Archive for AP Watch

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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?

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. Read more

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kim Jong Un is sick, another purge may have begun, and …. Oh, look! AP has an exclusive report from Pyongyang on ladies’ footwear!

Jesus wept. The U.N. is debating North Korea’s crimes against humanity, state TV admits that Kim Jong Un is “not feeling well,” his Number Two, Chae Ryong Hae, was just removed from his post, and the Comcast of Journalism brings us this exclusive report from Derek Zoolander:

While rubber boots and utilitarian flats remain the norm elsewhere in North Korea, high heels in a wide array of colors and styles are commonplace in Pyongyang. They range from basic black to glittery sequined styles that are almost over-the-top exuberant.

Handbags and other accessories are everywhere. Women’s clothes have become tighter. Shirts, trousers and dresses are often form-fitting. Women’s hairstyles have become more similar to styles seen overseas. Makeup has changed, too.

Overall, the look is less 1980s Soviet Union and more contemporary East Asian. [AP, Eric Talmadge]

Mr. Talmadge, here is a random citizen! You will interview this random citizen now!

“Nowadays, it’s clear that clothes have become very bright,” said Kim Su Jong, a Pyongyang resident. “In the past, the colors were a little dark,” she said. “Now everyone likes bright colors.”

What an awful disappointment from Eric Talmadge, who wasn’t allowed to cover a disaster that happened ten minutes away from his bureau, but who had at least tried to be serious and objective about what little he was allowed to see. Until now.

For the love of Zeus, man — reach down under your nose and find something newsworthy to report, or have enough self-respect to come home.

North Korea ranks 197th out of 197 countries for press freedom this year,

… according to Freedom House.

Remember 2011, when Pyongyang’s deal with the Associated Press was supposed to usher in a new era of press freedom in North Korea? Wouldn’t it be great if one of the AP’s editors or correspondents would sit for an interview, review how that’s worked out, and answer hard questions about the North Korean regime’s restrictions on the access and coverage? I don’t mean softball interviews like this; I mean the kind of hard questions that make them execute evasive maneuvers, or walk away in a huff.

Come to think of it, we may need a whole new system to rank the press freedom of news agencies. I wonder how engagement with North Korea has affected the AP’s ranking.

Travel in N. Korea “feels incredibly safe,” says tour company whose customer just got 6 years hard labor.

In a proceeding that took just 90 minutes — about as long as most arraignments I’ve done — North Korea’s “Supreme Court” has sentenced American tourist Matthew Todd Miller to six years of hard labor for “entering the country illegally and trying to commit espionage.” The AP omits the State Department’s easily accessible finding that North Korea’s “judiciary was not independent and did not provide fair trials,” but adds the amusing detail that Miller waived his right to a North Korean lawyer.

It also adds the interesting and new (to me) details that Miller “admitted to having the ‘wild ambition’ of experiencing prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights situation,” and “claimed, falsely, that his iPad and iPod contained secret information about the U.S. military in South Korea.” Or so say the North Korean “prosecutors.”

It isn’t clear what gave Miller the notion that he would be housed in the same conditions as North Korean political prisoners, but it’s a safe bet that he won’t be gassed to test a chemical weapon, forced to dig his own grave and beaten to death with a hammer, killed for trying to eat a guard’s whip or eating chestnuts off the ground, or drowned in a waste pond. Or raped and murdered. Or made to race next to a modern-day “parachutist’s wall” for the amusement of his guards.

Also, I wonder who’ll break it to Miller that someone else has already written a book about conditions in North Korea’s Gulag Lite, the North Korean analogue to a “country club” prison.

In prison, Miller will join fellow American Kenneth Bae. A third American tourist, Jeffrey Fowle, has not yet been formally tried and sentenced. The Rev. Kim Dong Shik, a lawful permanent resident whom North Koreans abducted from China and brought to North Korea in 2000, is unavailable for comment.

The consensus view of North Korea’s motive for sentencing Miller to hard labor, rather than giving him a good smack on the side of his head and putting him on the next flight out, is that it is political. That is, Pyongyang is using its American hostages to force the U.S. government into talks about aid, diplomatic recognition, sanctions relief, and de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. As even the AP concedes, “North Korea has a long history of attempting to use American detainees to win attention and concessions from Washington, which insists Pyongyang must give up its nuclear ambitions before relations can be normalized.”

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

~   ~   ~

This morning, out of curiosity, I went to the web site of Uri Tours,* the company that sold Miller his overpriced tour of North Korea, and found this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 9.51.15 AM

[Plaintiff’s Exhibit A, accessed September 14, 2014.]

The U.S. State Department takes a very different view of whether travel in North Korea is safe:

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 9.53.54 AM

[Plaintiff’s Exhibit B]

Imagine a company in America selling asbestos pajamas with “feels incredibly safe!” printed on the packaging. Gleeful personal injury lawyers would line up outside the store with clipboards to sign the purchasers’ families up for contingency-fee retainer agreements.

Perhaps an equally lucrative strategy would be to do the same at the Capital Airport in Beijing, at the gate where the Air Koryo flights leave for Pyongyang. Off-hand, I can’t think of a case of a company as negligently — even fraudulently — inducing a customer into buying an unsafe product without adequate safety warnings. The American Bar Association has written about the potential liability of travel agents** to their customers for placing them in dangerous situations:

The travel agent is considered the legal agent of the travel service provider for the product that is sold. That is, the travel agent is employed by or acts on behalf of the transportation companies. However, the recent growing trend is for courts to find that agents owe a fiduciary duty to the customer, that is, the travel agent is the legal agent of the customer, as well as being the legal agent of the provider of travel. This dual agency status of being an agent for both the traveler and the provider of travel has continued to grow as travel agencies have relied less and less on the business customer and more on the leisure market.

Generally, in the United States, a travel agent is liable for injuries caused to the traveler if the agent did not act with due diligence in investigating the safety of the provider of travel that is acting as its principal. Potential travelers in the leisure market (as opposed to business travelers) rely on the travel agent’s expertise and special knowledge of the cruise ship or hotel or resort that they are booking. In this situation there is a higher standard of care owed by the travel agent to the customer.

Of course, Miller’s alleged acts would be appear to be those of an unstable person. Could Uri be held liable for under such circumstances? If Uri owed Miller a fiduciary duty, it might have had a duty to make reasonable inquiries about his mental stability and his intentions on arriving in North Korea, and to refuse to sell tours to a person likely to endanger himself. Uri Tours, which seems to betray its own concerns about liability, is saying that it made those inquiries:

Uri Tours, the New Jersey-based company that organized Miller’s trip, said they assisted him in designing a custom tour. [L.A. Times, Steven Borowiec]

Well …. You can’t deny that Miller is now experiencing an aspect of life in North Korea that few tourists will ever see. Miller is, or so the usual cliches go, getting “a rare glimpse” and “exclusive access” to an places that few Westerners will be allowed to see. Indeed, ever since the AP gained exclusive access to Pyongyang, it has been relatively rare for them to write about that aspect of life in North Korea.

I could go on: Miller’s visit has opened new doors for foreigners in North Korea! (… and then locked them securely behind him). His visit has resulted in new diplomatic contacts! (… through the Swedish protecting power.) He has made new people-to-people contacts! (… through the food tray slot in his cell door.) He has given North Koreans new insight into life in America! (His interrogators report that we’re decadent, unpatriotic, and mentally unbalanced.)

Uri Tours chief executive Andrea Lee said that as a result of Miller’s arrest and detention, the company has instituted new measures to more thoroughly screen passengers before their tour. She said Uri Tours now routinely requests secondary contacts from prospective travelers and reserves the right to contact those references to confirm facts that are in question.

I can hardly wait to see what “new measures” Uri Tours will take to protect the safety of its customers. Not sending them to North Korea comes to mind. Meanwhile, the deceptive assurance that travel in North Korea is safe remains on Uri’s site, months after Miller’s arrest.

“Although we ask a series of tailored questions on our application form designed to get to know a traveler and his/her interests, it’s not always possible for us to foresee how a tourist may behave during a DPRK tour,” Lee said via email, using the initials for the nation’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Or, a court could find that tours of North Korea are, in light of past history, so inherently dangerous as to impose even greater legal duties on Uri and other tour companies.

No doubt, Uri had its customers sign liability waivers. Having reviewed dozens of such waivers and researched how state law treats them, I have a dim view of the legal protection they provide. While a signed waiver might be helpful to Uri’s defense, it would not provide a complete defense, especially if a court found that Uri’s warnings were negligent or knowingly deceptive.

I can already see the TV commercials: Have you been sentenced to hard labor in North Korea? Call the law firm ….

But of course, when Americans book tours of North Korea, Americans are the least likely to be the ones who suffer for it. You really have to be a soulless imbecile to do something as morally negligent as putting dollars into Kim Jong Un’s pocket.

~   ~   ~

Update: This post was edited after publication.

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Update 2: Welcome, Washington Post readers.

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* In Korean, “Uri” means “our,” and in contemporary Korean society, has a strong ethno-nationalist connotation. For example, “Uri” was also the name of the left-wing nationalist political party of former President Roh Moo Hyun, who held office from 2003 to 2008, and who increased aid to North Korea dramatically. In his memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described Roh as “anti-American” and “a little crazy.” In 2009, Roh committed suicide by leaping to his death from a cliff.

~   ~   ~

** Because North Korea is no longer listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is immune from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, even for acts that are transparently meant to use Americans as hostages to win diplomatic concessions. It would lose this immunity and become subject to suit, if it is re-listed as an SSOT because of its detentions of American citizens.

Also, Rimjin-gang did it better seven months ago, so there’s that.

Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, denied the opportunity to do reporting of the apartment collapse story by his North Korean hosts and partners last May, offers an honest assessment of the unknowns as the next best thing, three months after the fact. Despite Talmadge’s obviously earnest effort, he doesn’t quite succeed, but least he’s willing to raise some hard questions about North Korea’s construction boom:

In a country that sorely needs to improve its basic infrastructure, there is no public debate over whether North Korea really needs a new luxury ski resort, or a 105-story pyramid-shaped hotel that has been a Pyongyang landmark for more than 20 years, but has yet to open for business. Questioning the value of megaprojects held up as symbols of progress and national pride in North Korea is taboo. Housing, however, hits closer to home.

Good for Talmadge for having the guts to raise that, and yes, it was the correct decision to report what he could report, despite those handicaps. But in the end, writing about news you didn’t report is known as blogging.

And it is possible to do reporting about North Korea. Look what NK News was able to report about the collapse without a physical presence, and what Rimjin-gang’s guerrilla correspondent reported about the shoddy construction methods clandestinely, at the risk of his life, four months before the building fell.

If Talmadge is walking the tightrope I think he is, Access to Pyongyang has done more to impede the quality of AP’s reporting than to advance it. Talmadge, who clearly wants to tell his readers the truth, has the gross misfortunate of working for the Comcast of news services. So much for the AP opening a window into North Korea.

How can NK News cover Pyongyang better than AP’s Pyongyang bureau?

Chad O’Carroll of NK News has managed to collect enough photographs of that collapsed Pyongyang apartment building — all taken from the Juche Tower over a five-week period — to narrow the time of the collapse down to half a day. O’Carroll’s finding actually confirms KCNA’s official account of the time of the collapse, and as O’Carroll admits, also refutes his initial skepticism of that account. O’Carroll has even created and published a .gif animation of these photographs, in which the ill-fated building vanishes from the skyline like Trotsky from the pages of Pravda.

building-collapse

[NK News]

The images are so useful for O’Carroll’s investigation because they were all taken from one fixed location. Based on the image credits, at least one* of the images came from DPRK360, run by Singaporean Aram Pan, whose work and viewpoints suggest that he’s something of a North Korean crypto-sympathizer. That Pan’s otherwise uninteresting images would actually reveal something newsworthy and catastrophic must come as an even larger surprise to Pan than it did to me (and in Pan’s case, the surprise must be an unpleasant one). The messages Pan wishes to convey are (1) that North Korea is Pyongyang, and (2) that Pyongyang is a perfectly normal, happy place that is cheerfully opening itself to the world.

Personally, I’m not aware of any “normal” or “happy” place where buildings filled with hundreds of people swan-dive into their own foundations. No doubt, the North Korean authorities will now give serious reconsideration to the wisdom of letting foreigners beam out images of their crumbling showpiece capital, and there will be fodder for another edition of North Korea Perestroika Watch.

Another unintended consequence of DPRK360’s imagery is to show us how little this regime values human life, because by confirming the date of the building collapse, O’Carroll’s report raises a more troubling question — how could the authorities have cleared away the wreckage of a 23-story building in just four days without scooping up and hauling away the dead and the living alike, whose mangled limbs would have been tangled among the twists of steel re-bars and wire? O’Carroll interviews experts in building collapse rescues who insist that it couldn’t have been done, even for a smaller building, and even if the crews had worked day and night.

Could the building have been unoccupied? Not likely. First, clandestine reporting from the Daily NK says otherwise. Second, KCNA itself admitted that “[t]he accident claimed casualties.” Third, the regime would not have offered such an embarrassing apology (below the jump) unless there was a significant loss of non-expendable life. Remember, these events happened at the very same time KCNA was castigating Park Geun-Hye daily for botching the Sewol Ferry rescue. (And yet even today, the regime’s haste to finish apartment construction continues.)

One theory O’Carroll offers is that the collapse could have been the result of a controlled demolition. He bases this theory on the lack of evidence of damage to nearby buildings. I don’t put much stock in this theory myself. First, the imagery isn’t sufficient to conclude that the collapse didn’t damage other buildings. Second, the theory doesn’t fit with the regime’s political logic. More often than not, the regime in Pyongyang places little value in human life, but rational, calculating self-interest dictates certain exceptions to this. These were elite, non-expendable families. I can believe this regime is capable of mass-murdering political prisoners in remote camps, or allowing millions of low-songbun factory workers in provincial backwaters to starve. I can even see it botching a rescue in Pyongyang itself, thereby killing dozens of people though malign, callous incompetence. I can’t see it deliberately detonating a new apartment building filled with elite families in downtown Pyongyang — in view of foreign diplomats, tourists, and aid workers, or Pan’s cameras, or those of Xinhua, Kyodo, or the AP, all of which have been allowed to set up permanent bureaus in Pyongyang.

Oh, right.

This is probably an appropriate time to say that O’Carroll kindly offered me a 30-day trial subscription to NK News so that I could read his report, because I’m about to give him a plug for pursuing this story with a determination that others did not (I’d have given him that plug anyway, but hey, full disclosure).

Compare the amount of information NK News has added to this story with the quality of the information that AP added to it. I’ll go a step further: the AP Pyongyang Bureau’s combined output of newsworthy information in the last year wasn’t the equal of what NK News produces in any given week — without the “advantage” of basing a correspondent inside North Korea.

I know the subscription price for NK News is steep. Sometimes, good reporting costs money, and NK News is producing some of the world’s best reporting on North Korea today. No one else would have revealed the news of the sanctions violations at Masikryong Pass by European, Canadian, and Chinese companies, or by Dennis Rodman and his sponsors during Rodman’s last visit to Pyongyang, or by Air Koryo through its deceptive dual use of its Il-76 aircraft.

As you’d expect from an upstart, they’ve blown it at times, too. When they did, I’ve embarked on punitive expeditions and scorched a few huts in the process. But when you shop in a lively marketplace of information, sometimes you rave one day and rage the next. Is the source telling you things that are worth knowing? Then maybe the seller’s wares are worth the price.

The same can (and should) be said of supporting Rimjin-gang and donating to the Daily NK, both of which also made outstanding contributions to the reporting of this story, at the risk of the correspondents’ very lives. (Conversely, I’d have advocated “unsubscribing” to the AP years ago if that were possible. Being a ubiquitous and unaccountable mega-conglomerate has its advantages, except for the consumer. That’s how AP became the Comcast of wire services. Even among the wire services, Reuters provided more valuable information about this story than AP did, although it was also completely outdone by Rimjin-gang, the Daily NK, and NK News.)

The conclusion we draw from this? That the quality of a news service’s reporting from North Korea is inversely proportional to the closeness of its relationship to the regime in Pyongyang, and proportional to its incentive to inform the reader.

* O’Carroll says just one.

Some advice for AFP, on the opening of its Pyongyang bureau

A reader (thank you) forwards me this French-language article indicating that Agence France-Presse will soon ink its own deal to open a bureau in Pyongyang. I’m sorry to have disappointed this reader by not expressing immediate and ferocious opposition to this, but then, I wasn’t opposed to the AP opening a bureau when it was first announced, either. I became opposed to AP’s experiment when I began to see troubling signs like this, and especially this. My opposition — and my own enjoyment of that opposition — deepened as I saw the awful quality of its coverage, the ethical liberties AP was willing to take for the sake of access, the lack of transparency about restrictions on its reporting, and the very limited amount of newsworthy information AP has provided since it opened its bureau.

Lately, the AP hasn’t published much news at all from Pyongyang, despite the occurrence of some very newsworthy events within a ten-minute drive of its bureau. But at least the stories AP has published under Bureau Chief Eric Talmadge haven’t been awful, which is more than I could say of most of Jean Lee’s work.

AP made much of being the first “Western” news agency to have a bureau in Pyongyang, but of course, Kyodo News has been in Pyongyang since 2006, but without all of the pretentious self-promotion that inflated our expectations of the AP so much. Kyodo hasn’t been a transformational window into Pyongyang, either, but I’ve never seen it claim that it was. Rather, when Kyodo opened its bureau, it stressed its aim to provide “accurate and objective” news from North Korea.

The opening of the AFP bureau will mean more competition for the AP and Kyodo, which could have both good and bad aspects. On one hand, they may be tempted to compete in a grand suck-up contest, the sort of competition Pyongyang is accustomed to setting up. On the other hand, news outlets will be in a better position to be selective about the quality of the content from Pyongyang they produce. If AFP is significantly more objective and transparent than AP, it will have an opportunity to distinguish its brand with editors and readers.

I hope AFP will take that opportunity, because we do need more reliable information from North Korea. I’m not terribly optimistic that AFP will succeed at doing what AP failed to do, but if AFP sticks to principle, is open with its readers, obeys applicable sanctions laws, and doesn’t compromise its coverage, you may be surprised to see me become a fan of their work. On the other hand, if AFP is seduced by the illusion that it’s going to be a change agent, as opposed to just another business competitor against AP and Kyodo, they should get over themselves. The more you think you will change Pyongyang, the more Pyongyang changes you.

If a building falls in Pyongyang and AP doesn’t hear it, why the fuck is it even there?

This weekend, we hear news of a terrible tragedy in Pyongyang, the collapse of a 23-story apartment building in the central Phyongchon District. The building was still under construction, but apparently, North Koreans move into apartment buildings before the construction is completed.

Sources in South Korea’s Unification Ministry told Reuters that hundreds may have died, and KCNA’s expression of “profound consolation and apology … to bereaved families” seems to corroborate that there were many dead. KCNA says the accident “claimed casualties,” but doesn’t say how many. It reports that the accident happened on May 13th, but didn’t report it until May 18th. By then, rescue operations had already ended a day ago.

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 11.27.40 AM

To be clear, these are images of an apartment building under construction in the same district, not necessarily the building. They’re very recent images, and when the next ones come out, we’ll be able to identify exactly which building fell down.

(Update: Curtis Melvin identifies a different, similar-looking building and guesses that it is the building that collapsed. I’m not completely convinced, but Curtis is almost never wrong about these things.)

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 11.25.50 AM

Ominously for those responsible for the project, KCNA said that “officials supervised and controlled [the construction] in an irresponsible manner.” KCNA then prints a series of harshly self-critical apologies from officials, including from the dreaded Ministry of Peoples’ Security (pdf), who had some degree of responsibility for overseeing the construction. The officials also promise future corrective measures, suggesting that for now, there has been no decision to purge them.

Although we’ve seen North Korea publish harsh criticism of Jang Song-Thaek after his purge, and name one or two scapegoats after its disastrous 2009 currency confiscation, I can’t recall having seen so many high-ranking North Korean officials engage in public self-criticism.

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 11.15.02 AM

[Apartment building under construction, Phyongchon District,
Pyongyang, April 2014, via Google Earth]

Because the AP’s partner news agency, KCNA, first reported this story, correspondents for various news services in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo could report this news as soon as AP’s Pyongyang Bureau could. The AP did publish a story with a Pyongyang byline, including quotes from KCNA about Kim Jong Un staying up all night over the disaster, but Reuters published a much more detailed one from Seoul, including speculation by a Unification Ministry official about the number of casualties.

(The AP later filed an updated report from Seoul, quoting totally random residents of Pyongyang it just happened to encounter and interview on the streets of Pyongyang, who spoke freely with the foreign reporters with absolutely no security officials present. Or not.)

The AP’s only photographs of the disaster as of the time of this post show well-dressed North Koreans crying and mourning, but don’t show the actual collapse scene. All of the photographs are credited to photographers Kim Kwang Hyon and Jon Chol Jin, both of whom are North Korean KCNA photographers seconded to the AP. AP photographer David Guttenfelder tweeted one of Jon’s pictures; his Instagram page has nothing on the collapse. From this, I infer that the North Koreans didn’t allow him to visit the scene.

~   ~   ~

The news service that scooped the rest of them, including KNCA, was the guerrilla news service Rimjingang, whose correspondents risk their lives to file clandestine news reports from North Korea.

In January of this year, Rimjingang did a series of clandestine investigative reports on a campaign of shoddy, quota-driven, human-wave apartment construction in Pyongyang. Rimjingang’s reporting, done in the Taedonggang District, just across the river from the scene of the collapse, found poor planning, awful working conditions, faulty plumbing, and serious structural defects:

The root of the problem plaguing these modern yet defective apartments is evidenced in several issues: A lack of materials results in low quality and fragile structures. Further, the rush to construct the buildings, led by the engineering battalion and compulsory-mobilized teams from local workplaces, means that basic building requirements are compromised. Implementation of an unreasonable work schedule, in the name of a “the construction battle”, spurs the work on but at a heavy price. [Rimjingang]

The rush to build the new apartments was driven by political considerations — a promise on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth to build 100,000 new apartments. It was to be done with almost no modern construction equipment, although we know that the regime could have obtained it had it chosen to do so.

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 9.44.05 AM

Rimjingang’s guerrilla journalist even risked his life to take and smuggle out video, showing buildings under construction with misaligned floor joints and windows whose sizes don’t even match.


Although some of the workers had been withheld from currency-earning work overseas, many others were simply mobilized students, half-starved “shock troops,” and youth league members who knew nothing about construction. According to Rimjingang, the apartments were to have been reserved for “relatives of senior party officials.”

If you want more brave, independent, and informative reporting from North Korea, forget the AP; support Rimjinang. As for the AP, once again, North Korea has prevented it from reporting any actual news from North Korea.

~   ~   ~

Ironically, North Korea has recently spat bile at Park Geun-Hye, in an attempt to pin the Sewol Ferry sinking on her. KCNA even features a May 17 story in which the “Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea … denounc[ed] the Park Geun Hye group for resorting to press censorship and red herring in a bid to get rid of the worst crisis caused by the ferry Sewol sinking disaster.” Let no one accuse North Korea of allowing the media to stray from its iron message discipline. KCNA is also calling for the “punishment of murderous enterprisers” behind the Sewol Ferry disaster.

As we saw from the domestic political reactions to Sewol, Katrina, Fukushima, and the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, people expect governments to prevent man-made disasters, and to respond competently to both man-made and natural disasters. Almost nothing can destroy a government’s domestic political standing faster than botching a disaster response. The North Koreans seem worried about that, too.

[T]he recent unexpected accident caused damage but there is loving care of our mother party which takes care of all people of the country and relieves their pain, adding that Marshal Kim Jong Un sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident, instructed leading officials of the party, state and the army to rush to the scene, putting aside all other affairs, and command the rescue operation to recover from the damage as early as possible. [KCNA; full text below the jump]

Ordinarily, I’d say North Korea is an exception to all of the rules of political accountability, but unlike the 2004 Ryongchon disaster, this one affected non-expendable, elite citizens of the capital right after the regime reportedly carried out a major purge there. KCNA’s expressions of regret and apology are uncharacteristically (even remarkably) frank, which suggests that the loss of life was indeed serious. I’ve pasted the complete KCNA article below the jump.

The disaster raises other questions about the broader consequences of the disaster. For example, how many other buildings in Pyongyang are structurally unsound? Will the authorities now embark on a program to inspect the new buildings, and reinforce or rebuild the unsafe ones? Will members of the elite complain, panic, or even try to move away out of fear for their safety? If inspectors find widespread defects and evacuate families, will there be a purge of scapegoats? Panic tends to proliferate fastest in places where the authorities withhold information and public suppress criticism.

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Correction: A previous version of this post said that Curtis Melvin had identified the same building as the one pictured in this post. On closer examination, it’s a similar building, but not the same one.

~   ~   ~

Update: Yonhap has a photograph of a North Korean official bowing in apology to a crowd of citizens, via the Rodong Sinmun (in Korean only). There is a cleared area and an excavator behind him that might be the collapse site. See also Curtis’s comments.

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Update, May 20, 2014: Welcome, Washington Post readers.

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