Archive for AP Watch

AP outraged about free speech in Cuba

Is the AP a cabal of closet Marxist-Leninists or just the supine courtesan of every tyrant who lets it open a bureau in his kingdom? Either way, I really don’t understand what drives its corporate conscience. On one hand, it recently criticized the Obama Administration for “propaganda” photos. On the other hand, it did this not long after putting on an exhibition of actual propaganda photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Now, the AP has released a breathless expose of a U.S.A.I.D.-backed program, launched by the Obama Administration, to bring just a sliver of free speech to Cuba, in the form of a Twitter clone called “ZunZuneo.” AP even gave the 60 Minutes treatment to the civil servant who ran the program, following him home and sticking a camera in his face.

Let’s sum this up. The program was completely non-violent and appears to have broken no laws except Cuban censorship laws. It never even got far enough to plant any subversive information (unfortunately!). It was also popular and potentially effective. Before the AP exposed it, it was providing a service that Cubans liked and used. What if they liked and used it even more after it became a safe place to complain about food shortages, nosy block committees, corruption, the persecution of dissidents, and censorship? Is it morally wrong for people living under oppressive governments to be able to complain about those things or organize online?

ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” [AP]

I want our government to help people do that! There’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this program, and had it succeeded, no one would have been hurt except the Castro brothers and their censors. At worst, the program might have been housed more appropriately in the CIA or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, although U.S.A.I.D. didn’t deny its involvement after the program’s exposure. The Cubans who used ZunZuneo were unaware of its U.S. government connections and weren’t endangered (one good reason why U.S.A.I.D. initially concealed its links to ZunZuneo). Why is this a scandal — other than the fact of its public exposure? Is it the AP’s position that the Cuban people should spend their whole lives living under poverty and oppression? How else will those conditions ever change?

Also, note how the AP “interviews” Cuban citizens, almost certainly in the presence of government minders, without telling us whether any minders were present. That fact, however relevant to the viewer, would have illustrated the absurdity of the AP’s argument nicely.

Say, do you suppose the AP has a bureau in Havana? Do you suppose it ever covers stories about dissent in Cuba, or is it pretty much like AP’s bureau in Pyongyang — a lucrative partnership with censors and propagandists? This story is a good example of why, as much as I distrust all news media, I distrust the AP more than the rest of them.

Based on everything in the AP’s report, I conclude that this was actually a great idea that served both the interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people. I wonder how hard it would be for the CIA to hack into Koryolink and bring Twitter to North Korea. I wonder how long it would take for the AP to blow the lid on that.

AP protests “propaganda” photos of Obama after sponsoring propaganda photos of Kim Il Sung.

[UPDATE: Welcome, Weekly Standard readers.]

The Associated Press, which in 2012 co-sponsored “A Joint Exhibition by the Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung,” is furious at the White House for using official photographers (rather than independent photojournalists) to “propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Writing in the pages of The New York Times, Santiago Lyon, Vice President and Director of Photography at The Associated Press, assails the White House for excluding photojournalists from newsworthy events, and instead issuing “private” photographs of President Obama, which the author implies were stage-managed to portray the President in a positive light.

Manifestly undemocratic, in contrast, is the way Mr. Obama’s administration — in hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on — has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.

The White House-based press corps was prohibited from photographing Mr. Obama on his first day at work in January 2009. Instead, a set of carefully vetted images was released. Since then the press has been allowed to photograph him alone in the Oval Office only twice: in 2009 and in 2010, both times when he was speaking on the phone. Pictures of him at work with his staff in the Oval Office — activities to which previous administrations routinely granted access — have never been allowed. [Santiago Lyon, New York Times op-ed]

The op-ed closes with even stronger language:

Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.

It’s worth recalling how Paul Colford, the AP’s Director of Media Relations, fulminated when The Asian Wall Street Journal put the headline “Associated Propaganda” over this op-ed I wrote last year, criticizing the AP for conduct similar to (or worse than) what Lyon protests now. The strict standards of independence Lyon implies make for a striking contrast with the AP’s treatment of North Korea’s dictators since 2011, when it signed two undisclosed agreements with a North Korean state “news” service to set up a bureau in Pyongyang, and to bring this exhibition to New York:

See the rest of the AP-KCNA exhibition herehere and here, on the Rodong Sinmun Web site, if you haven’t already. Or read the criticisms of journalists who report for Foreign PolicyThe AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AustralianThe Christian Science Monitor, and The Weekly Standard, who either questioned the accuracy of its reporting or revealed varying levels of discomfort about AP’s cozy relationship with North Korea.

Lyon’s op-ed unwittingly damns the AP’s North Korea coverage in other ways. For example, a purge has just begun in North Korea. The execution of ex-Number Two Jang Song Thaek could mean that Kim Jong Un and the whole dynasty he represents have begun circling the drain. That, in turn, would make this one of the most important stories to come out of North Korea since the end of the Korean War. The AP has filed stories about the purge from Pyongyang, but for some undisclosed reason, it did not cover any North Korean press conferences, interview any North Korean officials, or do any investigative journalism to enlighten us about whether Jang really did attempt a coup against Kim Jong Un, or whether this means that the rogue nuclear state is descending into instability.

Instead, the AP has relied on internet and external sources that are just as available to Reuters or any other news service. The only unique facts that the AP added from Pyongyang were its observation that a crowd had gathered to read a billboard where denunciations of Jang were posted, and the vox populi reaction of one North Korea citizen. (The AP, true to form, did not disclose how the interviewee was selected or whether state minders were present during her “interview.”) AP then reported that the allegations against Jang “couldn’t be independently confirmed.” But why is that? Why are the AP’s only North Korean sources for the substance of its report official missives that are published online, where they’re just as available to you and me? Why is the AP left to join the rest of us in frenzied blind speculation about what all of this really means?

So it has always been with newsworthy events in North Korea — AP added no exclusive and newsworthy information about North Korea’s recent nuclear or missile tests, previous purges in Pyongyang, or a report that North Korea executed nine people, most of them children, who had recently been repatriated from Laos. Its greatest indignity (and the most relevant to this argument) was to be excluded from taking photographs during Dennis Rodman’s visits. I don’t remember the AP protesting any of these things, although I do remember when an AP Vice President made the risible assertion that its correspondents in Pyongyang would not be censored, and when its Bureau Chief said that the North Korean “journalists” assigned to work in her bureau had never refused to cover a story, and this:

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. For instance, a North Korean journalist at KCNA asked why we used the word “communist” in reference to North Korea in our stories as the word is no longer in their constitution. He gave me a copy of the constitution that called the country “socialist.”

Presumably, Lee meant that AP had “communicated its standards” to the government of North Korea. But her defense only raises questions about all of the newsworthy things going on in Pyongyang that the AP hasn’t covered.

It seems hypocritical of the AP to protest the same conduct in one circumstance that it meekly submits to, or actively sponsors, in another. Given the character of North Korea’s regime, the limited value and independence of AP’s coverage isn’t surprising. Its ethical lapses in Pyongyang are no defense of the President’s treatment of those who have been important sources of his own iconography. I will even allow that the AP’s Times op-ed makes important points about openness in a democratic society. Lyon’s op-ed, however, also sets a fastidious standard of independence that the AP has failed to meet — and miserably — in North Korea. By doing so, Lyon unwittingly condemns his own colleagues and bosses as propagandists.

Early signs are good for the new AP Pyongyang.

So I finally found a minute to read Tim Sullivan’s piece in National Geographic, and it’s actually quite good:

In the parking lot, though, as we slid open the door to the van that ferries us everywhere, the monks reappeared. A minder was beside them. All looked at us expectantly. Then the older monk spoke. “I know what you want to ask,” Zang Hye Myong said.

Suddenly it was obvious why the monks had followed us. Minders do not introduce journalists to dissidents, and Ryongthong was no enclave of political critics. It was, as I should have known all along, a temple of totalitarian fakery, a movie set in which the stone steps and ornate wooden doors were barely worn. The monks were actors in a theatrical performance about North Korea’s religious freedom.

We were the audience.

So I grumbled the question they were waiting for: “Are you free to practice your religion?”

The monk looked victorious. “Westerners believe it is not allowed to believe in religion in my country.” He shook his head sadly. “This is false.” He was proof, he said, of the freedoms given to Koreans by the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and now protected by his grandson Kim Jong Un. He looked directly at me to make his final point, as if he’d been practicing the line: “I want you to take the truth to the world.”

But the truth is rarely simple in North Korea.

And newly anointed Bureau Chief Eric Talmadge’s report on the Masik Pass Ski Resort isn’t bad, either:

Who will ski here? Perhaps Kim Jong Un, who reportedly enjoyed the sport as a teenager studying in Switzerland. By the estimate of the ski official, Kim Tae Yong, there are only about 5,500 North Korean skiers in this country of 24 million — a skiing population of 0.02 percent.

Even so, as he sweeps his hand over the scene, the official displays no doubt that what his country really needs right now is a multimillion-dollar ski resort in the secluded depths of North Korea’s east coast. Kim bristles at the suggestion Masik will be a playground for the nation’s elite and a trickle of eccentric tourists.

This, he says, is his country at work. It is proof of the great love of the great leader.

It’s a little early to conclude that things are turning around at AP Pyongyang, but a least for now, AP reporters are exposing obvious fakery, asking obvious questions, and even providing a small amount of useful information.

None of this answers lingering questions about AP’s dealings with Pyongyang and what those dealings may say about the objectivity of its coverage, but at least these two stories don’t beg those questions quite so loudly as the howlers it served up last year.

At Foreign Policy, AP’s Jean Lee takes a parting shot at OFK (Updated)

Frankly, I’m glad to see someone at the AP begin to address my criticisms on their substance, even if the hardest questions went unasked. The original article at Foreign Policy is here. Below is my response, as posted in the comments, with one typo corrected.

I wish the author of this article had offered me an opportunity to comment or respond, because there’s much that the article left unsaid. In any event, I’d like to offer FP’s readers a better understanding of why there was a backlash against the AP’s conduct and some of Lee’s reporting.

(1) The AP refuses to disclose the MOUs with the North Korean government that allowed it to establish its Pyongyang bureau. Readers deserve to know whether those MOUs involve financial transactions, and whether North Korea has placed operational and editorial limits on AP’s reporting.

(2) The article did not broach the topic of AP’s joint propaganda exhibition with the (North) Korean Central News Agency in New York in 2012. Here’s a sample of the content, still hosted on the website of North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun. I suspect most readers who view it will agree with the characterization of “propaganda,” but by all means, decide for yourself. (Hopefully, the hyperlink will show up in this thread; if not, I’ll publish a hyperlinked version of this comment at freekorea-dot-us.)

(3) The author didn’t ask about the legitimate ethical questions raised by the AP partnering with the North Korean “news” agency, KCNA, even after KCNA had passed AP at least one faked photograph, and as it published threats against fellow journalists, and even the President of South Korea.

(4) For an example of how this apparent conflict of interest affected AP Pyongyang’s coverage, the author might have asked about the AP’s (at best) gullible coverage of the tragic case of Park Jong Suk, which was later questioned by The Washington Post.

Yes, having an AP bureau in Pyongyang could have been worthwhile — and might yet be — had it provided its readers more information than misinformation. As an avid consumer of quality reporting about North Korea, I hope this won’t continue to be a lost opportunity. But for a news service to meet its duty to its readers, it needs the courage to ask tough questions, it must free itself of (or least, be transparent about) its entanglements with the subjects of its coverage, and it must be willing to look inward when others point out it may have violated its own code of ethics.

- Joshua Stanton

For more about the AP and its often problematic reporting from North Korea, click here.


In my comment above, I linked to a slideshow of the April 2012 photo exhibition in New York, called Windows on North Korea, that billed itself as “a joint exhibition by The Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency marking 100 year since the birth of Kim Il Sung.” The slideshow was hosted on the web site of the North Korea’s official newspaper, The Rodong Sinmun, and I wanted readers to decide for themselves whether the content was propaganda, and whether it was an appropriate endeavor for an objective news service to undertake. Unfortunately, I see now that the link has gone dead, so here’s a working link.

The Rodong Sinmun’s description of Windows may also be germane to my point. Although the AP will no doubt try to deny that it’s propaganda, the Rodong Sinmun clearly feels otherwise. For example, on March 7th, the Rodong Sinmun said,

Those concerned of the KCNA who selected photos for exhibition together with AP said the exhibition will display photos of the great men of Mt. Paektu who made immortal contributions to the prosperity of the country, its people’s happiness, the independent and peaceful reunification of the country and the accomplishment of the cause of global independence.

On March 20th, the Rodong Sinmun described Windows this way:

On display at the exhibition under the theme “True Picture of Korea” are photos of undying revolutionary exploits President Kim Il Sung, leader Kim Jong Il and the dear respected Kim Jong Un performed for the building of a thriving nation, people’s happiness, independent and peaceful reunification of Korea and global independence. Photos also deal with their revolutionary activities and great personalities.

Among them are photos of the might of a harmonious whole of the leader and people, achievements made by the DPRK in different fields including politics, economy and culture under the leadership of the Party and the leader and happy life of the Korean people.

On March 24th, the Rodong Sinmun published its third article about Windows, which interspersed quotations from AP execs with screenshots of coverage of the exhibition, and stated that viewers of the exhibition “were deeply moved to see the true picture of the DPRK in which the leader, the army and people have formed a harmonious whole.” AP Senior Vice President Kathleen Carroll is quoted as saying that “the exhibition is offering people an opportunity to know about the DPRK. “

On April 12, the Rodong Sinmun published its fourth article about Windows, stating that “[t]he exhibition is a clear proof of broad understanding and sympathy of the world progressives with dignified Kim Il Sung’s Korea, Songun Korea.”

On April 20th, the Rodong Sinmun published a fifth article, which said this:

The exhibition gave wide publicity to the personality of generals in Mt. Paektu, peerlessly prominent leaders and the sun of all people produced by Korea, while truthfully showing the struggle and life of the Korean people for their social development and others.

It also vividly dealt with the socialist system in the DPRK which has achieved one victory after another despite the vicious moves of imperialists to stifle it and features of happy people in it.

The exhibition offered not only people from all walks of life and Koreans in the U.S. but the international community an opportunity to have fresh understanding about the DPRK which has been boosted under the wise guidance of its great leader and great party as the days go by.

The exhibition marked a good occasion as it totally mended the wrong understanding of the people about the DPRK created due to the biased and distorted propaganda of the West against the former and gave the international community broad understanding and deep sympathy to know well about the socialist system.

I can’t say whether Ms. Lee has any role in setting up this exhibition or choosing its content. It’s the AP corporate management that’s really responsible for this lapse in objectivity; in fact, several of them are named or quoted in the Rodong Sinmun articles. If they’ve objected to the Rodong Sinmun’s descriptions or the use of their names, I wish they’d say where and when. If they haven’t, it doesn’t exactly suggest that the AP is fearlessly independent or objective. That doesn’t give us much reassurance about its coverage — a fear that, so far, has been justified.

AP’s new Bureau Chief should tell us: Are these kids dead or alive?

Last night, a reader forwarded me AP’s announcement that it had replaced Jean Lee as Bureau Chief in both Seoul and Pyongyang. The new Bureau Chief in Pyongyang will be Eric Talmadge, whose name is absent from the vast OFK archives, and whose reputation is thus a blank slate.

The AP has also caught up with the spirit of ’45 by appointing a separate Bureau Chief for Seoul, Foster Klug. Klug’s name is one of the best known in Korea journalism, and while I don’t doubt that he has strong opinions, they’ve never been evident in his reporting. It isn’t clear whether Talmadge will report to Klug, whether they will both report to the same manager, or whether the creation of a new Bureau Chief position in Pyongyang means that Talmadge will remain there full-time (Lee alternated between the two Korean capitals).

Now, the curious part:

Talmadge succeeds Jean H. Lee, who will assume a new role as a writer covering in-depth issues on the Korean Peninsula and the region. As AP’s bureau chief in Seoul the past five years, and in Pyongyang for nearly two, she has been instrumental in helping AP gain greater access to the traditionally isolated country.

The AP “news” story continues its objective self-promotion with this:

Over the years, AP journalists have been granted unprecedented access to people and places both in Pyongyang and in the countryside.

It’s difficult to pack all of my reactions to this into one paragraph, but I’ll try. AP Pyongyang has reported next to nothing from North Korea that is (1) exclusive, (2) newsworthy, and (3) true — that is to say, an accurate representation of the subject in its greater context. North Korean minders have led the AP to its “stories,” nearly all of them in and near Pyongyang, and most of them fluff stories, with short leashes. The AP reported what it saw through the soda straw the minders held up to its lens, usually without questioning it, and led readers to believe, inaccurately, that this view was representative of North Korea as a whole. From the very beginning of the experiment, the AP compromised its objectivity by co-sponsoring a propaganda exhibition for a vile and murderous regime. It also associated itself KCNA, a state propaganda organ widely known for its fabulism, fakery, mendacity, and journo-terrorism.

I may have been AP’s most strident critic, but I certainly wasn’t the only one. AP has mostly responded to its critics by trying to bully them, but it hasn’t responded to the substance of their arguments, such as by disclosing the terms of its agreements with the North Korean government’s propaganda arm. Its ham-handed (indeed, almost North Korean) approach to media relations failed to suppress rising levels discomfort from other journalists who report for Foreign PolicyThe AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, The AustralianThe Christian Science Monitor, and in greatest detail, The Weekly Standard.

By now, you’ve noticed that I needed two paragraphs to put all of that out there.

The appointment of a new Bureau Chief is an opportunity for all of this to change, of course. I hope it will be. In case the AP would like my view about how to use its “unprecedented access,” let me suggest that it tell us whether these nine children are dead or alive.

We know, of course, that the Lao government handed the kids over to North Korea, which flew them back to Pyongyang. (There is a petition to condemn the Lao government for doing this, but a more appropriate response might be to ask your member of Congress to push the State Department to classify Laos as a Tier III country for human trafficking purposes unless it promises to move future defectors speedily to Seoul.)

When this happened — during my hiatus, while I was on Capitol Hill — we took some comfort in the fact that North Korea originally have the kids the Park Jong Suk treatment and paraded them before the cameras. Knowing, or at least suspecting, that North Korea has shot adults and children alike for defecting before, we hoped that North Korea would at least feel compelled to keep these kids alive after putting them on display. But now, darker fears are obscuring our initial hopes:

Nine young North Korean defectors may have been executed upon their return from Laos, according to several media reports.

The escapees — aged 15 to 23 — were deported back to North Korea after a dangerous mission for freedom that had taken as long as four years for some of them, the Daily Mail reported. [Washington Times]

Because I haven’t graduated from the denial stage of the grieving process, I take small comfort in the fact that this report is sourced to The Daily Mail, a paper whose reputation isn’t much better than KCNA’s. But there is ample reason to fear for the safety of anyone who has been returned to North Korea, especially if the regime knows that the person has had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries.

When the AP created its new bureau, it promised to “open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world … in our usually reliable and insightful way.” Here is a story that is unquestionably newsworthy, and that the AP is a unique position to tell. It is alleged that the government of North Korea has executed nine children for what no one else on Earth would even recognize as a crime. Will the new AP Pyongyang have the courage to ask the question?

AP Vice President Celebrates Great Fatherland Liberation War!

One of my favorite media experiments is to observe different reporters with different biases cover similar stories in very different ways. The anniversary of the end of the Korean War was our most recent occasion for this experiment, and Pyongyang was our petri dish.  Not surprisingly for regular readers of this blog, reporters who were merely visiting Pyongyang covered it very differently from reporters beholden to its regime by business and professional entanglements.  One perspective tells a story of former enemies reconciling in the capital of a proud, united, and victorious country. (Astute readers will name that news service and the reporter without peeking.) That perspective closely matches the officially approved perspective the North Koreans wanted you to see.  Judging by the narration in its video, the AP even went to the trouble of signing an undisclosed MOU with Oceania to have Winston Smith to do its voice-overs.

Other reporters showed a greater interest in questioning the accuracy of this choreographed display before echoing it.  Their efforts were frustrated at every turn by minders, restrictions, and fakery, but at least two reporters decided to make the story about the fakery itself, and thereby told a more interesting story than the one they came to Pyongyang to tell.  Video of a minder telling a child what to tell a reporter is not only more interesting than video of the child repeating the script, it’s also more informative and more newsworthy.

It’s enough to make you wonder how many other reports from Pyongyang contain similarly suspect quotes of North Korean children that don’t tell you that the quotes were state-scripted.  CBS won’t win any awards for displaying minimal standards of ethics and objectivity, and it’s a sure bet they won’t be given permission to start a bureau in Pyongyang anytime soon, but at least they informed their viewers honestly.

This CNN reporter also tried to give us an idea of that part of the story she wasn’t allowed to tell.

Aidan Foster-Carter, who favors the AP experiment despite some reservations, points to another amusing incident, via the AP’s partner “news” service, KCNA, which reports:

Pyongyang, July 24 (KCNA) — John Daniszewski, vice president of the Associated Press of the U.S., arrived here by air on Wednesday to take part in the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the great Fatherland Liberation War.

Foster-Carter later expanded on his objections in an interview with the Washington Post’s Max Fisher.

One classic case on the media today: the Associated Press, as you know, has a bureau in North Korea, with KCNA [North Korea's state media arm]. This has been a matter of some controversy. I, in fact, am among those on balance are glad they’re there, some interesting things have come out. But I hope that even they will protest that there’s a picture on KCNA right now of [AP's] vice president, and what does it say? It says he’s come to join in the celebrations in the anniversary of the victory against the U.S. I mean that, that’s outrageous. And I hope they will protest. He’s there as a media person, he’s not coming to join in the celebrations.

So you do have to be a little bit careful. Visiting the statues and such, there’s not a lot you can do about it. These things get used internally to show foreigners coming to bow down to the leader. Not much is left to chance by the regime, they will use you if they can. [via Max Fisher's WaPo blog]

As of today, two weeks later, the article is still available on KCNA’s web site. I can’t say whether the AP protested, but if they did, it’s apparent that KCNA stood firm and refused to compromise its journalistic standards.

Don Kirk slams KCNAP

Wow … just, wow.

It’s gratifying when a journalist has the principle and the cojones to publish what others don’t dare to say in public.  Mr. Kirk, this post is good for one beer, redeemable on demand.

What would you ask the AP?

The AP is hosting an event on social media in North Korea, with the AP’s Eric Carvin and its Korea Bureau Chief, Jean H. Lee.  Thanks to the readers who let me know.

The conversation was dead — no one seemed all that interested the AP’s views on social media amid the re-declaration of Korean War II — so I decided to stimulate a livelier discussion by asking whether the AP will ever reveal its agreements with KCNA, whether it pays North Korea anything under them, and whether AP should be more forthcoming with its readers about those arrangements, given the potential for conflicts of interest.

Oddly enough, rather than start a lively discussion, my questions seem to have thrown a wet blanket over things.  (It’s the sort of uncomfortable silence you associate with the first Thanksgiving after the sex offender comes home from prison, right after Uncle Bob asks Ray and Nancy why they didn’t bring the kids.)

Hey, maybe your questions will liven things up a little. And then again, maybe the AP’s silence will speak volumes about its fearlessness and independence, or even reveal that North Korea has found a way to censor America’s most influential media organization, wherever it speaks.

Say, do you think Kim Jong Un might just be a complete doofus who happens to have nuclear weapons?

SO THE FIRST WELL-KNOWN AMERICAN to meet with Kim Jong Un is not an AP interviewer, a tribute-bearing Bill Richardson, a ransom-bearing Jimmy Carter, or first choice Michael Jordan.  It is this man:


Strain, if you must, to make this into some sort of soft power diplomatic coup; it really looks like a tragic sequel to “Being There.” The very weirdness of it all is evident in some priceless exchanges from yesterday’s State Department daily press briefing.

Delectably, the AP’s part-time Pyongyang correspondent and photographer were scooped by Vice Media, led by Shane Smith, a man who is to journalism what The Dude is to alternative dispute resolution.  Nate Thayer tells the story here.  At least Smith, unlike the AP, does not ask us to take his brand of journalism seriously. What makes all of this even harder to explain is that Smith’s ventures into North Korea and North Korean logging camps in Siberia have portrayed North Korea as bizarre, controlling, brutish, and ridiculous.  Smith, in other words, scooped the AP without (so far) having pulled any punches or sacrificed his objectivity. That’s why I’m willing to see the product Vice produces before I’m as critical as others have been, although I applaud another unlikely source, Gawker, for putting this circus into its rightful context.

You can’t help pity the AP which, for all its literary and literal prostrations – for all its willingness to make jarring ethical compromises to gain the regime’s favor – was frustrated in its priapistic lust for an interview with His Porcine Majesty.  It looks like we’ll all have to wait a little longer to learn whether it’s briefs or boxers.  Meanwhile, Jean Lee, the AP’s Korea Bureau Chief, must quote pesky upstart Vice to even report what Kim said to Rodman, and was otherwise relegated to tweeting pictures of sandwiches.  No word yet on that AP expose on the starvation and cannibalism said to be ongoing a few miles to the south of Pyongyang.  Maybe Vice will beat them to that, too.

I’ve been pondering why the North Koreans would snub such willing instruments as Jean Lee and Bill Richardson, people who could actually deliver things a wily regime could use to advance its coldly calculated interests.  Instead, it left them all at the altar for a man who does, admittedly, look rather fetching in a wedding dress.  The resulting publicity mostly portrays Kim Jong Un as a bizarre, detached hedonist in a kingdom of helots, a gluttonous man-child who is blithely apathetic about statecraft or the welfare of his pitiful subjects.  Out west, where I’m from, our fathers teach us to take better care of our tools than this.

After consulting William of Occam, I offer this novel hypothesis: Could it be that Kim Jong Un is just an impulsive imbecile who happens to be the nominal leader of a state with nuclear weapons? Nothing we know about his academic history or his policy record contradicts my hypothesis.

Update: What. The. Fuck. (Hat tip).

AP Exclusive! North Korea’s nuke test a cry for peace

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — AP Pyongyang has all the logic and perspective of KCNA Pyongyang and none of the guilty pleasures of KCNA’s prose.  

The way North Korea sees it, only bigger weapons and more threatening provocations will force Washington to come to the table to discuss what Pyongyang says it really wants: peace. [....]

North Korea has long cited the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, and what it considers a nuclear umbrella in the region, as the main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons. North Korea and the U.S. fought on opposite sides of the bitter, three-year Korean War. That conflict ended in a truce in 1953, and left the peninsula divided by heavily fortified buffer zone manned by the U.S.-led U.N. Command.

Sixty years after the armistice, North Korea has pushed for a peace treaty with the U.S. But when talks fail, as they have for nearly two decades, the North Koreans turn to speaking with their weapons.  [Jean H. Lee, AP]

I realize that Lee frequents a place where war is peace, but peace isn’t the first goal one would attribute to a regime that, less than four years ago, renounced the Korean War cease fire agreement, subsequently carried out two sneak attacks against South Korea, killing 50 of its citizens, and attempted to assassinate several defector-dissidents on South Korean soil.

Is this The Onion, you ask?  No, this is The Onion.

The idea that a peace treaty with North Korea is the solution to our problems with North Korea is nonetheless the stated position of a small pro-North Korean fringe, and just about no one else, no doubt because the negotiations would give that fringe the chance to support North Korea’s preconditions for said peace.  Still, I suppose it’s good to have clarity on where Lee stands.

For something a little better grounded in reality, see this Reuters analysis by Paul Eckert and Michael Martina:

A North Korean nuclear test draws international condemnation, modest U.N. sanctions and expressions of hope in the United States that China will finally rein in its brazen ally.

Beijing chides North Korea, but nothing much happens.

The world has seen this movie before and it’s likely to witness another rerun after North Korea’s third nuclear test on Tuesday.

See also this piece by Jeffrey Lewis and this one by Bruce Klingner, citing evidence that North Korea may already have a miniaturized and functional nuclear weapon that it can deliver on a missile.  Say what you want about the accuracy of North Korea’s long-range missiles; its short and medium range missiles are thought to be accurate and effective enough to pose a real danger to South Korea and Japan.

If that’s not bad enough, consider how many terrorist-sponsoring clients North Korea has in the Middle East for its nuclear and missile technology.  Claudia Rosett has an excellent summary in Forbes.