Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What exactly is the Associated Press doing in North Korea?

As far as international engagement with North Korea goes, it’s been plainly established that any such engagement only looks nice, and can not possibly be the cause of any substantial change within North Korea. If a North Korean orchestra or soccer team goes abroad, or is visited by a Western counterpart, the result will not be that democracy and human rights rub off onto North Korea, but that everybody involved feels good about doing something that makes the newspapers but doesn’t really mean anything.

Trains crossing the inter-Korean border, American orchestras visiting Pyongyang and North Korean musicians in Paris all make headlines for their sheer novelty. So, it was only natural for a Western media outlet to set up shop in Pyongyang and facilitate these sort of lame, meaningless exchanges that could be termed as “engagement”, as though the function of a Western media outlet in Pyongyang would be anything resembling its function elsewhere in the normal world.

The Associated Press, with a great deal of fanfare, opened a bureau in Pyongyang last year. Sort of. Technically, neither of the Associated Press journalists, writer Jean H. Lee and photographer David Guttenfelder, are based out of Pyongyang. They’re based out of Seoul and Tokyo respectively because while there would be more than enough work to do in Pyongyang, they’re not given enough access to the country for there to be anything resembling full-time work based in Pyongyang.

The AP does have two full-time employees in Pyongyang, as this Isaac Stone Fish notes in this excellent report into the AP’s presence in North Korea. The actual AP presence in North Korea consists of two North Korean employees, a writer and a photographer. They were not made available for interviews and Andrei Lankov, a professor who knows as much about North Korea as anyone else in the outside world, put the odds of Kim and Park being North Korean spies or security agents at 99%.

So, the idea of North Korea opening up to the West by allowing an AP bureau turns out to be two journalists allowed temporary visas to visit the country on carefully minded visits, along with two full-time employees, no doubt on assignment by the North Korean security apparatus, manning what must be the Potemkin village of AP bureaus.

When asked about the absurdity of the situation, the AP noted that communication is monitored even in the West. When told about Lankov’s belief that Kim and Park are almost certainly spies, AP’s media relations director Paul Colford reportedly said, “I don't know Mr. Lankov, I'm unfamiliar with his point of view, and I'm not going to comment on it”. Translation: I’ve never heard of one of the foremost experts on North Korea in the English-speaking world but I know that he’s right and I’m not even going to try defending the indefensible position that we’re in.

It would be one thing for the AP to go on the same chauffeured trip around Pyongyang that’s offered to any tourist willing to pay about a thousand euros for a five-day trip. It’s another, however, for the Associated Press to play a willing role in spreading North Korean propaganda to the West.

One Free Korea, rightly skeptical of this entire enterprise from the moment it was announced, was the first place to report that the Associated Press is co-sponsoring an exhibit a photo exhibit commemorating Kim Il-sung in New York along with the KCNA (the North Korean state news agency). Lee defended the exhibit on Twitter as being just about “interesting pictures”, but let’s get clear: the Kim dynasty is far more abhorrent than the Assad regime in Syria or the government of apartheid-era South Africa. We would never even fathom giving them a forum in our society, but the Associated Press is doing so with the North Korean government.

The exhibit itself is small potatoes, but to pass this, or anything associated with the Associated Press’ presence in North Korea, along as evidence of North Korea opening up to the West is a blatant falsehood. North Korea might open up to the West, but it will only do on its own terms, which is to say that any opening up will profit the regime at the expense of the West. On the surface, it looks as though the Kim dynasty is losing something by allowing the Associated Press to work in North Korea, but let’s get real.

The only things that the Associated Press reports are the things it is shown by the state. Moreover, what it is shown by the state has to be reported with at least a somewhat positive spin, because any actual journalism on the part of AP would likely result in a swift end to the existence of its North Korean bureau. This, in effect, turns the Associated Press into a KCNA-lite, an overseas branch of its state media that reports the perspective of the North Korean state to a far larger audience than the KCNA, and in far less awkward English at that.

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