Archive for AP Watch

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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** 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.


[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.)

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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.

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Read more

Really? North Korea called President Obama “a wicked black monkey”? (Update: It’s worse than that; Update 2, now with full translation)

Oh, yes they did:

Park made waste water-like reckless remarks slandering the DPRK’s line on simultaneously developing two fronts after inviting her American master reminiscent of a wicked black monkey to visit south Korea on April 25. [Korea Central News Agency]

Wow. There’s even a slavery reference.

The people are unanimous in deploring the fact that there is no remedy for curing Park’s mental disease as she has gone so mad with hurling mud at the nuclear deterrence of justice which the fellow countrymen in the north have had access to prevent the outside forces from imposing a nuclear disaster upon them.

Worse still, she is making a new ploy so called “human rights issue in the north” aimed at hurting and slandering the fellow compatriots. This is also part of her confrontational hysteria.

Dennis Rodman was not available for comment. Hat tip to Alastair Gale on Twitter.

Regular readers will recall that North Korea recently called the female President of South Korea a “whore” and a “political prostitute,” and called the openly gay Chair of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which found evidence of crimes against humanity in North Korea, “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.” KCNA is also notorious for threatening journalists who criticize North Korean government policies.

A friendly reminder: In 2012, the Korea Central News Agency, or KCNA, signed two memoranda of agreement with the Associated Press, the contents of which remain undisclosed, but which allowed the AP the exclusive right to open a bureau in Pyongyang, to exhibit North Korean propaganda in the United States, to embed two North Korean “journalists” in the AP’s bureau who would write the occasional “news” story, and generally, to show you North Korea just as Kim Jong Un wants you to see it.

Because the terms of those MOAs haven’t been disclosed, I don’t know whether the AP is providing any financial compensation or support to KCNA. Maybe Paul Colford, the AP’s Director Media Relations, will tell you what he wouldn’t tell me.

North Korea’s words, as offensive as they are, are still just words. North Korea’s crimes against humanity are a far greater outrage. Want to get involved in fighting them? Here’s how.

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Update: There’s more. Professor Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University writes in with a link to a separate article — a long, poisonous, racist screed against President Obama in Korean, also published by KCNA. Based on my skim, it will translate into something as noxious as anything you’d find in a Stormfront comment thread. Not even KCNA translated it, but I will. Here’s a taste of it, as forwarded by Professor Lee:

This piece in Korean is directed entirely at Obama. They take racism to another level, with really unspeakable vitriol: “Obama’s gut-wrenching, revolting facial features,” “monkey climbing up this and that tree and scrounging up fruits on the ground,” “it’s certain that Obama has slipped out of the body of a monkey,” “he should live as a monkey in an African natural zoo licking the breadcrumbs thrown by spectators,” etc.

It’s not translated into English. The White House should translate it and see the North Korean regime as it is: a vile, despicable lot beyond reason and beneath the consideration of civilization.

This goes on for paragraph after paragraph. My poor, suffering wife promised to help me translate the whole thing over the next day or so, unless one of you would like to take this on. Needless to say, I’d never print anything like this if it didn’t have substantial public interest value. The fact that a foreign government would allow its official news service to publish this is a matter of global public interest.

For those who reject the word “evil,” I want to challenge that rejection. Remember, to the government of North Korea, racism isn’t just talk. It’s what some live by, and others die by.

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Update: Welcome, Washington Post readers.

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Update: As promised, here’s a translation of the complete article. Some of the North Korean vernacular is virtually untranslatable, so we did our best to capture the meaning, but left some particularly difficult phrases in the original Korean. Our hope is that a few of you may offer upgrades to this translation.
Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 7.32.05 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 10.50.49 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 10.50.06 PMOn the device of quoting a North Korean citizen, we saw the same device used as the North Koreans started to warm up their sexist attacks on President Park. But then, I suspect that Mr. Kang is about as authentic as Comrade Ogilvy, or at best, Comrade Stekhanov.

AP outraged about free speech in Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[UPDATE: Welcome, Weekly Standard readers.]

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

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

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

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

The op-ed closes with even stronger language:

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve communicated our standards of journalism and won’t compromise.  We will adhere to AP standards.  The North Korean government doesn’t screen anything we write. They give feedback and complain sometimes. For instance, a North Korean journalist at KCNA asked why we used the word “communist” in reference to North Korea in our stories as the word is no longer in their constitution. He gave me a copy of the constitution that called the country “socialist.”

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

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

Early signs are good for the new AP Pyongyang.

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

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

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

We were the audience.

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

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

But the truth is rarely simple in North Korea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joshua Stanton

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, the curious part:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP Vice President Celebrates Great Fatherland Liberation War!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Kirk slams KCNAP

Wow … just, wow.

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