Dear AFP: May we see your agreements with the North Korean government?

This blog often criticizes the way the media cover North Korea; in fact, it sometimes even criticizes the way the media cover the media who cover North Korea. In the case of Agence France-Presse’s newly opened bureau in Pyongyang, most other media are treating AFP’s low-key opening ceremony as a non-event. It probably is a non-event — except for what it may mean for the decline in journalistic ethics, the corruption of our media, and their transformation into global propaganda megaphones for totalitarians. It’s hard to believe this event would attract so little publicity if AFP and other journalists now assessed that the Associated Press’s Pyongyang Bureau had been a smashing success. In retrospect, AP’s self-congratulatory publicity probably backfired, because it drove our curiosity about its reporting, most of which turned out to be terrible

Unless this is the first time you’ve read this blog, you already know that I’ve said many unkind things about the AP’s reporting from Pyongyang, and about its conduct surrounding the establishment of its bureau. Its reporting was mostly a better translation of KCNA propaganda without the guilty giggles of words like “brigandish” and “rigamaroles” that not even my spell-checker knows. What AP didn’t print might have been worse than what it printed — a major hotel fire, an apartment building collapse, the near-crash of an airliner, and a string of still-unexplained famine and purge rumors within a short drive (and in some cases, a short walk) of its bureau. It might have been worse, except for when the AP wrote things that hurt people. That its North Korean “reporters” were government propagandists, probable spies, and occasional interrogators of arrested foreigners was only one of several glaring conflicts of interest.

The AP’s propagation of totalitarian imagery for the world’s most evil government (not counting ISIS) was another. Here is the test AP had to fail to get the keys to its new bureau: 

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[The AP hates it when governments use photography as propaganda, but only sometimes.]

Another clear sign of AP Pyongyang’s failure is that most of those who staked their reputations on it have since retired or moved on, including President Tom Curley, Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, Bureau Chief Jean Lee, and photographer David Guttenfelder. John Daniszewski, AP’s former Vice President for International News, has a new role “in charge of addressing the many questions on ethics and standards involved in daily news coverage in the U.S. and around the world, as well as working on special reporting projects.”

Today, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Eric Talmadge, doesn’t even live in Pyongyang. According to The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi, who interviewed Talmadge (and also, me) last year, Talmadge “travels to Pyongyang each month from Tokyo, where he lives with his family, and stays in North Korea about 10 days each month, or however long the state ministry feels like letting him stay.” Today, AP Pyongyang hardly exists in anything but name. It is not so much a news bureau as a storage locker.

Perhaps AFP, like Kyodo (which has quietly kept a bureau in Pyongyang for years) figures it’s better off without that kind of publicity. Or, AFP’s own expectations may not be very high. After all, its Pyongyang bureau is opening more than two years after AFP announced that it would. It’s difficult for me to believe that this much of a delay was not filled with some fairly intense discussions and negotiations.

One event that might have contributed to that delay was the U.S. Treasury Department’s designation in March of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which controls the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the AP’s North Korean business partner. In a statement, AFP concedes that its bureau also opened pursuant to an agreement with KCNA. At the time of the designation, I argued that it would likely prohibit AP from making dollar payments to KCNA (and in North Korea, no one rides for free). Not only would the designation ban dollar payments, absent a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, it might also apply to non-dollar payments by AP to KCNA because AP is a “U.S. person.” AFP may or may not qualify as a U.S. person — I’ll let AFP ask its lawyers that — and perhaps it thinks it has found a way to avoid financial sanctions by paying KCNA in Euro. But the reason for Treasury’s designation — that the Propaganda and Agitation Department enforces North Korea’s censorship — certainly adds to AP and AFP’s reputational and ethical burdens.

In the end, AP Pyongyang was really a gamble on North Korean glasnost, which — as silly as this seems in retrospect — was cause for a short, happy false dawn among certain North Korea watchers in 2012. How long ago that seems now. The outcome of that gamble was a news bureau that reported nothing newsworthy that was exclusive, nothing exclusive that was newsworthy, and not even big news that happened a few blocks from its bureau. The AP presented itself as an agent of change in Pyongyang; instead, it was the AP itself that was changed, and not for the better. It came to Pyongyang to report stories, but ended up becoming the story. What never changed was Pyongyang’s attitude toward journalism as we thought we knew it. So if, in the end, AFP finds that it can report more news about Pyongyang from Seoul and Washington than it can from Pyongyang itself, my expectations will be fully realized. Only now, whatever value AP derives from its bureau will have to be divided with one more competitor.

There is one way that AFP could distinguish itself from its bigger competitor immediately. It could release its agreements with KCNA for its readers to see and judge for themselves whether it has burdened itself with conflicts of interest, or submitted to Pyongyang’s censors and propagandists. For that matter, it should also tell us whether it has a license from OFAC, so that we can judge whether it is breaking the law or facilitating censorship. After all, if AFP is taking a bold gamble on glasnost in North Korea, couldn’t it begin by setting its own example of glasnost with its readers?

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