What happens when a respected news organization sets up a bureau in the world’s most repressive state? Compromises, and lots of them.
On Dec. 24, NKNews.org, a website that focuses on North Korea, released a roughly 4,000-word story on the Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang, alleging, among other things, that the AP pulls its punches on its reporting in order to keep in Pyongyang’s good graces. The AP opened its bureau in Jan. 2012, and remains the only major Western news organization to have a decent-sized footprint in North Korea.
There are a lot of damning accusations in the NKNews story (many of which the AP denies; more on that later).
Here are the most important.
AP limits its reporting on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: “Even when Kim’s six-week public disappearance became a top news story around the world in October, the AP Pyongyang bureau issued precisely zero articles on the story, with the AP’s Seoul bureau the only AP office able to cover his reappearance on October 14. And today, despite hundreds of stories emerging almost daily on North Korea’s suspected involvement in hacks against Sony Pictures for ‘The Interview,’ a film depicting Kim’s assassination, not a single AP story has had any input from the Pyongyang bureau on the issue.”
Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a state-run news agency, had final say over hiring of AP’s North Korean journalists. Additionally: “To pay its North Korean colleagues in the face of prohibitive financial sanctions, NK News learned that AP couriers “bring in $12,000 in ‘bulk cash’ by hand each month, which covers AP North Korean staff salaries, (and) rent at the AP offices.”
The AP didn’t use exclusive interview material it had from Americans imprisoned in North Korea (an AP spokesperson told NKNews — absurdly — that the interviews had no “news value.”)
The story was written by journalist Nate Thayer — best known both for his reporting on former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, in the late 1990s, and for a viral response castigating the Atlantic in 2013 for asking him to repurpose a blog post for free.
In his response to Thayer’s allegations, AP spokesman Paul Colford said in a statement that the article was “full of errors, inaccuracies and baseless innuendo.” In a phone interview, Colford disputed specifically several of the allegations, including that the AP censored itself. “We had the final say,” he told me about the hiring. “We obviously didn’t go to Craigslist to find candidates in Pyongyang, but the staff we have today is AP’s decision.”
Despite Colford’s denials, Thayer’s story reads true to me — though not having done this reporting personally, I can’t say for sure; and I think they probably overstate how much Pyongyang influences AP’s news coverage of the country. I reported on the AP bureau shortly after it just opened, in March 2012, and found it shocking that the AP journalists working in Pyongyang could not live there full-time, and were very restrained on their movements. “They do a little wandering around, but they’re generally either in the office or in the hotel,” AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski told me at the time. The non-North Korean AP journalists working there today currently appear to be under similar restrictions.
In 2012, Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar, told me that the odds are “99 percent” that the two North Korean journalists working in the AP bureau at the time “come from the secret police or intelligence services.” I’d be surprised if that had changed.
When I spoke to Daniszewski in 2012, he told me that the Internet had not yet been set up in the AP bureau. That has changed, though the AP relies on KCNA for its communication system, according to the NKNews story. Colford told me that “we have a communications system that works for us.” (Disclosure: Thayer had discussed this NKNews article with Foreign Policy before it was published, though he did not share any of the reporting with us.)
Colford’s statement also personally attacked Thayer, calling him “disgruntled” and implying that he had a personal vendetta against the AP, where he used to work. (Chad O’Carroll, the founder of NKNews, told me that “it is unfortunate” that the AP is ignoring the content of Thayer’s story.)
I reached out to Jean Lee, who opened the AP’s Pyongyang bureau in 2012 and served as its bureau chief until recently; a respected journalist, she’s now an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow. She told me that “the reporter never contacted me or interviewed me so I would question the reporting.” Thayer disputes this. He told me that “Jean Lee was contacted repeatedly by NKNews about this story — to suggest otherwise is simply untrue. There were extensive conversations with Ms. Lee, and she was specifically ordered not to talk on the record about this story.” And Lee, whom I reached out to again, reaffirmed that Thayer had never reached out to her, and that she has never spoken to him.
More will certainly come out about the alleged misdeeds of AP’s bureau reported in NKNews. One side — and possibly both — are lying, though it’s too early to say whom with any certainty. On the phone, Colford told me that the allegations in Thayer’s story, especially that AP submits itself to censorship, are “preposterous, incorrect, and willfully ridiculous.” He added, “This is really, really disturbing, and Thayer should be ashamed of himself.”
For now, though, I’ll leave the last word to Thayer. “Every word in that story,” he told me, “is court-admissible, backed-up information.”
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