Attempting to forge a new image for himself and his country, North Korea’s youthful supreme leader Kim Jong Un is allowing women to wear pants, platform shoes and earrings, making more mobile phones available, endorsing previously banned foods like pizza, French fries and hamburgers — and he’s giving kids free trips to zoos and amusement parks.
The 20-something leader’s focus has been on the younger generation. Following in the footsteps of his late grandfather, the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, he has announcing plans to create a “children’s heaven nation.”
“It’s all part of his image making to imitate a warm, fatherly impression like his grandfather,” said Dong Yong-Sueng, North Korea specialist at Samsung Economic Research Institute.
By now, everyone knows that the North’s missile test was a fiasco, but North Koreans don’t have this fiasco all to themselves. For example, until the day of the launch, the North had never done a better of job handling of the foreign press. It had successfully co-opted the largest wire service in the United States into a megaphone for its propaganda, and it had so effectively focused much of the rest of the U.S. media on its stage-managed rocket porn that the White House more-or-less called them tools. Even after Friday’s humiliation, the North Koreans are still writing their own narrative, portraying themselves as disciplined, spartan, and menacing, instead of revealing the pitiful anarchy that prevails where the cameras aren’t allowed to go:
The regime’s narrative went off-course, literally, when one bus driver took a wrong turn, showing reporters an unauthorized view of Pyongyang’s slums, potholes, and even people in wheelchairs. Even an AP reporter was candid enough in his observations to put the local Pyongyang bureau to shame. Then, when the rocket launched, the reporters who had gathered in North Korea were not only denied the chance to film the lift-off, they were the last ones to know that the launch failed … except for their North Korean minders. Was it really worth sending that many correspondents to North Korea for this?
They were cloistered in a hermetic hotel’s press room, which North Korean government chaperones would not let them leave for more than three hours. The minders provided no information about either the launching or its failure, participants in the tour said. Instead, the information went the other way, after the journalists learned about the event via messages, telephone and Internet connections from colleagues in South Korea and their editors at home.
“Now in bizarre situation our NKorea minders asking ME to tell THEM if rocket has launched,” Damian Grammaticas, a BBC News correspondent, wrote in a Twitter message. “Went up 4 hours ago but they have no information. Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, wrote in a Twitter message that the “gov’t minders seemed to have no idea about the rocket launch … we informed them. [NYT]
And in a flash, the North’s media strategy backfired, more catastrophically and consequentially than the launch itself. Read more
They didn’t mention the AP specifically, but they didn’t really have to:
The White House is pushing back against the media for what it sees as oversaturated coverage of this week’s forthcoming North Korean missile test.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this is a propaganda exercise,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told me. “Reporters have to be careful not to get co-opted.
The long-range missile test, which Pyongyang is touting as a peaceful satellite launch, has given networks, newspapers and wires a rare opportunity to report from within the country. NBC’s Richard Engel, ABC’s Bob Woodruff and CNN’s Stan Grant are among those who have already produced curtain-raising segments on the days ahead. The Associated Press is turning out blow-by-blow coverage, and reporters are tweeting and filing frequently.
But Vietor fears that by flooding the zone in North Korea, U.S. media outlets are providing the country’s leadership with propaganda tools that will only embolden their efforts to enhance its intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
“North Korea is trying to sell this to the world as being about space exploration, when really it’s about testing missile technology,” he told me. “They’re using the press, using this angle of a space mission, to hide their real goal.
At the same time, he said, “they are tightly tacking the press into tight areas so they only see military hardware. They’re not allowing them to tour the countryside and see the people who are starving. [Politico; HT]
I’d like to interrupt my advocacy of the violent overthrow of the North Korean government to thank the Korea Central News Agency, North Korea’s official “news” service, for being so much more transparent than the Associated Press has been about the new relationship between the two agencies. For the last few weeks, I’ve made a personal jihad of obtaining photographic proof that the joint photo exhibit by the AP and KCNA, which opened this week in New York, is not (as the AP justifies it) a window into everyday life in North Korea, but is instead (as the AP can’t quite manage to deny) a case of an ostensibly objective news service, one that touts itself as a fearless speaker of truth to power, prostituting itself to North Korea’s propaganda machine in exchange for preferential access to even more propaganda. It does so by co-sponsoring a photo exhibit commemorating the life of dead North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, an exhibit that North Korea is justifiably touting as a propaganda triumph commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the elder Kim’s birth.
So far, my efforts to obtain this proof by indirect means have failed, which is why I’m so grateful to KCNA for posting dozens of incriminating photos of the exhibit online, which I now share with you below the fold. When you’ve seen those photos, you won’t have any doubts about the exhibition’s hagiographic and propagandistic character. Unfortunately, North Korea is better equipped with rocket scientists than competent web designers, so there are no permlinks to the KCNA article, or to the slide show or video accompanying it. Rather than send you hunting for the photos, and because North Korea has a way of disappearing things, facts, and people, I’ve uploaded them to this post, below the fold. If you want to read the KCNA article yourself, click here, then look for an article dated March 16th that begins this way:
New York, March 16 (KCNA) — A photo exhibition co-sponsored by the Korean Central News Agency and the Associated Press of the U.S. opened with due ceremony at the Rubin Art Museum on March 15 in New York to mark the centenary of birth of President Kim Il Sung.
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.
Not surprisingly, the AP has a slightly different way of marketing this outrage. A few days ago, it blunderbussed a press release off to the nation’s major newspapers to plug this propaganda exhibit. I’m still waiting for the AP to respond to my e-mailed questions, but as it turns out, the AP does respond to questions from bloggers who don’t ask uncomfortable questions. Here are two additional photographs of the exhibit, via German blogger Ronda Hauben (ht: Spelunker):
If that doesn’t seem conclusive enough, perhaps you didn’t notice the text:
A joint exhibition by The Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency
Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung
In her post, Hauben thanks the AP’s media relations staff for granting her permission to post these photographs. You’ll see from the tone of Hauben’s post — she uses phrases like “hostile U.S. policy toward North Korea” without giving the impression of intentional irony — that she’s a willing consumer of the AP’s product who harbors little skepticism about the AP’s ethical choices.
By contrast, I have a lot of questions for the AP now that I’ve seen what KCNA has revealed. For example, who pays the salaries of the two KCNA “journalists” embedded in the AP’s Pyongyang bureau, and if so, how much are those salaries? What are the professional journalistic qualifications of these men, in light of Reporters Without Borders having recently “found that the government media have evolved little and continue to act as Kim Jong-il’s propaganda outlets,” while independent journalism is punishable by death? Did the AP have the option of not employing them? What is the AP is paying the North Korean government for its office space, equipment, and other various charges? Was it the AP that paid for the art gallery in New York? How about the air fare for the North Korean propagandists? How about those glossy foam core portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — did the AP pay for those, too? If money changed hands, did the AP obtain a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, given all of the financial sanctions against North Korea? You’ll notice that the captions below the icons of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lack the tortured prose for which KCNA is so justly famous. Did the AP give KCNA any editorial assistance with its propaganda this time, you know, to make it more marketable to American audiences? As a reader, I’d like to know what those agreements with the North Korean government say about the content of the AP’s articles, whether the North Koreans have the right to censor them, whether the AP correspondents have to have minders accompany them at all times. And speaking of those agreements, can we please see those, at last? If you want to know the answers to those questions, or if you have questions of your own, why not e-mail them yourself? Their addresses are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. You’d be luckier than me to get even one response, but I doubt you’ll get two. It seems that the AP is looking for a new Manager of Media Relations.
When I consider the banality of such compromises, I sometimes wonder if I’ve lost the capacity to be outraged that we’re speaking of a regime that does this to people:
Or herds hundreds of thousands of them into places like Camp 22, quite possibly the closet thing this Earth has to a hell for the living.
In these times, any journalist with internet access can be a virtual Walter Duranty. The AP’s correspondents haven’t been to Camp 22 and won Pulitzers for telling us it’s a spa, but they aren’t asking to go there, either. They know that it exists, and have as good an idea of what goes on there as the rest of us, and yet they still have the unmitigated gall to tell their readers that this is what life is really like for the people of North Korea. Consider: a reader who actually believes the AP’s reporting knows less about North Korea than someone who hasn’t read it. If there’s a better operational definition of journalistic malpractice, I can’t think of one.
But back to that press release. The newspapers that published it included the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle. The Times decided not to enable comments. This was an interesting choice for America’s newspaper of record, given that (1) it printed the AP’s press release wholesale, (2) the press release was essentially an unlabeled advertisement for the AP and its North Korean love interest, and (3) the last time the Times printed a sampling of David Guttenfelder’s “exclusive” images of North Korea — even without the KCNA’s added flavoring — many Times commenters reacted skeptically to the AP’s suggestion that it was showing us a unique and unfiltered view of life in North Korea. The AP’s latest press release wasn’t labeled as such, of course, or as an advertisement, or commentary. Instead, the Times, the Post and the Chronicle printed it as a news article. And as further proof that engagement does work, just in unexpected ways, the AP’s objectivity in reporting about itself is about on par with KCNA’s objectivity in reporting about Kim Il Sung. The vanity is breathtaking.
“My expectation is that this will be the first step in some peaceful reconciliation, and in a few years there will be trade, cultural exchange and tourists from each country coming to (the) other,” said Donald Rubin, who co-founded the 8th Floor gallery hosting the exhibit.
“It is our hope that this exhibition would give exhibition-goers visual understanding of the people, customs, culture and history of the DPRK, thereby helping to deepen mutual understanding and improve the bilateral relations,” Kim Chang Gwang, KCNA’s senior vice president, said in an address at the show’s opening.
“In this exhibit, we are offered two perspectives of the DPRK – as viewed by her native daughters and sons from KCNA and by AP journalists visiting to chronicle news and daily life there. We can appreciate the different styles and techniques and points of view,” Carroll said. “These photographs also show us that different people can find common ground.” [SF Gate]
Fortunately, the Chronicle did enable comments when it printed the AP piece. You might think a liberal town like San Francisco would have generated at least a few approving comments, but no. It’s about as positive a reaction as you’d likely get if Carrot Top played the Apollo, or if the Village People played Bob’s Country Bunker. Behold. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen such a wider chasm between media self-image and public reaction. The AP’s oblivious narcissism evokes the image of geriatric playboy unfolding his beach chair, rubbing lotion on himself, and waiting for the adorers to arrive, not quite noticing how parents shield the eyes of their children and order them to get dressed and run to the car. And while the AP surely deserves all of the abuse it gets here — with the possible exception of the comments that had to be removed by the moderators(!) — this comment is still my favorite:
The AP still hasn’t released the terms of its agreement with North Korea. This propaganda show is apparently one of them.
A final lesson we learn from this experience is that watchdogs need watchdogs of their own. I know for a fact that the AP’s ethical compromises are deeply concerning to journalists who report for well-respected and widely-circulated services, and who’ve privately e-mailed me about this story. Because they, too, know how rotten this is, several of them have been surreptitiously feeding me tips about this story, including the first KCNA report about this exhibition. But for whatever reason, the news services that employ them haven’t questioned the AP or demanded the release of its agreements with the North Korean government. Maybe they’re afraid of the perception that they’re just attacking the AP because they’re competitors, but it seems more likely to me that journalists, like other people, don’t want to alienate people they work with and like. The watchdog role, unfortunately, has been relegated to bloggers.
It gets worse. The location of the exhibit was the 8th Floor Gallery, slightly misidentified by KCNA “journalists” as the Rubin Museum of Art. In fact, it’s a distinction without much difference, because, according to the 8th Floor Gallery’s web site, it was established by “Shelley and Donald Rubin to promote cultural and philanthropic initiative,” and seems to specialize in promoting the culture of Cuba in particular. Want to know what else Shelley F. Rubin does? Thanks to commenter Spelunker, we learn that Rubin is a member of the Board of Directors of … Human Rights Watch, where her title is listed as “Co-Founder, The Rubin Museum of Art.” HRW’s official position on the legacy of Kim Jong Il is that he was a “brutal overseer of massive and systematic oppression that included a willingness to let his people starve.” Indeed, HRW’s Kay Seok had done some excellent research on North Korea, at least until a few years ago, although North Korea is hardly among HRW’s top priorities. The co-existence of that last fact with the fact that North Korea is probably the locus of the greatest number of and intensity of human rights violations anywhere on earth today is highly significant by itself. But the other problem with this is the same problem observers had when a HRW researcher was recently exposed as a collector of Nazi memorabilia. A credible human rights organization can’t be ambivalent about the ideology and iconography that enable concentration camps and genocide even as you are reading this now. If your Board of Directors is glorifying what your researchers decry, you’re ambivalent. If Human Rights Watch has a conscience, it will ask Ms. Rubin to resign from its board.
All photos that follow are from KCNA. [See updates at the bottom of this post.]
A group of North Korean journalists left for the United States Saturday to attend a photo exhibition set to open next week, marking the centenary of the birth of the North’s late founding leader, Kim Il-sung, the country’s media said. The North’s delegation, led by Kim Chang-gwang, vice director of the Korean Central News Agency, will attend the opening ceremony of the photo exhibition scheduled for March 15, the news agency said in a report.
The photo exhibition, to be jointly organized with The Associated Press, is scheduled to run until April 13, two days before the late leader’s 100th birthday, the American news agency said in its Web site. [Yonhap]
What’s odd about this is the AP’s extraordinary secrecy about this whole thing. I’ve scoured the internet for a time and place of the exhibit and found nothing. I’ve also sent the AP’s press contacts repeated e-mails asking for confirmation or denial of the story, and copies of their agreements with the North Korean government. The AP has ignored my messages, so I’ll print them here for you to read.
To: “jstokes@AP.org” ; “pcolford@AP.org”
Sent: Sunday, February 26, 2012 12:49 PM
Subject: Memos & agreements with N. Korea, establishing P’yang bureau
Gentlemen, I operate a weblog on North Korean affairs with a concentration on human rights issues (http://freekorea.us). I’m interested in whether AP’s memorandum of understanding allowing for the establishment of the Pyongyang bureau is publicly available, and if so, whether you’d mind sharing a copy with me. I’d also be interested in any subscriber agreements or other agreements you have with the North Korean government or the Korean Central News Agency. Thank you in advance for your assistance.
To: “jstokes@AP.org” ; “pcolford@AP.org”
Sent: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 7:37 PM
Subject: Re: Memos & agreements with N. Korea, establishing P’yang bureau
Hello, as a follow-up, North Korea’s KCNA news agency is reporting that it and the AP are co-sponsoring an art exhibition in New York “mark the significant Day of the Sun, the birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung.” According to the report, the exhibit will depict “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.” Any truth to that? Also, any answer on whether I can see your MOU’s with KCNA and the North Korean government? Thanks.
I’ve received no response to either message.
Funny thing is, if this were the typical situation of a news organization trying to expose government malfeasance, the news organization could file a FOIA request, get an expedited response, and have its fees waived. But what happens when a news organization agrees, even tacitly, to disseminate that government’s propaganda and its frauds on a global scale? As it turns out, your only recourse is … write a blog post! So just to be clear, the world’s largest wire service has just signed a secret agreement, quite possibly selling out its objectivity to the world’s most oppressive totalitarian state in the process, and unless we can somehow draw attention to that, said news organization can do that with complete impunity. No law provides any recourse to even expose that to the light of day. Perhaps there are good, sound First Amendment reasons for that, but as powerful as the press is, shouldn’t it at least have some accountability to citizens? I live in a city where civil servants live in terror of the press. To most of them, the press is an unelected, unaccountable, omnipotent fourth branch of the government that rules the other three. Every day, journalists write stories about private citizens that expose private details of their lives and cause them terrible anguish. But citizens are almost powerless against the press. It’s very sobering.
Transparency about the things that matter to the public should be for everyone. I want the world to see how the AP has sold out its objectivity to the world’s worst tyranny. I want to put those photos online for everyone to see, and I need your help to do that. And if you’re one of the many journalists who reads this blog, or one of those journalists of better conscience who has communicated with me privately about how inappropriate the AP’s dealings with North Korea have been, then this appeal is especially for you. Right now, it’s the AP’s ethics that are hurting your profession, but what will hurt it even more is that the best of you fall silent out of professional courtesy. A profession finding itself in that situation has a duty to police itself.
An historic exhibition featuring photos of The Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency will offer a rare glimpse into a nation long shrouded from view.
The exhibition will open on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist state, and follows AP’s recent opening of a bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea, the first to be established by a western news organization.
Unique access to the KCNA photo archive will offer images illuminating the history of the DPRK, including visits by dignitaries over the years, landscapes, culture and everyday life.
In addition, AP images, both historic and contemporary, will show the country through the eyes of non-Korean photojournalists, including AP Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder, who has made numerous reporting trips to North Korea since 2010. (emphasis mine)
How absolutely shameless. The gallery actually posted some of the photos to be exhibited online. I’ve posted a selection of these below the fold to illustrate my point, which is that only a few of the photographs have any significant artistic merit. Most are merely images of North Korean generals, dictators, or propaganda dioramas. The photo of the policewoman leading the children across the street looks staged, and staged to symbolize how the North Korean regime sees itself, and how it demands to be seen — not just by its own subjects, but now, by the AP’s readership. So taking the purpose of the exhibit at its word, are these images really representative of “the history of the DPRK,” or “everyday life?” Judge for yourself. The first three photos are from the AP, the remaining five are from KCNA. Read more
Ever since the Associated Press signed an MOU with North Korea’s official “news” agency establishing a bureau in Pyongyang, I’ve tracked a disturbing trend in the AP’s coverage, starting with its global distribution of a doctored photograph designed to finagle food aid out of potential donors. The other day, the latest in a series of reports echoing KCNA’s propaganda caused me to say that it had turned its AP propaganda amplifier up to eleven. In retrospect, I should have saved that comment for this occasion:
Joint Photo Exhibition to Be Held in New York to Mark Day of Sun
Pyongyang, March 6 (KCNA) — A photo exhibition co-sponsored by the Korean Central News Agency and AP will be held in New York to mark the significant Day of the Sun, the birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung. On display at the exhibition will be photos on the DPRK separately prepared by the two agencies under MoU signed between the KCNA and AP in June last year.
I want to see that MOU. You know what we need? We need a Freedom of Information Act for the damn news media, that’s what. But wait — this is the best part:
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.
There will be on display also photos on various fields of the DPRK including politics, economy and culture. The exhibition will provide an opportunity to compare the different styles of photography between the two news agencies, and will give exhibition goers a visual understanding of the country rare for Western audiences, according to Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography.
The exhibition will help towards deepening the confidence between the peoples of the DPRK and the U.S. and improving the bilateral relations. -0-
This from the AP’s partner, the Korea Central News Agency, which one of my readers calls “Asia’s Finest News Source.” And just when I thought the AP’s coverage of North Korea couldn’t be any more like The Onion’s, it is.
By the way, KCNA’s masthead today says, “Anyone hurting the dignity of the DPRK supreme leadership will find no breathing spell in this land or sky.” North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.
And just so to keep this from descending into indiscriminate media-bashing, I’ll give a very gracious hat tip to the journalist and reader who sent me this link.
Update:This press release from the AP, from last June, partially corroborates KCNA’s claim:
The Associated Press today announced agreements with the Korea Central News Agency, including one to open an AP news bureau in Pyongyang. Leaders of the two news organizations held discussions during a New York visit by KCNA executives and this week signed two memos of understanding and a contract.
Under one memo of understanding work begins immediately on discussions aimed at opening an AP bureau in Pyongyang. It would be the first permanent text and photo bureau operated by a Western news organization in the North Korean capital. Five years ago, AP Television News, headquartered in London, became the first Western news organization to establish an office in North Korea.
The second memo of understanding outlines cooperation on journalistic and photo/video technology issues, including a joint photo exhibition by the two agencies in New York next year.
Just for some balance, here are some photos of the people’s happiness that the Associated Press will never show you, because it knows very well what would happen to its treasured agreements with the North Korean government if it did. So much for fearlessly skeptical, independent, objective, and transparent reporting. The AP seems to have emerged from its negotiations with the North Koreans in even worse shape than our State Department.
The dalliance between the Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency, the world’s most mendacious news agency, has already fathered the global distribution of doctored photographs and some awfully dubious journalism by its correspondent, Jean H. Lee — and transmitted all of it to hundreds of millions of news consumers around the world. Recall that last summer, just after the AP first signed a joint distribution agreement with KCNA, the AP distributed this photograph of a flood in North Korea.
The picture turned out to have been doctored to make the water look deeper than it was, in the apparent hope of attracting more outside aid. The AP quietly killed the picture, but went right on with its public displays of affection with KCNA, the “news” agency that says that Kim Jong Eun could drive at age three, and that the heavens glowed, cranes circled, and storms stopped in their tracks when Kim Jong Il died.
You can usually spot a bad relationship long before the wedding. The aunts and the neighbors will hope that the aggrieved party will come to his or her senses before it’s too late. But in the history of human relationships, good judgment has almost never overcome emotional attachment. So just weeks after the most recent KCNA photoshop scandal, the AP is proudly showing off its wedding photo album.
Yes, they’ve held a ceremony — their word — to open their bureau in Pyongyang. How lovely.
In a ceremony that came less than a month after the death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il and capped nearly a year of discussions, AP President and CEO Tom Curley and a delegation of top AP editors inaugurated the office, situated inside the headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency in downtown Pyongyang.
The bureau expands the AP’s presence in North Korea, building on the breakthrough in 2006 when AP opened a video bureau in Pyongyang for the first time by an international news organization. Exclusive video from AP video staffers in Pyongyang was used by media outlets around the world following Kim’s death.
Now, AP writers and photojournalists will also be allowed to work in North Korea on a regular basis. [AP, of course]
… all while escorted by regime minders, kept safely away from almost anything legitimately newsworthy, while being spoon-fed the regime’s propaganda, and ever mindful of the fact that the content and tenor of their coverage is now a hostage to this regime’s approval of its continued presence. Perhaps one day the AP will get to film a coup through a hotel window. Maybe they’ll be able to show the film or tell the story weeks after the fact. Until then, I see little truth and a steady stream of lies issuing from the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau.
And who else sees a ribbon-cutting ceremony itself as ethically questionable? KCNA is North Korea’s official news agency — a propaganda arm of the most repressive regime in the world today, and probably the most repressive regime since at least the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge. Isn’t the AP’s function to fearlessly report the news, without cozying up to governments? Do you suppose the AP would have wanted to be seen in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with, say, the Voice of America?
If there is a better example of how the global news media have failed so miserably in covering the story of North Korea, I can’t think of one. The real story here is the triumph of media vanity and their lazy contentment at leaving out of mind the greater truths that the regime keeps out of their sight. It outdoes the breathy self-infatuation of Wolf Blitzer, Greta Van Susteren, and Christiane Amanpour at that fact that KCNA allowed them to be filmed in front of their propaganda statutes (though any member of the Korean Friendship Association could say the same thing). Laura Ling and Euna Lee can at least say they saw a few things that weren’t completely staged. For their trouble — which wasn’t inconsiderable — they even got a plane ride home with Bill Clinton and some book royalties.
Who supposes that the AP, now a hostage of its marriage to KCNA, will still fearlessly cover stories about snipers shooting down refugees at the border, or being sent to camps for not faking sufficient grief about the death of Kim Jong Il? Both stories have received broad international coverage recently. I found no reference to either story in the AP’s archives. Here’s a test for today, tomorrow, and next year: keep your eye on the AP’s news archive. Troll it for reporting about the most damning reports of human rights atrocities, and compare the AP’s editorial selections to those of other news agencies. I certainly don’t expect all reference to North Korea’s oppressive character to be Trotskied out of the AP’s reality, but do you really suppose that the AP’s self-censoring suppositions about North Korea’s opinions of its coverage will exert no gravitational influence over the AP’s coverage?
Yet again, KCNA, the world’s least reputable news agency, has been caught providing a foreign news agency with a doctored photo, and said foreign news agency went to print with it and had to kill it. The alteration is not dramatic; instead, it is so casual as to suggest that to KCNA, this sort of thing is no big deal. Take a look at the small group of stragglers to the left of the orderly formations along the street. As this AP report puts it, “[W]hen a handful of dawdlers messed up those regimented lines, they were eliminated. From the photo, that is.” KCNA was only caught because a Kyodo news photographer shot the procession from the same vantage point at the same instant. Compare:
Recall that the Associated Press was taken in by an altered KCNA image several months ago, just after a splashy announcement that it was entering into an agreement with KCNA that allowed it to station a correspondent in Pyongyang and use KCNA content. Some of the reporting from the AP’s Jean H. Lee that followed seemed to reflect either an unhealthy sympathy for the regime or a degree of ideological captivity engendered by the new relationship. I haven’t seen anything so questionable under Lee’s byline since then. That time, the apparent objective was to make North Korea’s floods seem worse than they really were to gain foreign sympathy and aid. This time, the apparent objective is to portray a regimented image of North Korean society. A good starting point for analysis is to suspect the opposite of whatever illusion this regime projects. Casual observers of North Korea are usually taken in by the images of discipline, obedience, and adoration. Those who watch North Korea more carefully — and this knowledge is what tends to set them apart from the former group — know that life outside of Pyongyang increasingly totters on the edge of anarchy.
Late word is that another photograph of the funeral, this one distributed by the AP (courtesy of KNCA) has come under suspicion for the unnatural size of a lone soldier standing behind a formation of soldiers.
Just days after the AP fell victim to a photo hoax by KCNA, the official North Korean “news” agency it partnered up with, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Jean H. Lee, seems not to have taken to heart that “journalist” does not mean in North Korea what it means in other places:
But this year, David and I have been granted unprecedented access as part of AP’s efforts to expand its coverage of North Korea. We traveled into the countryside, accompanied by North Korean journalists, not government minders. We had a cell phone, Internet access and a van with a driver who took us to Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west. During our wanderings, we got a glimpse of daily life in one of the most hidden nations in the world and found a country on the cusp of change. [AP, Jean H. Lee]
I can’t believe that any sensible reader with enough interest to read this story would really believe that those North Korean “journalists” did not also have the duty to carefully mind Ms. Lee and David Guttenfelder, the photographer accompanying her, while ferrying them to the cusp of change. The cusp of change, as it happens, lies just within the brink of famine, somewhere between “Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west,” which means the same tired circuit of propaganda spectacles, far from North Korea’s gulags and WMD facilities, and far from where the food crisis is always worst. Good for Lee for at least conceding that the itinerary her minders fellow journalists chose was “calculated to show the bright side.” If there is one, Guttenfelder’s strikingly bleak pictures don’t show it.
So what evidence of change did Lee see? Well, there’s glass on the Ryugyong Hotel, for one thing. Unasked: How does a nation justify that cost during an acute food crisis? Also, some people had consumer goods. Unasked: Don’t those goods come from the same black market this regime is trying to stamp out, and if so, what kind of change does that suggest? Also, Lee discovers North Koreans like to drink, eat kimchi, and sing Arirang. Amazingly, just like other Koreans! Bob Carlin turns out to be a safe sole source for Lee’s “neutral” expert analysis. Why, he’s been to North Korea almost as many times as Selig Harrison!
I realize that reporting from North Korea requires compromises that other places don’t, and that among journalists, there’s at least a perception that the access you get in North Korea is inversely proportional to the critical content in your coverage. As a news consumer, I think that raises an important question of journalistic ethics. I allow that different journalists might grapple with it differently, but the photo hoax story presented it with binary clarity. Had this happened anywhere else, the AP and the rest of the industry would have been outraged, and rightfully so. Instead, the AP quietly sent out a kill notice, said little if anything else about the matter, and went right on providing some exceptionally gullible reporting — here, of a North Korean-style press conference:
And, in an astonishing turn of events, we are invited to a briefing at the grand People’s Cultural Palace, making us the first American reporters to cover a North Korean press conference, we’re told. Journalists from the North Korean press corps snap open Compaq laptops and set up Sony video cameras, and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il serve as the backdrop.
Ten North Koreans repatriated after their fishing boat strayed into South Korean waters file into the room, the men in suits and the women in traditional Korean dresses. Tearful, emotional, they accuse the South Koreans of mistreatment.
A question-and-answer session follows: The Pyongyang Times wants to know what happened to the four North Koreans, including the boat’s captain, who stayed behind in the South. A query from the state broadcaster prompts all 10 to rise to sing an ode to Kim Jong Il
Unasked: well, pretty much any of the obvious questions that would get a North Korean “journalist” sent here. They certainly wouldn’t dream of asking the South Koreans’ side of the story, but what’s Lee’s excuse? Does she really take this charade at face value? She seems to.
In journalism, skepticism may be the ultimate virtue. But someone who doesn’t understand that might think that North Korea’s journalists are just as qualified as the AP’s.
It’s hard to take at face value the public ostracizing of Rupert Murdoch as a cancer within journalism even as the world’s two foremost wire services have just associated themselves with the world’s most fraudulent news organization. I refer to the AP’s announcement late last month that it had made a deal with Kim Jong Il’s own Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) to open a bureau in Pyongyang, and the more recent announcement by Reuters that it had “expanded” its “relationship” with KCNA to deliver official North Korean content to readers everywhere.
Great — that’s just what we all needed. As to why the AP and Reuters think this arrangement should not harm their journalistic reputations, I can only guess that KCNA’s official status gives it some sort of credibility, however perverse. Meanwhile, Murdoch is under attack for the closeness of his association with the British government, and vice versa. You don’t have to be a fan of Murdoch or some (any?) of his publications to see a double standard at work here.
The reflexive reaction of some observers to any North Korean arrangement with any non-North Korean entity is to portray it as a sign that North Korea is opening itself to the outside world. The problem with this view is that it’s mostly wishful thinking. The story never quite ends as those observers want it to. North Korea allows plenty of foreigners into Pyongyang. They’re easy to keep an eye on there. These foreign visitors then write overly dramatized news stories, blog posts, and “zines” about their “adventures,” as if they’re Edward R. Murrow reporting from the Blitz. In fact, the only thing stopping most foreigners from visiting Pyongyang is having a better place to go. It’s hardly an adventure, and given the degree of stage-management all around them, a visit to Pyongyang probably isn’t even very enlightening about North Korea.
I didn’t have much of a reaction to these initial announcements. I figured I’d wait a few months and see how many stories the AP was allowed to file from bylines other than Pyongyang, or without the intervention of minders before reacting to this “news.” On reflection, it was hasty of me to keep an open mind. It didn’t even take the AP a month to swallow a spoon-fed fraud:
North Korea’s KCNA news agency stands accused of digitally altering a photo distributed last Saturday to exaggerate flood damage in the Stalinist country following record summer rains. “The content of this image has been digitally altered and does not accurately reflect the scene,” the Associated Press said in a correction distancing itself from the picture.
Under a memorandum of understanding of June 29, AP will become the first western news agency to open a bureau in Pyongyang.
The photo in question was allegedly taken by KCNA last Friday and supplied to AP the following day. It shows seven people apparently wading along a flooded road near the Taedong River. [Chosun Ilbo]
You can see the actual photograph at that last link, or at this Joongang Ilbo story, which helpfully circles the suspicious regions.
Look, ma! Dry pants!
Meanwhile, the AP’s web site has plenty of Murdoch coverage, but nothing about whether the KCNA photograph it published was in fact doctored. However, the AP did quietly send this “Photo Kill” message out to editors and subscribers, acknowledging that it was taken in by KCNA’s hoax.
A photo that shows Pyongyang residents suffering from heavy rain has been digitally altered, the Associated Press said in a letter to editors and other subscribers. The news agency asked them to immediately eliminate the photo from their system and archives. “The content of this image has been digitally altered and does not accurately reflect the scene,” the news agency said in a statement titled “Photo Kill”.
Earlier reports about typhoon Meari, which hit North Korea on June 25-27, still reflected the traditional style. The Choson Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan, on July 4 claimed the typhoon “died down” without affecting the North seriously, and damage was “not as severe as expected.”
The U-turn came on July 12, in a report about typhoon damage by the state-run KCNA news agency. “Casualties occurred in various regions. Some 160 homes were destroyed and about 21,000 farms were inundated, washed away, or buried in mudslides,” it claimed. [Chosun Ilbo]
This should serve as more warning to potential foreign donors to be suspicious of North Korean appeals for aid, and to insist on strict monitoring when we do decide to give any. Should, but won’t.
I can’t resist closing with a few words about the lovely Mrs. Murdoch, who can smack a hippie as skillfully as any of Richard J. Daley’s finest. Just watch it. BAM!
I sure am glad I’m not Johnny Marbles today. He has to live with the ineradicable stigma of attacking an 80 year-old man, and then losing the fight to a little Chinese lady in a pink jacket. It’s bad enough that he’ll have to explain that to his friends. He’ll also need years of therapy to sort out his strange-yet-haunting feelings of arousal. So have we all learned our lesson about stereotypes today?