Air Koryo Flight 151, as microcosm and metaphor

We now have at least one first-person account of what happened aboard that Air Koryo flight that filled with smoke and made an emergency landing at Shenyang earlier this week. I said in my original post that “I’m sure the experience wasn’t pleasant,” with deliberate understatement. In fact, many of the passengers aboard the half-empty flight thought they were about to die, and at least one began to rethink the purpose of his life (something we should all do more often, if under better circumstances).

I say “at least” one, because one account comes from a passenger who spoke to Chad O’Carroll of NK News, “requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of talking to media on the issue.”

But there is also a strikingly similar account by a person many North Korea watchers know well — Geoffrey See of Chosun Exchange, an NGO that seeks to change North Korea through engagement with “businesses” approved by the North Korean government.

I disagree with See’s policy views, of course. I see the engagement theory as a conclusive failure that actually dilutes international pressure that could force North Korea to disarm and reform, and thus sets back progress toward those shared goals. I’ve also met Geoffrey See, like him very much personally, believe in the goodness of his intentions, and am very glad to hear that he’s safe. In See’s account, there is also an unmistakable acknowledgement of the unaltered realities of North Korea.

In typical North Korean fashion, a senior airline staff comes into the cabin and began to repeat “no problem…no problem” to reassure passengers, especially a Russian who looked ready to punch the staff. Having worked in the country long enough, I know “no problem” means “big problem”. The smoke continues to fill the cabin. No information was forthcoming until I heard a flight attendant walking past mention “Shenyang.” I grabbed her and asked her if the flight was being diverted and she said “there is no problem, we are landing in Shenyang.” I thought “that’s not Beijing. We have a problem.” [Geoffrey See]

I can’t help wondering if See really intends to go back to Pyongyang after posting this under his own name.

The plane starts dropping and the pressure builds in my ear. The friend is crying now. I realized this could be the end. I could die in North Korea, in a North Korean plane crash. There is a brief moment of clarity as I wondered why I do all this shit for North Koreans at Choson Exchange, and the shit I put up with for my work. I was scared stiff when I realized I would be leaving loved ones behind. The North Korean at the front is still smiling and repeating “no problem…no problem.” I thought about punching him. The plane is shaking violently in the rapid descent.

Read the entire thing. And don’t just read it as a terrifying story. Read it as a microcosm of North Korea itself, and as a metaphor for the course its government has chosen for its 23 million passengers.

One parting shot: as of the time of this post, two days after the incident, the Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau had not filed a report about the incident from Pyongyang. Instead, it has a dry dispatch from Beijing, quoting a Xinhua report, and containing this delectable sentence: “Calls to the airline’s office rang unanswered while the relevant department at the airport could not immediately be reached.” Compare this with Reuters‘s detailed report from Seoul.

Yet again, AP reports nothing exclusive that is newsworthy and nothing newsworthy that is exclusive. Yet again, having a bureau in Pyongyang appears to do more to impede than advance AP’s ability to report the news from North Korea.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

Designation of N. Korea’s propaganda agency could mean trouble for AP Pyongyang

Yesterday, a reader — he can identify himself if he chooses to do so — asked me an excellent question that had not occurred to me: what are the implications for the Associated Press’s Pyongyang Bureau of the Treasury Department’s designation of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department for censorship? From Treasury’s Wednesday press release:

OFAC has designated the Workers’ Party of Korea, Propaganda and Agitation Department (the “Propaganda and Agitation Department”) as an agency, instrumentality, or controlled entity of the Government of North Korea. The Workers’ Party of Korea has full control over the media, which it uses as a tool to control the public. The Propaganda and Agitation Department also engages in or is responsible for censorship by the Government of North Korea. Each month, the Propaganda and Agitation Department delivers party guidelines explaining the narrative that all broadcast and news reporting plans must follow. The North Korean media must follow all Party guidelines. The Propaganda and Agitation Department is also the primary agency responsible for both newspaper and broadcast censorship.

The designation was compelled by NKSPEA § 104(a)(4), which requires the President to designate any person who “knowingly engages in, is responsible for, or facilitates censorship by the Government of North Korea.” Yesterday’s executive order translates this as follows, in section 2(a)(vi):

Sec. 2. (a) All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

[….]

(vi) to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for censorship by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea;

Critically, section 2(a)(viii) of the E.O. clarifies that a designation also includes persons who are “owned or controlled by, or … have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, any person” designated under the new executive order. That means that if an entity is designated, its subsidiaries, sub-agencies, officers, and employees are designated, too.

The nexus to AP didn’t occur to me until my reader raised it, but a few moments of googling brought me to this post by Michael Madden at 38 North. Can you read the second box from the left?

madden

How about now?

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 9.56.24 PM

Uh-oh. So, if that’s true, the designation of the Propaganda and Agitation Department is also a designation of KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, the world’s least credible news agency. The same KCNA that AP signed its still-undisclosed MOUs with, establishing its Pyongyang Bureau, and detailing two North Korean minders journalists to report for it.

Well, maybe if the AP has an OFAC license, it can be grandfathered in, right?

(b) The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order or pursuant to the export control authorities implemented by the Department of Commerce, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted prior to the effective date of this order.

No such luck, then. But if the AP doesn’t pay KCNA any money, there’s no need for a license. Only, when is the last time North Korea gave anything away for free? Also, the draft AP-KCNA MOU Nate Thayer obtained certainly suggests that money has changed hands. AP denies the authenticity of the draft, but it hasn’t released the signed, final MOU, either. Maybe this would be the time to do that.

Or, maybe one of OFAC’s new general licenses covers AP. I guess if any of them is a fit, it would be General License Number 7, which says:

(2) This general license does not authorize:

(i) The provision, sale, or lease of telecommunications equipment or technology; or

(ii) The provision, sale, or lease of capacity on telecommunications transmission facilities (such as satellite or terrestrial network activity).

Um….

So, to summarize: The executive order blocks persons who are designated for engaging in censorship on behalf of the North Korean government. It also blocks persons or entities who are owned or controlled by those who are designated and blocked. Treasury designated the Propaganda and Agitation Department, and there’s publicly available, credible evidence that the Propaganda and Agitation Department controls KCNA. If that evidence is correct, KCNA is also blocked, and no U.S. person may transfer funds to KCNA. If AP had an OFAC license before yesterday, the new executive order voided it. Also, none of OFAC’s general licenses appear to apply here.

I see three options for the AP: either (1) AP gets an OFAC license (or general license) to keep paying KCNA; (2) North Korea lets AP run a bureau for free of charge; or (3) AP closes its bureau and visits Pyongyang when something interesting happens, just like it did before 2011, when its North Korea coverage was actually better. Also, AP can’t fly any more North Korean “journalists” and propagandists to New York for Kim Il-sung commemorative photo exhibitions. Section 4 of the E.O. bars designated entities’ employees from the United States.

Or, the AP can find a business partner in North Korea that isn’t censoring North Koreans’ rights to free expression, committing crimes against humanity, running guns, or proliferating WMDs. The legal obstacles to this would seem significant, given the breadth of the executive order’s blocking of all interests in property of the government of North Korea.

460. Can U.S. persons do business with entities in North Korea?

No. Unless authorized pursuant to a general or specific license from OFAC and/or BIS, the new E.O. prohibits new investment in North Korea by a U.S. person and the exportation or reexportation, from the United States, or by a U.S. person, of any goods, services, or technology to North Korea. [Published on 03-16-2016]

By now you may be wondering: Josh, are you really devious enough to have induced a nearly unanimous Congress and the President of the United States to get the AP kicked out of Pyongyang because you despise the secrecy and corruption of its dealings with Pyongyang? Tempting as it is to tent my fingers and declare in a serpentine Montgomery Burns hiss, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” I swear I’m not. I do admit that when we drafted the legislation that became H.R. 757, it was my idea to make censorship a basis for designation. But although this is a new idea for North Korea — there was no comprehensive North Korea sanctions law before H.R. 757 — it’s not a new idea for Earth. Other states (Iran, Syria) have been sanctioned for censorship before, just like other states (but not North Korea) had been sanctioned for human rights violations before. I just stole the idea from the people who drafted those sanctions, because like most Americans, including at least 418 members of Congress, 96 senators, and the President of the United States, I hate censorship.

But mostly, I assumed OFAC would issue a general license for journalistic activities in North Korea, as it did for Cuba, Iran, and other sanctioned countries. AP has a bureau in Tehran, despite censorship sanctions that apply to Iran’s government. And maybe AP will get one for its Pyongyang bureau, too.

But I’d be lying if I denied that this thought had crossed my mind: if the AP experiment fails because of this, it would be for the good of journalism and humanity, and also, it couldn’t happen to nicer people

Some people will say that the withdrawal of the AP would be a setback for efforts to open up North Korea. Those people will be wrong. It would really be a setback for the co-option and corruption of our news media by genocidal totalitarians who want to buy down press criticism. The AP didn’t change North Korea; North Korea changed the AP. KCNA didn’t start broadcasting truthful and objective news because the AP came to Pyongyang. AP came to Pyongyang and promptly abandoned its principles, submitted to North Korean censorship, and broadcast a stream of North Korean propaganda, fakery, hostage videos, and vox populi interviews with obvious (to me) plants to hundreds of millions of people around the world. And called it “journalism.”

And for what prize did AP sell its soul? Nothing newsworthy that was exclusive, and nothing exclusive that was newsworthy. It failed to confirm or refute credible reports of a famine in South Hwanghae Province in 2012, just an hour’s drive from Pyongyang. Or any of the dozens of rumors of purges or prolonged disappearances by North Korean generals, or of Kim Jong-un himself. Or about North Korea’s deplorable crimes against humanity, as the world’s attention turned to them so belatedly.

Or, that time an apartment building fell down—what, ten minutes away from its bureau?—possibly killing hundreds of people, when the AP never even reported from the scene. A Rimjingang reporter risked his life to take clandestine photos and predict this disaster. NK News found imagery online and published time-lapse photography of the building vanishing from the Pyongyang skyline … from a thousand miles away. And then, last year, when the most famous hotel in Pyongyang caught fire, the AP, just ….

shrug

Journalism is about asking uncomfortable questions, digging for the truth and telling it, and unmasking lies. Whatever the AP is doing in Pyongyang, it isn’t journalism. That’s why OFAC could grant AP a license, but shouldn’t. It’s why if the AP has any shame, it won’t even ask for one. It will silently acknowledge what the rest of us have said for years, collect as much of its dignity and its equipment it can, and drive them to back across the DMZ to Seoul.

~   ~   ~

Update: Oh, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department is headed by Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, whom some Korea-watchers expected to be designated individually (she wasn’t).

Continue Reading

Associated Press holds another N. Korean propaganda exhibit, this time in Pyongyang

In 2011, the AP and the North Korean government’s main mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, signed two memoranda of understanding. One of these memoranda allowed the AP to set up a bureau in Pyongyang, staffed in part by North Korean “journalists” from KCNA. The other provided for a joint commemorative photo exhibit by the AP and KCNA in a New York art gallery, “Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung.” That exhibit portrayed North Korea as a land of cherubic babies, happy people who dance in the streets, and schoolchildren who adore Kim Il Sung. In 2012, the AP promoted that exhibit heavily, but as we’ll soon see, the AP seems to have had second thoughts about its media strategy since then.

The AP has denied repeated requests by journalists to disclose those memoranda, but last year, the intrepid freelance journalist Nate Thayer obtained and published a draft, according to which 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.” Although this does raise concerns about AP’s commitment to its own ethical standards — “[t]he newspaper … should vigorously expose wrongdoing, duplicity or misuse of power;” “report the news without regard for its own interests, mindful of the need to disclose potential conflicts;” “be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers” and avoid “[e]ven the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest” — let no one question the AP’s fidelity to its agreements with Pyongyang.

Last week, the AP again joined in a North Korean propaganda exhibit to commemorate another anniversary of political importance to the regime. This time, the event was the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party. In contrast to 2012, however, I searched in vain for any sign that AP had covered, mentioned, given interviews about, or promoted this event. So as a public service, I’ll be the second news source (after KCNA) to tell you about it. KCNA doesn’t have permlinks, so I give you screenshots. (Hat tip to a reader for this, by the way.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.15.03 PM

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.21.13 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.40 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.31 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.22 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.12 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.01 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.42 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.37 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.31 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.22 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.12 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.03 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.52 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.41 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.32 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.18 PM

As the AP itself recently reminded us, governments use imagery of their leaders as propaganda, and when they do, journalists have an obligation to maintain their independence and demand the right to look behind the stage management, without fear or favor. The occasion for this was when the Obama White House passed out photos of the President taken by its own photographer, expecting news services to simply publish them.

The AP has a policy against using White House handout photos unless they are of significant news value and were shot in places to which the press does not expect access, such as private residence areas of the White House. The presidents of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors have urged their members to stop using White House handout photos and video, saying they amount to propaganda. [AP]

At the time, the AP’s Vice President and Director of Photography, Santiago Lyon, even wrote a New York Times op-ed under the provocative title, “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control,” expanding on the importance of journalists challenging government control of the imagery readers are allowed to see:

The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.

By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue. [….]

If you take this practice to its logical conclusion, why have news conferences? Why give reporters any access to the White House? It would be easier to just have a daily statement from the president (like his recorded weekly video address) and call it a day. Repressive governments do this all the time. [NYT]

Indeed they do. While I have no information to suggest that the AP has republished these particular photographs — rather, it seems to prefer that we didn’t notice at all — it has repeatedly published photographs from KCNA photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, who is detailed to the AP. The AP’s corporate leadership has, more than once, allowed the North Korean government to publicly associate it with propaganda photographs of its leader. I’ll give a few last quotes from the Associated Press Media Editors standards:

Work by staff members for the people or institutions they cover also should be avoided.

The newspaper should uphold the right of free speech and freedom of the press and should respect the individual’s right to privacy.

It should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals. Concern for community, business or personal interests should not cause the newspaper to distort or misrepresent the facts.

Yet again, foreigners come to Pyongyang certain that their presence will be a liberalizing influence. Yet again, it is not Pyongyang’s standards that change; instead, the foreigners subordinate their own standards to Pyongyang’s, and we’re left asking, “Who changed who?”

More posts on the Associated Press’s troubling compromises with North Korea, here.

Continue Reading

Stephens didn’t call for isolation, he called for objectivity and full disclosure (updated).

The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield has written an opinion piece in response to Bret Stephen’s column yesterday, on which I commented in yesterday’s post:

If we can’t report from the gulag without a guide, by Stephens’s logic, then we shouldn’t be reporting from North Korea at all. Or from Iran, or Syria, or Gaddafi’s Libya or probably present-day China, where journalists are closely monitored. Certainly not from the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain came down.

Whenever we journalists go to these places, though, we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there. And by passing that on to our readers and viewers, we can share information about countries — and their threatening regimes — with a wide audience that includes the people who make our policy towards these countries (and often can’t go to these places themselves.)

In the case of North Korea, we know so little about what happens there that every piece of information, no matter how small, can add meaningfully to our understanding. [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

But with due respect to Fifield, whose reporting I’ve generally regarded highly, she missed Stephens’s point.

Stephens didn’t argue that reporters shouldn’t go to North Korea. He argued that when regimes put express or implied limits on their reporting, they should “spell out what those rules are, so that readers can judge for themselves whether reports … are censored, self-censored, or genuinely comprehensive and unfiltered.” He argued that they should avoid (or at the very least, disclose) regime entanglements and conflicts of interest. He argued that they should be skeptical, not obedient. That if they must submit to self-censorship, they have a duty to tell us that. (Fifield obviously agrees, saying, “In going to these highly controlled places, it is incumbent on us as journalists to be transparent about the restrictions placed upon us, which I did during my last trip.”)

Stephens argued that reporter’s duty is to show their readers the subject as it is, not as the regime wants it shown. They should show its reality, not a fraud. That they should not deceive their readers by mislabeling an illusion as “Everyday DPRK.” When other reporters ask them important questions about self-censorship, accuracy, and conflicts of interest, they should answer them, not duck them, or shunt them off to softball interviews.

Above all, journalists shouldn’t lie to us and tell us they aren’t censored when they clearly are. (Because if the AP’s reporting isn’t restricted, why haven’t they gone to Camp 22, interviewed residents of Hoeryong privately, and explained the fate of its prisoners? If AP’s reporters aren’t being censored, it can only mean they simply don’t care.)

Fifield says she has met those standards, and I see no reason to doubt that she has. The AP—the main target of Stephen’s column—has fallen short of all of them, and Fifield offers no defense of how the AP has comported itself. In fact, if you read what Fifield and Stephens are saying about how reporters should behave in North Korea, they’re saying the same things.

If Fifield can follow these basic rules, so can AP. After all, that’s what the AP’s own ethical standards tell it to do. I posit that the AP has made a conscious choice to abandon its standards, obey its minders, and show us the fraudulent illusion the regime wants to show us out of a combination of gullibility and greed. That is how a free press loses the trust of a free people.

~   ~   ~

Update: A journalist and reader tells me that Guttenfelder is no longer with the AP, and that it was The New York Times that commissioned this work. It’s worrisome to see the Times’s coverage of North Korea, which was never particularly good, make the same mistakes that have caused so much harm to AP’s reputation for such small rewards.

Continue Reading

WSJ’s Bret Stephens, on the latest rare glimpse of N. Korea: “Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.”

Stephens isn’t favorably impressed with David Guttenfelder’s latest “rare glimpse” through a soda straw clenched within the fists of Pyongyang’s KCNA propagandists, as published in The New York Times. Most of it is more of the same only-beautiful-please imagery we’ve come to expect from Guttenfelder–a flag factory, tiny children performing like circus animals, well-fed factory workers. Stephens observes: “It’s a potent reminder that nothing is so blinding as the illusion of seeing.”

Because the Times‘s own coverage of North Korea tends toward shallowness and gullibility about Pyongyang’s propaganda, it’s left to observers like Stephens to ask whether Guttenfelder’s work is informing or deceiving its audience.

I don’t mean to disparage Mr. Guttenfelder’s photographic skills or his sincerity. But what are we to make of a photo essay heavy on pictures of modern-looking factories and well-fed children being fussed over in a physical rehabilitation center? Or—from his Instagram account (“Everyday DPRK”)—of theme-park water slides, Christian church interiors, well-stocked clothing stores and rollerblading Pyongyang teens—all suggesting an ordinariness to North Korean life that, as we know from so many sources, is a travesty of the terrifying truth? [Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal]

Stephens asks Guttenfelder about CNN’s attempts to cover malnutrition and human rights abuses, comparing AP Pyongyang to the Eason Jordan/CNN scandal. Characteristically for an AP alumnus, Guttenfelder won’t answer.*

I wrote Mr. Guttenfelder to ask him about his work in the country, including whether he had ever encountered evidence of malnutrition or human-rights abuses. He did not answer directly but referred me to previous interviews, which emphasize that his work is “uncensored.” That’s quite a claim, given that he admits that he “travels with a guide,” and “I don’t interview people privately.” [….]

Needless to say, none of this crosses Mr. Guttenfelder’s lens. In making the regime seem almost normal, he invites us to forget what it is. Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.

James Pearson of Reuters first identified “rare glimpse” as a cliché of editorial self-promotion, and later as a Twitter meme for Korea-watching cynics. What delights the cynics so much about these “rare glimpses” is that usually, the work thus described isn’t rare at all; it’s simply another case of a journalist going to the effort of obtaining a visa and an airline ticket, obeying her minder’s instructions, and depressing the shutter button as her minder leads her to each stage of a well-worn circuit of propaganda backdrops. This happens to describe Guttenfelder’s work in North Korea perfectly. It is as beautifully composed and visually appealing as it is fraudulent, as much a disgrace to journalism as any words ever written by Walter Duranty.

~   ~   ~

* A previous version of this post stated that Guttenfelder shot the photographs in this essay for the Associated Press. A reader informs me that Guttenfelder has left AP after having completed multiple assignments as an AP photojournalist in North Korea. It was The New York Times that commissioned Guttenfelder’s photographs.

Continue Reading

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:

 BBS ºÒ±³¹æ¼ÛÀÌ ´Üµ¶ ÀÔ¼öÇÑ Æò¾ç °í·ÁÈ£ÅÚ È­Àç Àå¸é     (¼­¿ï=¿¬ÇÕ´º½º) 12ÀÏ BBS ºÒ±³¹æ¼ÛÀÌ ´Üµ¶À¸·Î ÀÔ¼öÇÑ ºÏÇÑ Æò¾ç °í·ÁÈ£ÅÚÀÇ Áö³­ 11ÀÏ È­Àç Àå¸é. µÎ °Ç¹°À» ¿¬°áÇÏ´Â 43Ãþ ºê¸®Áö¿¡¼­ °ËÀº ¿¬±â¿Í ºÒ±æÀÌ Ä¡¼Ú°í ÀÖ´Ù.     APÅë½Å µî ¿Ü½ÅµéÀº 12ÀÏ ¸ñ°ÝÀÚµéÀÇ ¸»À» Àοë, ÀÌ°°ÀÌ ÀüÇÏ°í È­Àç¿¡ ´ëÇÑ ´ç±¹ÀÇ °ø½ÄÀûÀÎ È®ÀÎÀº ¾ø¾ú°í ÀθíÇÇÇØ µîµµ ¾Ë·ÁÁöÁö ¾Ê¾Ò´Ù°í º¸µµÇß´Ù.     2015.6.12  <>     jeong@yna.co.kr/2015-06-12 16:06:28/

[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.

Continue Reading

Would Christine Ahn please ask Pyongyang to stop deporting the nice aid workers? For the children?

North Korea has deported U.S. citizen Sandra Suh, a humanitarian aid worker and founder of the L.A.-based NGO Wheat Mission Ministries, who had been working in North Korea since 1998. Pyongyang accused Suh of “plot-breeding and propaganda” — specifically, by showing “propaganda abroad with photos and videos” that she “secretly produced and directed, out of inveterate repugnancy” toward the North, “under the pretense of ‘humanitarianism.'”

The North Korean news agency said Suh had “admitted her acts … seriously insulted the absolute trust” North Koreans place in their leader, Kim Jong Un, and constituted “indelible crimes that infringed on its sovereignty in violation of its law.” It added that she had “apologized for her crimes and earnestly begged for pardon” and that authorities decided to expel her “taking into full consideration her old age.” [L.A. Times]

Judging by its nicely designed web site, Wheat Mission Ministries appears to be run by Korean-Americans, and to work exclusively in North Korea. It has a page on monitoring, where it acknowledges “that 100% accountability is a difficult thing to achieve in DPRK.” Interestingly enough, WMM’s web page also has a page for “photos and videos,” which now says this:

WM is going through a revision process to include pictures and videos. Because of the sensitive nature of providing videos, WM is careful to post videos that are neutral in their content. This will be available soon.

And so it goes. I’m sure WMM’s staff are lovely people with compassionate intentions, but who changed who again? Once again, the price of “engagement” with Pyongyang is not only to compromise the very principle that brought you there, but to submit to the extraterritoriality of its censorship forever. In the end, Suh’s family is just thankful that she didn’t end up a hostage like Kenneth Bae.

Suh is the second humanitarian aid worker deported by Pyongyang in a month, perhaps because Pyongyang is now making enough money commercially that aid inputs threaten to create a destabilizing condition: an adequate supply of food for its “wavering” and “hostile” classes. Thankfully for Pyongyang, that condition has not yet been achieved:

The United Nations has launched an appeal for $111 million to help a vast portion of North Korea’s population now facing a food crisis.

U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea Ghulam Isaczai told VOA the funding will help five U.N. aid agencies working on the ground to continue providing North Koreans with food, clean water and other basics in 2015.

“We are appealing for more aid and support to keep the U.N. operation going. And if we don’t provide the support, the gains we have made over the years will be reversed,” Isaczai said Wednesday.

The United Nations says 70 percent of the population, or 18 million North Koreans, are food insecure and lack nutritional diversity.

But Isaczai said of those, nearly 2 million, mostly children, pregnant and lactating women and the elderly, are in dire need of food assistance, and another 350,000 women and children need vaccines and health supplies.

Malnutrition rates are high, with 27.9 percent of children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to a 2012 national nutrition survey quoted by the U.N. [VOA]

Yes, curse those damn sanctions for starving North Korean babies.

The lifestyle of roughly 200,000 to 300,000 elites, Park said, rivals those of well-heeled residents of Manhattan or the residents of Little Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Their average net worth is $50,000 and they typically own Samsung televisions and household pets imported from China.

Elites also have access to lavish dining options in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The restaurants in question charge $70 for Korean barbecue, $8 for Korean bibimbap, or rice mixed with meat and vegetables, though prices cited were for foreign tourists and not locals, reported South Korea’s Kyunghyang Sinmun.

Luxury vehicles are highly coveted within this population, according to Park.

He estimates there are currently 5,000 BMWs, 1,500 used Nissans parked around the areas where the elites lead their enviable lifestyles.

Park and other experts have said the resulting economic and social inequality is beyond comparison to pre-unification East Germany or even to contemporary China. Jung Eun-yi, a researcher at Kyungsang National University in South Korea said luxury apartments valued at $200,000 have begun to emerge in Pyongyang, according to South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, by the way, wasn’t able to provide any further information about the reason for the deportations, other than to quote a KCNA statement. But it did report the fascinating fact that “[a]uthorities in Pyongyang have also in the past staged news conferences, during which foreign detainees appeared before the media and made statements that they then recanted after their releases.” Really? Pyongyang stages news conferences that feature people who are under duress? And this is news to the AP?

Suh’s deportation comes just as CNN and others are wondering how Christine Ahn could possibly believe that Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il are blameless (or nearly so) for all the hunger, famine, and suffering that the people of North Korea have endured for the last two decades of dynastic misrule.

What a perfect opportunity for Ahn to preempt a growing consensus that she “has long been uncritical of North Korea, a country that has some committed some of the worst human rights abuses on record,” and for Gloria Steinem to answer critics who accuse her of being “mum” about crimes like “executions, rape, forced starvation, and enslavement.” Perhaps these women are willing to speak truth to power after all, and to call on Pyongyang to let Suh and Feindt return, get on with their work, and resume regular monitoring visits.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 6.33.30 AM

C’mon, Christine. Do it for the children. Show us how much you really care about them.

Continue Reading

Must read: Washington Post on AP’s Pyongyang Bureau

I think Paul Farhi, The Washington Post‘s media reporter, wrote an interesting and balanced article, although I wish he’d stressed the point that I stressed to Farhi — that readers could more easily accept the limits on AP’s coverage if AP would be more forthcoming about what those restrictions are. I want to know more about the terms of the AP’s reporting, both written and unwritten.

Farhi did manage to squeeze some of this out of the AP, including the admission that minders follow the AP reporters, and have de facto veto power over where it goes and what it covers. If only Farhi had convinced AP to release its final MOU with the North Koreans.

~   ~   ~

Update: Whoa:

I don’t agree that it’s a “flattering” story, but … Talmadge hasn’t been allowed into North Korea in months? Isn’t that kind of a big deal? Why ever could that be? And what would it say about the difference between Lee’s reporting and Talmadge’s, at least in Pyongyang’s eyes? HT: Nate Thayer.

~   ~   ~

Update 2: Welcome back, Washington Post readers. It also strikes me that by focusing on Eric Talmadge himself, Farhi misses some of the most damning parts of the AP Pyongyang story. Talmadge himself may be the least problematic part of it. The most problematic parts are the decisions of AP corporate, including the North Korean propaganda exhibition AP and KCNA put on in New York, and the Memorandum of Understanding AP made with North Korea’s state propaganda agency. The intrepid Nate Thayer obtained and published a draft of that MOU, and it reads like an agreement to publish North Korean propaganda. AP denies that the final MOU contains similar terms, but refuses to release the final.

Much of the reporting has been troubling, too, but you probably want to see specific examples. OK, then — start with the Pak Jong Suk story. For examples of biased AP coverage of North Korea, click here, here, here, and here. For a comparison of AP’s conduct to the ethical standards of the AP Media Editors, click here. For more posts on AP Pyongyang, click here.

Continue Reading

Jean Lee resigns from AP

Via Nate Thayer. Lee says this had been planned for some time. I think Lee made some bad choices as a reporter in Pyongyang, but I wish her well in her new career. I don’t know the extent to which the much worse choices made by AP corporate management constrained Lee’s decisions or coverage. One day, I hope she’ll tell us.

One last note on this: Lee recently tweeted that she was receiving hate tweets from people who called her a North Korean. Lee responds that she is as American as any of us. It should go without saying that she is right. I haven’t seen any of the tweets myself, and I’d prefer to think that people of such character wouldn’t read this site. So, speaking as the father of two Korean-Americans, if you know any of those people, tell them to hide themselves in shame. That’s a bigoted and disgraceful way to behave toward any fellow American, regardless of your views about North Korea’s government.

Continue Reading

The AP should release its MOU or register as a N. Korean propagandist

Those who expect to shatter the illusions of 23 million North Koreans by airdropping copies of The Interview over the no-smile line probably overestimate the translatability of its humor into North Korea’s socially conservative culture. But for all its flaws, The Interview approached brilliance on one level — not as a parody of Kim Jong Un (Randall Park wasn’t nearly fat enough) but as a parody of the Americans who choose to nuzzle up to him. When James Franco was immediately taken in by his minder’s display of a store, so well-stocked with (plastic) food, and by a fat kid licking a lollipop, he might as well have been an AP reporter.

Which brings me to Nate Thayer’s groundbreaking report on AP Pyongyang, which exceeds anything else done on the subject. Some readers have told me that its raspy tone was off-putting, but which of them exposed so much about the bureau’s inner workings, or published details of its agreements with the North Koreans, both written and unwritten? Thayer has done us a great public service here:

The document says the AP will “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government,” that changes to state-produced content would have to be made with “full consultation between the two sides,” that the “KCNA shall nominate” the full time staff the AP would hire for their Pyongyang bureau, and that “the average $12,000 per month” for salaries and office rental fees be paid by a “method requested by (the) KCNA.”

“(The) KCNA shall be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of Bureau,” the document says, the authenticity of which was confirmed by interviews with 14 current and former AP staff involved in news production from the AP’s Pyongyang bureau. [NK News, Nate Thayer]

Thayer’s story also contains a link to a complete copy of a draft AP-KCNA MOU. It suggests that, contrary to its numerous public representations that it “does not submit to censorship,” the AP accepted extensive editorial controls on its reporting by North Korea’s state propaganda agency, KCNA. AP had an unwritten agreement not to write about Kim Jong Un.

It employed North Korean “journalists” picked and paid by KCNA, who (surprise!) appear to have acted closely 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.

KCNA got a veto over where the AP could go, and what stories it could report; consequently, AP Pyongyang contributed no useful reporting to any of the biggest stories coming out of Pyongyang in the last three years, many of which remain unresolved.

AP accepted reporting quotas, including “monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles” which could be “translated into English and distributed with the dateline of “Pyongyang (AP).”

AP was prevented from establishing independent communications, and was kept in close physical proximity to KCNA, and dependent on its internet connection and SIM cards to communicate.

At Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fisher has an excellent summary of the “damning accusations” in Thayer’s piece. It’s also well worth reading. Also worth your time is this comment, from Don Kirk.

So how did the AP respond to all of this? Surely it redacted the proprietary numbers out of the final MOU and released it, to prove the independence of its bureau. Surely a series of AP reporters went on the record, offering frank and candid answers about how they work, where their independence is limited, and where it isn’t. Surely AP commissioned an independent review of its bureau’s practices by the respected dean of a journalism school, and promised to follow any recommendations necessary to protect the public’s confidence. Ha! Silly you, for letting me let you think that. Here’s the response from AP’s Director of Media Relations, Patrick Colford:

In the late 1990s, Nate Thayer, a former AP stringer, became disgruntled over a distribution agreement with AP covering video he had shot in Cambodia. More recently, he dismissed the value of AP’s North Korea bureau shortly before he sought from AP detailed proprietary information about the bureau for further articles that were published on Dec. 24 by NKnews.org. [Associated Press]

Let me get this straight: Colford’s story is that Thayer fabricated all of these allegations — and if Colford isn’t suggesting they’re fabricated, what’s the point of raising this? — over a twentysomething-year-old grudge he’s been nursing all of these years about some video?

No serious news organization would hand over the kind of business agreements, salary information and other payment documentation that Mr. Thayer sought.

Fine, then. Redact out the salary amounts and proprietary arrangements (there is one flat amount for salaries and rent in the MOU I’ve seen), and release the final, true, and correct version. Still, the payment arrangements are a matter of legitimate public interest, given U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094’s limitations on providing bulk cash to the North Korean government.

There is a much more important public interest question than this, of course. The public has a right to know whether the AP has agreed, in writing, to serve as North Korea’s publicity agent or “information service employee” — a term the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act defines as “any person who is engaged in furnishing, disseminating, or publishing accounts, descriptions, information, or data with respect to the political, industrial, employment, economic, social, cultural, or other benefits, advantages, facts, or conditions of any country other than the United States or of any government of a foreign country or of a foreign political party or of a partnership, association, corporation, organization, or other combination of individuals organized under the laws of, or having its principal place of business in, a foreign country.”

I’ll let the Justice Department decide whether, as a matter of law, the AP should register as a North Korean propagandist — the answer depends on whether the AP is acting under North Korean direction or control, and whether it’s practicing “bona fide” journalism here. But surely, from a citizen’s perspective, this must be precisely the kind of arrangement the Act was designed to make subject to public disclosure.

Colford continues:

His latest articles from Dec. 24 are full of errors, inaccuracies and baseless innuendo. The “draft agreement” between AP and North Korea’s KCNA news agency that he cites is remote from the final document.

Such as? Well, read on, and Colford makes some bald assertions and denials that he expects us to take at face value. You can decide on your own whether Colford or Thayer supports his version with more evidence.

While we’re on the topic of that MOU, I’d like to mention some strange things I noticed about it (Thayer shared the draft with me before he published his piece. In the interests of full disclosure, he also showed me an early draft of his article.)

First, notice the font and grammar. Does that look like the kind of font one of the world’s most sophisticated media organizations would use, or does it look rather more like KCNA wrote this and set the terms — a case of “life imitates The Interview”?

Second, the draft in my possession is annotated “092211,” which I suppose means that it was a version dated September 22, 2011. What’s very weird about that is that the AP announced its deal with KCNA, allowing for its bureau to be opened, in June! The very existence of a September draft of this MOU suggests that the terms were being renegotiated three months later. For those of us familiar with North Korea’s diplomatic history, the idea that all agreements are subject to constant renegotiation makes perfect sense. If Colford hesitates to produce a “final” MOU, it might well be because there are several of them. Or none at all.

Among other inaccuracies, AP does not distribute outright KCNA stories, as Mr. Thayer concludes, but at times AP cites KCNA reports, as do most other news organizations, including his publisher.

If so, the line between KCNA’s stories and the AP’s can be blurry. In this story about a North Korean accordion player, for example, the AP says, “Associated Press writer Pak Won Il contributed to this story from Pyongyang.” Pak Won Il is a North Korean, selected by the North Koreans (at least according to the draft MOU) and detailed to AP from KCNA. This story carries the byline of KCNA detailee Kim Kwang Hyon. And the stories I parodied here, here, here, and here, ostensibly written by the AP’s Jean H. Lee, have so little news value and so much propaganda content that they might as well have been KCNA’s own.

Because of his reliance on this “draft agreement,” he makes the laughable assertion that AP’s Pyongyang bureau submits to censorship by the North Korean government.

But the assertion isn’t laughable now that Thayer has produced a document, which Colford implicitly authenticates as a draft of the agreement between AP and KCNA. And in that document, AP ostensibly agrees (take a deep breath here) to “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of the policies of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the DPRK government and the reality of the DRPK with a view to deepening the relations between KCNA and AP, promoting mutual understanding between the two peoples and contributing to the improvement of the relations between the two countries.” And to allow KCNA to “be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of the Bureau.” And to agree to the “monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles on politics, economy, and culture of the DPRK.” And to obey the “DPRK laws and regulations.” Does that also include North Korea’s censorship laws and regulations?

It is unlikely that Mr. Thayer spoke to as many AP sources as he claims.

For obvious reasons, these AP sources declined to go on the record. To say something is “unlikely” is a very different thing than refuting it with evidence and transparency.

Indeed, Chad O’Carroll, the editor of NKnews.org, told an AP news leader several days ago that he would not publish Mr. Thayer’s latest attack against AP after all. It is regrettable that the website decided to reverse course on Dec. 24 because of a newly found “draft agreement.”

Colford doesn’t know the reason for that, or what it has to do with the accuracy of Thayer’s story. For all Colford knows, O’Caroll’s vacillation about the article was because of the most common points of contention between reporters and editors — length, style, and fact-checking. Whatever O’Carroll’s concerns, Thayer satisfied them, and O’Carroll had enough confidence in the article to publish it. That took great courage on O’Carroll’s part, and it distinguishes him from many of his more timid peers. Then, Colford reprints a series of stock responses he provided to O’Carroll.

To Mr. O’Carroll, we had provided this statement last month:

“We recognize the unique challenges in reporting from North Korea. We are proud of our work in all formats and will continue to provide robust coverage going forward that will widen still further the world’s view of this little-known state.

“Regarding AP interviews with the three American prisoners and coverage of court proceedings: In accordance with normal practice, AP editorial decisions were made about the news value of very similar material available from three different interviews in short order from a captive individual. When we felt the material was newsworthy, we filed stories; when we felt it offered nothing new, we passed.

“Journalistically, our local staffers in Pyongyang are supervised and in regular contact with their supervisors. We rely on our international staff for our journalism and the local employees do not ever file or transmit stories on their own, independent of supervision. AP work is not submitted for any kind of review by North Korean authorities.

“AP does not submit to censorship. We do not run stories by KCNA or any government official before we publish them. At the same time, officials are free to grant or deny access or interviews.”

None of which ever seemed particularly credible before, and which seem even less so now.

With the exception of Rimjin-gang, I can’t think of a single case of any journalist who infiltrated past such a tight web of secrecy where others could not. In a just world, a man as intrepid as Thayer would win a Pulitzer for this, but of course, ours is the sort of world that awards Pulitzers to the likes of Walter Duranty … and Charles Hanley. It respects narratives, institutions, and interests. Thayer does not, which makes him a dissident and a gadfly within his profession, but by no means an outcast. If that were so, he couldn’t have obtained so many damning quotes from multiple AP employees, who sound as troubled about the AP’s ethical choices as I’ve been for the last several years.

~   ~   ~

Update: Colford denies authenticating the draft MOU published by NK, but his denial doesn’t quite manage to be as clever at reporter Stephen Gutowski’s questions.

The AP’s official statement did not deny the authenticity of the 2011 draft agreement, but said only that it is “remote from the final document.”

When asked directly about the agreement’s authenticity, AP director of media relations Paul Colford told the Washington Free Beacon, “Simply put, I don’t know what that ‘draft agreement’ is.”

When asked again whether the 2011 document was an authentic draft created during the negotiation process between the news company and North Korea, Colford declined to respond. He also declined to release the “final document” referenced in the AP’s statement. [Free Beacon, Stephen Gutowski]

Definitely read Gutowski’s entire article.

I really, really would love to see a complete and final version of that MOU.

Continue Reading

Tokyo Shimbun: Another deadly collapse in Pyongyang

Oh, and wait till you hear where:

Last October, a collapse accident at a construction site for a new National Defense Commission Building, saw 80 people lose their lives, according to a Tokyo Shimbun report from today.

The paper, citing information obtained by a South Korean government official through a source in North Korea, reported the victims were mostly laborers and soldiers affiliated with the military.

It added that in order to prevent the accident scene from appearing in satellite imagery, military authorities were tasked with clearing the wreckage within 48 hours. [Daily NK]

Such a pity that this had to happen before the NDC members moved in and kill construction workers instead.

I even reserve some pity for poor Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, who must now tolerate another week of being scooped by upstart NK News and various guerrilla news sites, blog posts by Curtis with before-and-after imagery of the site, and my own insufferable taunts glibly suggesting that Talmadge drive to the site to debunk this unverified rumor with on-the-scene shoe-leather reporting.

Maybe the report is true and maybe it isn’t, but it’s certainly worth knowing if it is. A second fatal collapse in one year–especially at a site this critical to the regime–would be big and bad news for any leader who associated himself so closely with this crash (pun intended) construction program.

Continue Reading

What I’d ask Jean Lee if I could

So Jean Lee is going to be at this event at the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C. this afternoon, but I’m down with the flu. Assuming she takes questions, maybe one of you can ask instead.

1. Why did AP agree to co-sponsor “A joint exhibition by The Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung” that portrayed North Koreans as content, well-fed, and devoted to their leaders? In retrospect, can you see why that decision caused some of us to question AP’s objectivity? Will AP release the MOU in which it agreed to co-sponsor that exhibition?

2. After you left Pyongyang as Bureau Chief, an apartment building collapsed in downtown Pyongyang, no more than a 15-minute drive from the AP’s offices. If AP’s presence has been as transformational as AP has represented, why wasn’t AP able to report from the scene of the disaster, confirm or refute reports that hundreds died in the collapse, or report on the safety of other recent construction in Pyongyang?

3. While you were Bureau Chief, you wrote several reports on Ri Sol Ju’s tastes in fashion and entertainment. At the same time, some news sources were reporting that thousands of people in South Hamgyeong Province were dying of starvation following crop seizures by the government. Aside from this chaperoned tour of a model collective farm, what efforts did you make to get the North Korean government to allow you to confirm or refute the accuracy of those reports?

4. In 2012, AP reported the story of Pak Jong Suk, a North Korean woman who defected to South Korea and later returned to the North. At a “press conference” in Pyongyang, Pak said she had been tricked into defecting by South Korean intelligence agents. Reporters for the Donga-Ilbo and The Washington Post investigated the story and reported that Ms. Pak returned to Pyongyang after learning that her son and his family had been exiled to a remote province as punishment for her defection. Did AP ever investigate or question the story Ms. Pak told at her press conference? Also, were the KCNA “journalists” detailed to AP among those seen applauding Ms. Pak’s confession at the press conference?

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

Nate Thayer: AP Pyongyang missed the hostage release story.

Freelance journalist Nate Thayer reminds me of the latest example of a Pyongyang story that wasn’t reported by AP Pyongang—the release of two U.S. hostages, reported from Washington:

This is not the first time: The explosions of nuclear weapons tests; ballistic missile firings; several executions of regime leaders who fell out of favour; military attacks on neighboring countries; launches of internationally banned satellites; detailed reporting of despicable human rights policies; and numerous other stories have all been first reported by news agencies outside of North Korea.

The AP’s primary competitor, Reuters, has consistently scooped the AP on virtually every major news story regarding North Korea since the AP opened its exclusive bureau in January 2012–often with considerably more substance, independent credible sources, and context.

To be completely fair, the attacks of 2010 came before the AP opened its Pyongyang Bureau, although there have been some smaller incidents since then. (And don’t forget that fatal building collapse that happened just a few blocks away from their bureau!)

The broader point stands—more than three years after it signed its (still undisclosed) MOUs with the Korea Central News Agency, AP Pyongyang has reported no news that is exclusive, and nothing exclusive that is news.

Continue Reading

What else is Kim Jong Un buying instead of food? A new airport.

The new airport, which is now in its final stages, is the latest of North Korea’s “speed campaigns,” mass mobilizations of labor shock brigades aimed at finishing top-priority projects in record time. Dressed in hard hats and brown or olive green uniforms, impressive swarms of workers toil under huge signs calling on them to carry out their tasks with “Korea Speed.” From some corners of the site, patriotic music blares from loudspeakers to provide further motivation. [….]

But, in search of a badly needed source of foreign currency, North Korean officials have embarked on an ambitious campaign to significantly boost the country’s appeal to international tourists in the years ahead, which has made building a more impressive airport facility a top item on the government’s to-do list. [AP, Eric Talmadge]

Talmadge’s report then goes on to say that Pyongyang is building the new airport to gain “badly needed foreign currency.” It must not have occurred to Talmadge that if Pyongyang were really so short of foreign currency, it wouldn’t be able to afford a new airport.

Continue Reading

Associated Press perestroika watch

The AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Eric Talmadge, has managed to coax the AP’s business partners at KCNA into letting him and photographer David Guttenfelder travel from Pyongyang to Mt. Paektu in the far north, by car. Having been duly warned not to got lost—or “you will be shot”—Talmadge and his minder stocked up on fuel coupons, Evian, and Skippy, and headed off toward Wonsan.

Even on the loneliest of lonely highways, we would never be without a “minder,” whose job was to monitor and supervise our activities. We were not to take photographs of any checkpoints or military installations, or talk to people we happened to see along the way. For the most part, we were not to detour from our pre-approved route, which, to no one’s surprise, didn’t include nuclear facilities or prison camps.

Though we would not get to know the people along the way, the country itself had a great deal to say. And no place is more symbolic of the North Korean psyche than Mount Paektu. [AP, Eric Talmadge]

See? Was that really so hard?

Talmadge and his minder did get lost in North Korea’s utter nocturnal blackness—“going the wrong way down a one-lane, one-way road”—but weren’t shot after all. The complete absence of traffic meant there was little danger of a collision, at least with another car.

Read the rest here, and have a look at Guttenfelder’s photographs here. The reporting isn’t as good as Rimjingang’s or The Daily NK‘s, and the photographs aren’t as good or as numerous as Kernbeisser’s, but it’s a lot better than AP’s usual fare–interesting, readable, and (as far as I can tell) honest.

I’ve said before that AP Pyongyang has produced (a) no newsworthy reporting that is exclusive, and (b) no exclusive reporting that is newsworthy. That is unlikely to change anytime soon, and Talmadge’s travelogue falls into category (b). Still, if AP Pyongyang continues to be honest about the restrictions on its reporting and avoids some of Jean Lee’s lapses into propaganda—and it’s far from certain that it will—its presence will do marginally more good than harm.

Continue Reading

New Focus: No one in or out of Pyongyang (updated)

The report is now a few days old, and I’m curious to know whether this can be confirmed by anyone else, and whether this has changed since it was published.

North Korea restricted entry and exit permissions to Pyongyang three days ago, a New Focus correspondent reports. The source could not confirm whether this move was related to Kim Jong-un’s disappearance from the public eye for the past 26 days.

On the ground, the measure is informally being suggested to be a part of the Party’s preparations for the upcoming October 10 celebrations regrding the founding of the Korean Worker’s Party.

But the difference of this occasion from past restrictions is that even Pyongyang residents, who had been out of the capital for business in Sinuiju or Najin-Sonbong, are not being issued with permissions to re-enter the capital. [New Focus]

There certainly have been a lot of strange happenings in Pyongyang over the last two weeks. I’m not ready to believe rumors that Kim Jong Un has been quietly overthrown — less so that his little sister is the new de facto dictator — but the actual truth of the matter may well be more interesting than any of the rumors (except, perhaps, for the Apocryphal Emmental Hypothesis).

If only some inquisitive and capable journalist were on the scene to explain it all. And yet it seems that the ones who aren’t on the scene often do it so much better.

~   ~   ~

Update: Well, that didn’t take long. Hamish Macdonald of NK News directs me to this tweet by Chosun Exchange, saying that people are moving in and out of Pyongyang. My sincere thanks to Mr. Macdonald for calling that to my attention. Any wagers on whether NK News posts a story clarifying the situation before the AP does?

~   ~   ~

Update 2: Here’s NK News’s report.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 5