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last week for censorship. And this is a news agency that claims to be a fearless voice for transparency, freedom of the press, and opposing “Orwellian” control by governments over the images of their leaders.

Associated Press, which has described itself as the “marine corps of journalism” (“always the first in and the last out”) was the only western news agency able to stay open in Hitler’s Germany, continuing to operate until the US entered the war in 1941. It thus found itself in the presumably profitable situation of being the prime channel for news reports and pictures out of the totalitarian state.

In an article published in academic journal Studies in Contemporary History, historian Harriet Scharnberg shows that AP was only able retain its access by entering into a mutually beneficial two-way cooperation with the Nazi regime.

The New York-based agency ceded control of its output by signing up to the so-called Schriftleitergesetz (editor’s law), promising not to publish any material “calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home”.

Readers of this blog will recall that in 2014, the cantankerous and inestimable freelance journalist Nate Thayer obtained a draft of the MOU between the AP and the Pyongyang regime. In that draft, the AP agreed to “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government.” The AP fiercely denies that the draft’s terms reflect the final agreement, yet still refuses to back that up by releasing the final, signed MOUs.

But anyone of average sense — anyone of average sense who has been paying attention, anyway — can see that AP has been a willing collaborator of Pyongyang’s propagandists. In New York in 2012 and in Pyongyang in 2015, the AP and KCNA co-sponsored propaganda exhibitions glorifying Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. The AP’s reporting from Pyongyang has shown its readers selective, regime-approved imagery and narratives — an elite-only market in Pyongyang, an elite-only school in Pyongyang, elite-only fashions in Pyongyang, soldiers and citizens professing loyalty to the regime and its leaders, a “kimjongilia” festival, gushing over Kim Jong Un’s wife’s taste in fashion and dancing Disney characters, and a sham “press conference” in which a returned defector is paraded before cameras beside her terrified relatives. Here, too, the present day turns out to be an echo of the AP’s ugly history.

AP also allowed the Nazi regime to use its photo archives for its virulently antisemitic propaganda literature. Publications illustrated with AP photographs include the bestselling SS brochure “Der Untermensch” (“The Sub-Human”) and the booklet “The Jews in the USA”, which aimed to demonstrate the decadence of Jewish Americans with a picture of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia eating from a buffet with his hands.

Scharnberg, a historian at Halle’s Martin Luther University, argued that AP’s cooperation with the Hitler regime allowed the Nazis to “portray a war of extermination as a conventional war”.

In June 1941, Nazi troops invaded the town of Lviv in western Ukraine. Upon discovering evidence of mass killings carried out by Soviet troops, German occupying forces had organised “revenge” pogroms against the city’s Jewish population.

Franz Roth’s photographs of the dead bodies inside Lviv prisons were selected upon Hitler’s personal orders and distributed to the American press via AP.

“Instead of printing pictures of the days-long Lviv pogroms with its thousands of Jewish victims, the American press was only supplied with photographs showing the victims of the Soviet police and ‘brute’ Red Army war criminals,” Scharnberg told the Guardian.

“To that extent it is fair to say that these pictures played their part in disguising the true character of the war led by the Germans,” said the historian. “Which events were made visible and which remained invisible in AP’s supply of pictures followed German interests and the German narrative of the war.”

The AP denies that it submits to North Korean censorship, but its failure to cover potentially embarrassing stories just hours (or minutes) from its bureau, while covering gauzy propaganda spectacles and hostage interviews lavishly, calls that into question. The AP’s obvious motive is access.

This law required AP to hire reporters who also worked for the Nazi party’s propaganda division. One of the four photographers employed by the Associated Press in the 1930s, Franz Roth, was a member of the SS paramilitary unit’s propaganda division, whose photographs were personally chosen by Hitler. AP has removed Roth’s pictures from its website since Scharnberg published her findings, though thumbnails remain viewable due to “software issues”.

The AP has also employed North Korean “journalists,” reporter Pak Il Won and photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, in its bureau, although officially, their permanent employer is KCNA, which again falls under North Korea’s the Propaganda and Agitation Department. According to this 2011 report from Reporters Sans Frontieres, North Korean journalists are “government propaganda tools” whose job is “to provide an uninterrupted defence of the regime and its leader.” Andrei Lankov assessed the odds at “99 percent” that Park and Kim “come from the secret police or intelligence services.” His speculation draws support from the reporting of Nate Thayer that men identifying themselves as AP reporters appear to have acted in concert with North Korean interrogators to print carefully selected parts of the “confessions” of detained Americans, who had been coached to manipulate the American people and their government.

The Guardian sees the obvious historical parallel.

In 2014, Washington-based website NK News alleged that top executives at AP had in 2011 “agreed to distribute state-produced North Korean propaganda through the AP name” in order to gain access to the highly profitable market of distributing picture material out of the totalitarian state. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea comes second from bottom in the current World Press Freedom Index.

A leaked draft agreement showed that AP was apparently willing to let the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) handpick one text and one photo journalist from its agitation and propaganda unit to work in its bureau. AP told the Guardian that “it would be presumptuous to assume ‘the draft’ has any significance”, but declined to disclose further information on the final agreement.

Significant events, reported in the international media, were not covered by AP’s Pyongyang bureau, such as the six-week public disappearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in September and October 2014, the November 2014 Sony Entertainment hack that had allegedly been orchestrated by a North Korean cyberwarfare agency, or a reports of a famine in South Hwanghae province in 2012.

Thayer’s revelations weren’t just unsettling to other journalists from an ethical perspective. I’ve suggested that if the AP’s final agreement with Kim Jong-un’s regime is anything like the draft Thayer obtained, the AP should register with the Justice Department as a North Korean propagandist under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That would be fitting. After all, Congress passed the FARA in 1938 because of its concerns about the work of Nazi propagandists in the United States.

Then, as now, the lesson of history is that “engaging” totalitarian regimes doesn’t change them; it just changes you. It took 80 years for the truth of AP’s collaboration with history’s most evil regime to come out. If the newsworthiness of The Guardian‘s story today teaches us anything, it’s that history has a long memory for collaborations like these. If the AP thought that the controversy over its Pyongyang bureau would just blow over, it thought wrong.

3 Comments

  1. Watching the AP “journalists” observing, laying flowers, bowing and pointing looks miraculously like the footage of KJU and his father during their “onsite inspections”. Chilling.

  2. How about this for an April Fools’ joke:

    AP has decided to stop is “denial, denial, denial” strategy and come clean about its past and present!

    Not likely!

  3. Great article as always. The AP has become a mouthpiece for the regime in the West.

    By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that a few links you posted seem to be dead:
    –”an elite-only school” (Huffington Post)
    –”loyal soldiers and citizens professing loyalty to the regime and its leaders” (link in the last two words)
    –”and a sham ‘press conference'” (The Washington Post)
    –”According to this 2011 report from Reporteurs Sans Frontieres” (One Free Korea)

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