‘It’s Our Imperative to Get on the Ground’: An Exit Interview With AP’s First North Korea Bureau Chief
When Jean Lee became the Associated Press’s first North Korea bureau chief in 2012, she anticipated many of the challenges she’d face while in country: the trouble accessing places typically considered off-limits to foreigners, the constant scrutiny, the roadblocks to verifying information under a secretive regime.
What she didn’t expect was the backlash, which came swift and harsh from those who questioned the news agency’s decision to play ball with one of the world’s most repressive governments in exchange for access (the Wall Street Journal headlined one op-ed about the bureau "Associated Propaganda").
"The lack of support for what we were trying to do … was a bit tough to stomach," says Lee, an American journalist of Korean descent who was the AP’s Seoul bureau chief before expanding her coverage to North Korea. "The pressure … and the criticism from other journalists for opening up a bureau when frankly, as journalists, I do think it’s our imperative to try to get on the ground and to try to write from as many angles as we can. For so long we and so many other Western media have had to cover this country from the outside — it was a really bold bid to try to write about it and report on it in a different way."
The AP announced this week that Lee is stepping down as Pyongyang bureau chief (to be replaced by Tokyo news editor Eric Talmadge) and is taking on a new role based in Seoul where she will write in-depth stories about the Korean Peninsula. Lee spoke to Foreign Policy about the role she played in the first chapter of the AP’s great Hermit Kingdom experiment, reflecting on one of the most enviable — and difficult — journalism jobs on the planet.
Working for the first major Western news organization to have a full-time presence in the Hermit Kingdom, Lee and photographer David Guttenfelder brought back glimpses of the country unlike any we’ve seen before. Guttenfelder captured rare, striking images of daily life in North Korea, while Lee filed stories that brought us inside anti-American North Korean kindergartens, took us to a North Korean film festival, and informed us of some of the nation’s worst food shortages in years.
Their access, she says, was "unprecedented."
"We’ve been to so many places," she notes. "Inside homes, factories, farms, talking to ordinary North Koreans, to villages that no foreigners have ever been to."
Still, some in the United States have questioned whether, in agreeing to the government’s terms for operating in the country, the AP has unintentionally served as a mouthpiece for the regime in Pyongyang. Journalist Donald Kirk called the bureau "a conduit for chirpy, upbeat stories rather than real news," while North Korea blogger Joshua Stanton, writing for the Journal, argued that the bureau was "showing a minuscule elite … under choreographed conditions."
It’s a portrayal Lee vigorously disputes. Observers, she says, "tend to jump to conclusions about the operation without understanding how difficult it was to get this far."
Yes, there’s propaganda: "It is a job requirement, and a survival tool, for many North Koreans to promote their propaganda, and quite a bit of what we see is theater," she acknowledges. And yes, access is a consistent problem: "It’s our challenge to convince the North Koreans that it’s worth letting us inside" homes, farms, and military factories.
But most reporting on North Korea today is shaped by stereotypes, she points out — and by people who don’t know the country well.
"Many Western journalists arrive in North Korea thinking the country is bizarre, everything is fake, and that the people are brainwashed robots, and look for things to support that impression," she says. Spending time on the ground helps sort truth from fiction, she says, as does consulting with sources both inside and outside the country.
As bureau chief, Lee split her time between Pyongyang and Seoul, where she also headed up the AP’s bureau. She made trips of anywhere between two and five weeks to North Korea, and could have stayed longer but found it "a very difficult place to stay."
"Psychologically, it’s very demanding," she explains. "It’s tough to feel like you are under that kind of scrutiny around the clock. It’s exhausting."
Everywhere she went, she says, people told her she was the first American they’d met. "It’s a different kind of responsibility," she observes. "I was not anticipating that when I became a journalist that I would have to become a diplomat as well."
Lee and Guttenfelder, like all foreigners in North Korea, needed government permission in advance to travel outside the capital and, "as with most places in the world," sought permission to visit specific sites from municipal officials, or farm or factory managers. She says they did make spontaneous stops on occasion and carried out man-on-the-street interviews that were not orchestrated. "I pick who I want to speak to, as I would anywhere else," she adds.
Lee typically traveled with a North Korean driver, an AP staffer, and a translator provided by the Korean Central News Agency — a propaganda arm of the government. The AP considered KCNA "our partners," she says, though she recognizes that others don’t necessarily see it that way. "Somebody said we were signing a pact with the devil," she recalls.
But she also had a personal mission when it came to the KCNA staffers: "to share with them what the outside world is like, to share with them our form of journalism, expose them to Western media."
Lee’s professional mission, in turn, was to expose North Korea to the Western world — with all the limitations that come with that objective. "Seeing the country on a day-in, day-out basis, seeing the country as it’s evolved over the last three years — that informs our reporting," she explains. "There’s no question about the payoff."