It's the most restricted place in the world, and if you want to run a news bureau there, you're going to have to play ball with the powers that be. For the Associated Press, which launched the first full-time, all-format Western news bureau in North Korea in January, that means hiring local journalists from a list of names provided by the North Korean government, ranked 178th out of 179 on the Press Freedom Index.
We've been following the AP's North Korean project since it was announced last summer, and wondered about the logistics -- namely whether AP journalists would be moving there. When the bureau was formally opened in January, the AP proudly noted that it would be "the first news organization to operate a text and photo bureau with full-time staff in North Korea." While the release only mentioned that the staffers were "natives of North Korea," the AP's story identified their names. (The two staffers overseeing the bureau, AP Korea Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee and Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder, are based in Seoul and Tokyo.) Earlier this week, Foreign Policy's Isaac Stone Fish revealed background details of the full-time staffers in a longer account of how the AP is coping with the challenges of working with the regime.
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. [AP senior managing editor John] 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; [AP media relations director Paul] Colford later added that Kim had previously worked for Kyodo, and that he impressed [chief Asia photographer David] 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.")
The Korean Central News Agency, which makes frequent appearances in our own Propaganda Parade, is prone to the flowery language of only the most caricatured government propagandists. "The hearts of all the journalists and other media persons throughout the country are now burning with hatred at the renewed provocations of the group of traitors and their determination is running high," reads a recent story. Though Fish floated the suspicion that by hiring two KCNA veterans, the AP may have been bringing intelligence officers into their fold, he didn't get into how the AP settled on Pak and Kim.
So we asked the AP. They told us the selection process occurred over multiple meetings last fall. Present at the meetings were* the AP's Jean H. Lee, David Guttenfelder, Asia editor Brian Carovillano and Asia photo editor Greg Baker, explained media relations director Paul Colford. The North Korean government provided a pool of candidates to select from and among those was Pak. "We selected him for his current role among news-gatherers who were available," said Colford, who noted that Kim was selected in a similar fashion. "We met him, we considered him very carefully, and he works under the supervision of Jean H. Lee and other AP editors."
If the hiring of a reporter who was part of the late Kim Jong Il's propaganda machine sounds like a tough trade-off for operating in the country, that's because it surely is. On the flip side, the AP argues that having zero Western bureaus in the country would mean even less information coming from North Korea. Another factor to keep in mind is the promise of an expanded bureau in the future.
"With the opening of our bureau in January, we're hopeful that we'll be able to grow and deepen our news report from North Korea in the months and years to come," said Colford. As it stands, he emphasized that the work produced by Pak and his colleague is vetted thoroughly. "All news gatherers working for the AP around the world, especially those new to our staff, are scrupulously and rigorously edited according to our high standards of accuracy and fairness," he said.
To be sure, the bureau's work has paid off. In the months since its been open, the team has produced a series of intriguing exclusives. Earlier this month, the AP was able to shed light on Pyongyang's food-for-nukes deal before it was unveiled. Days later, photographer Kim Kwang Hyon was given access to military exercises at a base on North Korea's southwest coast, to which there are a number of intriguing photographs. In February, the AP's Jean H. Lee captured an angle on China's efforts to bring Western-style commerce to North Korea. The piece, which Pak Won Il contributed to, detailed Pyongyang's version of a Wal-Mart complete with Pantene shampoo and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The obvious question is whether a reporter trained in the business of propaganda can be trusted to deliver fair-minded reportage. Colford notes that the AP's editors "work closely" with Kim and Pak. While press critics will ultimately decide how objective the reporting is over time, at least at this point, its stories seem to pass the smell test.
*The original version of this story said executive editor Kathleen Carroll and senior managing editor for international news and photos John Daniszewski participated in hiring the North Korean staffers instead of Lee, Guttenfelder and Baker. The AP has said the original information they provided us was incorrect. Additionally, the original version of this story mistakenly stated that Foreign Policy first revealed the names of the AP's North Korea staffers. The AP released the reporters' names in January.