The Associated Press is correct to describe its opening of a Pyongyang news bureau as a “remarkable milestone.” No Western news organization has ever had a full-time, full-service bureau in North Korea. And anyone familiar with the work that AP Seoul Bureau Chief Jean Lee and AP Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder have filed from Pyongyang during the past year would agree that they have enhanced our understanding of the country.
Still, the arrangement leaves us feeling uneasy. AP’s partner in the venture is the Korean Central News Agency, the state-controlled propaganda machine known for comically over-the-top screeds so full of invective against South Korea that it inspired a spoof “Random Insult Generator.” Even Lee recently referred to KCNA as “one of the chief propaganda organs tasked with building up the quasi-religious mystique around the Kim family.”
AP President/CEO Tom Curley insists that the Pyongyang bureau will operate under the same standards and practices as other AP bureaus. But AP’s own story on the bureau opening reports that it will be staffed not by Western journalists, but by a North Korean reporter and photographer. The story doesn’t state the obvious: that KCNA — that is to say, the North Korean government — would never allow Western journalists to live and work permanently in Pyongyang and that it no doubt insisted on vetting any local employees hired to staff the bureau (which, by the way, is located inside KCNA headquarters).
Needless to say, AP will be walking a (very) fine line in its relationship with KCNA, doing its best to report candidly from North Korea without undermining the very relationship that makes it all possible.
There are a host of sensitive topics that an unfettered Western journalist would insist on pursuing:
— The heavy toll that Kim Jong-il’s catastrophic 16-year rule took on the country’s shattered economy, public health and popular perceptions of the Kim family dynasty’s political legitimacy;
— Life inside North Korea’s gulags (the existence of which Pyongyang continues to deny, despite satellite imagery and the graphic testimony of defectors);
— The country’s deeply impoverished hinterlands, where food shortages are most endemic;
— The status of North Korea’s uranium enrichment efforts at the Yongbyon nuclear complex;
— North Korea’s armed forces and the benefits they’ve accrued under Kim Jong-il’s “Songun” (“military first”) policy;
— How the government allocates cars, televisions, mobile phones and other foreign goods to Pyongyang’s pampered elite classes;
— Kim Jong-un’s take on all of the above — delivered, of course, through a sit-down interview.
We have no doubt that AP’s Pyongyang bureau will file news reports that are wholly truthful. How complete they will be is another matter.