‘A Report from a Distant Planet’

How does the Associated Press run a bureau in North Korea?


After months of negotiation, the Associated Press opened a bureau in North Korea on Jan. 16, making it the first respected Western news organization to have a full-time presence in the Hermit Kingdom. Since that time, the Associated Press (AP) has filed around 20 stories with contributions from its journalists in Pyongyang. In December, AP’s relationship with the North allowed it to field the only Western journalist working inside North Korea in the days after leader Kim Jong Il’s death, shooting exclusive images of Kim’s body lying in state; additionally, the global news agency beat South Korea’s largest English-language wire service in announcing Kim’s passing.

Yet almost two months after opening, AP’s Pyongyang bureau still lacks Internet access, according to an AP senior managing editor, though the journalists can use the Internet elsewhere in the city.  North Korea has only issued temporary visas to the journalists managing the bureau, Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee and chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder, who are based in Seoul and Tokyo, respectively. And Lee and Guttenfelder have little, if any, opportunity to leave their hotel in Pyongyang unaccompanied. Ten weeks into the reign of the unknown Kim Jong Un, AP’s ability to navigate reporting in North Korea and the government’s response to it could be a key indication of North Korea’s openness to the West.

AP declined a request to interview its journalists working inside North Korea; AP’s media-relations director, Paul Colford, said that to his knowledge they have not given any interviews. He arranged an interview with AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski, who accompanied AP CEO Tom Curley in negotiations with the North Koreans and at the bureau’s opening ceremony. "I think it’s novel to have an office there, and we’re very pleased and happy with it," said Daniszewski, a veteran foreign correspondent. "It’s new territory for them and for us as well."

North Korea remains the world’s most opaque country, in part because of the difficulty foreign journalists have working there. "It’s unique in having walled itself off for so long," says Mike Chinoy, a former senior Asia correspondent for CNN who has visited North Korea 15 times. "Therefore the mere fact of a decision [to allow the opening of a bureau] must have been taken at a very high level, and to me that is very encouraging."

Questions remain about AP’s ability to independently gather information inside North Korea, however. The full-time presence at the bureau consists of two North Koreans, journalist Pak Won Il and photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, about whom little is known. Daniszewski describes Pak as a "young journalist with multimedia experience at KCNA, speaks English, said he had lived in Thailand for part of his youth," but didn’t have any information on Kim; Colford later added that Kim had previously worked for Kyodo, and that he impressed  Guttenfelder when he saw Kim’s work during a photo workshop last fall. KCNA is the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state news agency, which "speaks for the Workers’ Party of Korea and the DPRK government," according to its website. Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar, says that Pak and Kim may have journalism training but puts the odds at "99 percent" that "they come from the secret police or intelligence services." (AP’s Colford responded to that allegation with "I don’t know Mr. Lankov, I’m unfamiliar with his point of view, and I’m not going to comment on it.")

KCNA hosts the AP office in Pyongyang. When asked about secure communications between Pyongyang and the outside world, Daniszewski said that the bureau doesn’t have any means of communicating with the outside world that wouldn’t be monitored, adding "I think in every country in the world, even in the United States, they can monitor the communication. Do you assume that in Germany no one is listening when you make a phone call?" He declined to provide further details about other telecommunications links to the outside world for competitive reasons.

While AP, which has sent Lee and Guttenfelder to North Korea roughly a dozen times in the past year, has far more access than competing Western news organizations, its actual access compared with what reporters elsewhere in the world enjoy appears extremely limited. Asked whether Lee or Guttenfelder walked around Pyongyang without a minder, Daniszewski responded, "They do a little wandering around, but they’re generally either in the office or in the hotel."

Western journalists in North Korea remain in the presence of minders practically all the time they are outside the state-run hotels. "Whenever a foreigner travels in North Korea, they have to have at least two minders — one to watch the foreigner and the other to watch the minder to make sure they’re doing their job properly," says Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; it appears to be the same with AP. Asked whether Lee and Guttenfelder were allowed to wander freely in Pyongyang, Daniszewski said, "I’d rather not comment on that." Lee is a "terrific reporter," says Demick, who is also Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, "but I think her job is one of the most difficult in the business. North Korea controls information like no other place else in the world."


AP is the fourth foreign text news bureau operating in Pyongyang; it joins one Russian organization and two Chinese state media organizations, including People’s Daily and Xinhua. China Central Television has a bureau; the Chosun Shinbo newspaper, based in Japan, has a bureau in Pyongyang as well, says Peter Beck, Korea representative at the Asia Foundation, though it’s a pro-North Korea newspaper and not entirely foreign. Associated Press Television News, which focuses exclusively on video, set up an office in Pyongyang in 2006.

Although the Chinese organizations appear to have far greater access than AP to report in Pyongyang, they are limited by their own state censorship. "The Russians and Chinese are working in what their governments consider a sensitive environment, so they’re responsive to that," says Hazel Smith, a professor at Cranfield University in Britain who researches North Korea.

A reporter for Global Times, a tabloid newspaper owned by the People’s Daily, provided a through-the-looking-glass moment in an article (in Chinese) published last month about foreign journalists based in Pyongyang. In it, the reporter from China, which ranks 174th out of 179 on press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, interviewed Pyongyang residents to get their opinion on AP opening a bureau in North Korea, ranked 178th in the same index. He quoted anonymous North Koreans saying about AP, "I hope they can accurately report on North Korea."

Russian state news agency ITAR-Tass also has a bureau in Pyongyang. According to Lankov, ITAR-Tass’s correspondent until 2006, Stanislav Varivoda, actually broke stories in North Korea, including one about the government removing portraits of Kim Jong Il in some state offices. The North Koreans "hated his guts," says Lankov, adding that the agency’s new reporter is much less aggressive.

With the exception of AP competitor Reuters, other Western organizations have yet to follow AP into Pyongyang. Last year Reuters installed a satellite dish in Pyongyang to receive video content from KCNA; a Reuters spokesperson said, "We will further expand our editorial operations in the DPRK in the fullness of time to meet customer requirements and the business in general." Bloomberg News has neither a bureau nor plans to open one. The BBC World Service hosted a few North Korean journalists for training a few years ago, according to Smith; BBC didn’t respond to a request for comment. As for CNN, Chinoy negotiated with the North Koreans throughout the 1990s about setting up a bureau in Pyongyang. "We’d always ask, and they’d always say, ‘In principle, maybe,’ and there were endless rumors and none of them were true, and in the end there wasn’t a bureau."

Beyond permanent presences, many media organizations have sent journalists to Pyongyang in the past few years to accompany the New York Philharmonic on its trip to the country in 2008, on the rare North Korean government-organized press junket, or under what one Canadian journalist euphemistically described as "not-quite-honest circumstances."

Financially, the AP bureau is fairly affordable, noted Daniszewski, adding that the operating cost roughly approximates that for a similar-sized operation in an Asian country like Thailand, including salaries, rent, and flights in and out of Pyongyang.

Both Lee and Guttenfelder are Americans, citizens of a country with which North Korea technically remains at war. Lankov likens Americans reporting in Pyongyang to members of al Qaeda reporting in the United States. "I’m fairly confident that Pyongyang won’t allow an American journalist to be based long term in Pyongyang anytime soon," says Beck, who worries that "they’ll have to stay in the good graces of Pyongyang to operate there or even to visit Pyongyang on a regular basis."

Lee, the AP Korea bureau chief, and Guttenfelder, the AP chief photographer for Asia, are both well-respected journalists. Since the bureau’s opening, Lee has reported on stories from Pyongyang on subjects such as consumer culture, a military tribute to Kim Jong Il, and a new statue of Kim Jong Il on a horse. A sculptor told the AP, "There has not been any example of making a giant horse-riding statue like this within two months," adding, "We sculptors worked day and night to complete it, showing the loyalty of our people." The story also includes the line "During Kim’s reign, the country suffered from a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans."

"If the copy that comes out of the AP bureau is just a kind of jazzed-up version of KCNA, it risks seriously undermining AP’s credibility, and the AP of course knows that, and they’re going to do everything they can to make sure that it’s not the case," says Chinoy, the former CNN Asia correspondent.

Operating in Pyongyang requires some accommodation of North Korea’s tastes. The AP is co-sponsoring a joint photo exhibition with KCNA in New York opening this week as stipulated by their memo of understanding. According to KCNA, the exhibit is to mark the "significant Day of the Sun, the birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung." The photo exhibit will display great men "who made immortal contributions" to North Korea’s prosperity and the people’s happiness, as well as "photos on various fields of the DPRK including politics, economy and culture." The KCNA article quotes AP’s director of photography, Santiago Lyon, saying that the exhibit will provide an opportunity to compare the different styles of photography between the news agencies. AP confirmed Lyon’s quote is accurate, adding that each side would select its own images and that "KCNA’s characterization of the exhibit is entirely their own."

AP’s investment in opening a bureau in North Korea might ultimately pay off in having people in place if the country collapses. Beck thinks AP’s motivation is the same as that of any foreign company trying to operate in North Korea. "First movers have the advantage," he says. (Daniszewski responds, "We don’t predict events, but it’s always better to have someone there to witness whatever should happen in the country.") When crisis hits North Korea, AP has "a foot in the door, so to say, and that is good," says Lankov. "But simply don’t expect muckraking reports about Kim’s family finances or interviews with closet dissenters."

Chinoy, who interviewed Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung weeks before he died in 1994, says that an advantage of the AP bureau is "with Pyongyang pieces on the wire more, it’s less like ‘here’s a report from a distant planet.’" On March 2, AP published exclusive interviews with Pyongyang residents expressing skepticism about the U.S. nuclear deal. One said she has "no faith in the U.S."; another responded that she hoped the tension on the Korean Peninsula could be eased. Their statements didn’t veer from government policy, but it’s a promising sign that selected residents of Pyongyang were even allowed to speak with Western journalists about politics. North Korea has been "unknown territory for so long," said Daniszewski. "We’ve opened the bureau; we have North Korean employees; we’re doing journalistic work. Is it the same as covering City Hall in New York? No. It’s a different world."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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