Associated Press Stays the Propaganda Course in Mundane North Korea Reporting
Fully staffed Pyongyang news bureau won’t report major fire
Media competition does from Seoul, Tokyo, Washington
By Nate Thayer
June 12, 2015
On Thursday, June 11, there was a major fire at the iconic Koryo hotel in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
The story is a significant news event, and photographs and stories would have been dispatched and gone viral over the internet if this was not North Korea, the world’s most isolated and repressive nation.
But the Associated Press, which heralds its Pyongyang bureau as “the only international news organization with full-time reporters in Pyongyang,” has not reported a word or sent a photograph of the story from its fully staffed Pyongyang bureau.
AP filed this dispatch from Tokyo, after its news competition reported details and filed photographs of the event.
TOKYO (AP)— A fire appeared to have been put out Thursday at one of Pyongyang’s best hotels, according to witnesses in the North Korean capital. No official confirmation of a fire was available from North Korean authorities and the extent of possible damage or injuries at the Koryo Hotel was not known.
No one disputes the fire would have resulted in priority news coverage if this was not North Korea and if the AP actually operated an independent news bureau in North Korea.
The absence of coverage of a routine fire raises questions of why the AP has a fully staffed news bureau in North Korea at all.
Two days later, no mention of the incident has been reported by North Korean state-owned media, and no one from Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang has reported on the fire at the hotel. The Koryo is the home to many diplomatic visitors and high-profile delegations to Pyongyang. Even the Associated Press North Korean bureau chief stays there when he is allowed inside the country to report on the country and supervise the AP bureau and its staff reporters who were hand-picked by the North Korean government and work from the AP bureau offices located within the state-owned Korean Central News Agency building.
That the AP lack of reporting was in sync with the North Korean state official propaganda service, the Korean Central News Agency, is not a surprise to North Korea watchers or foreign journalists who cover the country. It is consistent with the history of AP dispatches from North Korea since the American news organization struck a deal to distribute news as defined by the North Korean propaganda ministry in 2011.
And it is not the first time the Associated Press has been accused of adhering to restrictions on news coverage imposed by the world’s most repressive antagonist of a free press.
But the AP news competition did report the story from outside the country, including the Washington Post from Tokyo, who spoke with someone at the Koryo hotel by phone; Reuters from Seoul; UPI from Seoul; and the South Korean news agency, Yonhap, from Seoul.
The South Korean news network YTN reported the fire started around 5:30 p.m. on the 36th floor of the 43-story Koryo Hotel.
Voice of America reported from Seoul that the North Korean authorities said the fire was not serious enough to warrant an evacuation of hotel guests or employees.
Foreigners who attempted to record the fire on video were arrested, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap. “A column of black smoke was seen around the hotel until 11:45 p.m., and North Koreans were quoted as saying the fire had burned the interior of the hotel, according to a foreign witness.”
According to Radio Free Asia, the accident “is quite possibly the first time foreigners, and not North Korean authorities, alerted the outside world of a public disaster from Pyongyang.”
“Several foreigners were apprehended for trying to take pictures of the scene,” one source told Reuters.
AP’s bureau chief in Pyongyang, who lives in Tokyo, did not respond to the BBC when asked why the bureau did not file images of the fire.
The Associated Press has publicly detailed that it has two full-time reporters based in Pyongyang and are supervised by a foreign bureau chief for news and a photographer. But these two, who are based in Tokyo and Singapore respectively, are forbidden from residing in the country or entering the country at will.
The stark absence of a news dispatch from the AP bureau in Pyongyang about a routine–if significant–fire has raised the question: If the AP bureau in North Korea is not able to report news or dispatch a photo about a fire at one of the countries most prominent landmarks, how can it be expected that they are able or willing to report the issues of the countries sensitive politics or human rights record?
The answer is, they don’t and they haven’t.
AP’s Legal Arrangement to Establish a ‘News Bureau’ in Pyongyang
A confidential AP agreement with North Korea in December 2011, which allowed for the AP to establish a news bureau in Pyongyang, gave Pyongyang control over AP news stories and agreed to North Korea hand picking who the AP could hire to staff their news bureau office in the country. The Associated Press opened up what it called the “first independent news bureau in North Korea” in January 2012.
Critics say that the result is the AP has effectively served as a global distribution system for official propaganda of the Pyongyang regime.
But despite it’s self promoted public relations campaign, top executives of the Associated Press in 2011 agreed to distribute state-produced North Korean propaganda using the AP name, a confidential document and interviews with current and former AP staff indicates.
An internal draft agreement between the AP and North Korea’s state media outlet the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) dated December 2011, obtained from sources inside the AP, suggests that – far from being a bastion of the free press – AP’s Pyongyang bureau serves primarily to distribute news approved by the North Korean state. And not distribute–rather indeed effectively censor–news not given the green light by the Pyongyang authorities.
The document says the AP will “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government”; that changes to state-produced content would have to be made with “full consultation between the two sides”; and that the “KCNA shall nominate” the full-time staff the AP would hire for their Pyongyang bureau.
“(The) KCNA shall be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of Bureau,” the document says, the authenticity of which was confirmed by interviews with 14 current and former AP staff involved in news production from the AP’s Pyongyang bureau.
Such government control over AP access to North Korea does contextualize the content produced by the Pyongyang bureau in the more than three years since its January 2012 opening, raising questions of whether the AP is bringing new information from North Korea to the world or has been effectively absorbed as a willing partner of the North Korean propaganda machine.
By ensuring the “worldwide distribution of policies” of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government, the U.S.-based AP would help promote “mutual understanding between the two people’s and (contribute) to the improvement of relations between the two countries,” the agreement says.
Furthermore, the document shows that the AP agreed to receive “monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles” which could be “translated into English and distributed with the dateline of “Pyongyang (AP)” on condition that “any correction to the contents and expression” of North Korean-produced content would not be altered without “full consultation between the two sides.”
Such terms directly contradict the repeated statements of senior officials and spokespersons at the AP, all of whom insist North Korea has no control over what is published from Pyongyang.
Those comments echo AP senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll’s remarks to the Huffington Post in January 2012: “We wouldn’t have set up a bureau if we hadn’t been able to operate the way we’d like to operate.”
Eric Talmadge, the AP’s current Pyongyang bureau chief, appeared to concede to the anonymous staff comments in on-record remarks with NK News in August, 2014: “The gap between what we would like to do and what we are able to actually accomplish remains significant.”
Major Stories Not Covered by the AP
The impotence and subjugation of the AP North Korean bureau was highlighted when North Korea skyrocketed to a prolonged dominant world story in December 2014 and into January of this year.
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 was written, nor had any input from, the AP Pyongyang bureau on the issue.
“The absence of anything on the Sony story from AP bureau in Pyongyang really says it all,” said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN journalist who covered North Korea based out of China for more than a decade, at the time. “When the only Western news agency in North Korea has not made any news file on what has been the top world story for a week, it is hard to pretend that this is a normal AP bureau.”
In a January 16, 2012 article, written by the AP’s vice president and head of international news John Daniszewski entitled “AP opens full news bureau in North Korea,” the senior executive wrote that “the AP bureau will be staffed by reporter Pak Won Il and photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, both natives of North Korea who have done some reporting for AP.”
But both the North Korean AP staff correspondents were pre-selected by the KCNA – which is known to work for the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the ruling WPK – according to both the draft agreement, sources within the AP and others with direct knowledge of the terms of the establishment of the bureau in the DPRK.
And interviews with senior AP staff suggest the agreement shows AP accepted local staff directly chosen by North Korea’s official propaganda organ to conduct day-to-day operations at the AP Pyongyang bureau, which is based at the headquarters of the official KCNA.
“KCNA shall nominate one text and one photo journalists (sic) and one driver, three in total, to work for AP,” reads the document, which sources said was signed by senior AP and KCNA executives at the bureau’s opening in 2012.
Under the AP code of Standards and Practices which guide their news operations elsewhere in the world, the AP “staff should be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers. Even the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest should be avoided.”
The entire function of the AP bureau in Pyongyang has been effectively reduced to give credibility to Pyongyang’s rank manipulation of events of import and twist, suppress, or blatantly create a false narrative of the life of North Korean citizens and the conduct, actions, and intent of its brutal elite who are in power.
If this story involved any other country, or the AP wasn’t running fully scared of upsetting the Pyongyang authorities, they would have had input from the Pyongyang bureau, sent photographs of the fire onto the wire, obtained some comment from a regime official or, more probably, confirmation from the very country the entire story was the subject of. But not one word.
In addition, there was no AP stories regarding a new nuclear warhead capability for missiles that dominated international headlines a few months ago. There were no stories on the purported execution of Defence Minister Gen. Hyon Yong-chol in April.
When an annual report listing North Korea as the 2nd worst violator of press freedoms in the world, there was no story from AP’s bureau in Pyongyang.
But AP did send a bylined story from Pyongyang on western political activists sympathetic to Pyongyang titled “Peace activists hit roadblock ahead of DMZ crossing” on May 20, 2015.
It dispatched a photograph on the march, which was sympathetic to Pyongyang, from the AP North Korean “correspondent”, as well.
On May 9, the AP did send a story globally, datelined Pyongyang titled “North Korea says it tests ballistic missile from submarine”:
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea said Saturday that it successfully test-fired a newly developed ballistic missile from a submarine in what would be the latest display of the country’s advancing military capabilities. Hours after the announcement, South Korean officials said the North fired three anti-ship cruise missiles into the sea off its east coast.
On March 3, AP sent a story titled “In Shifting Economy, Shops Aim to Please Pyongyang Consumers”:
PYONGYANG, North Korea — Workers in sharp new uniforms open the doors and turn on the lights about an hour before sunrise at their chain store on the corner of one of Pyongyang’s main streets, right smack in the middle of a showpiece area of the capital.
AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief Eric Talmadge contributed to this report from Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge and Instagram at erictalmadge.”
On May 23, 2015, AP sent a Pyongyang datelined story titled “AP Interview: Steinem says isolating N. Korea not working”.
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Iconic women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem may be in North Korea, but she is as outspoken as ever.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the 81-year-old feminism pioneer said she decided to join a group of women in a rare and in some quarters highly controversial walk across the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea because she thinks efforts to force change by isolating the North have failed.
But while the Associated Press filed no story on the fire at the Koryo hotel, in concert with the state-owned media, KCNA, the KCNA did file this report today: “The cause of national reunification is sure to be achieved as there is the great programme for reunification common to the nation and Marshal Kim Jong Un, peerless patriot and great brilliant commander of Songun, is wisely leading the struggle for national reunification. “
The AP bureau in Pyongyang is an effectively wholly owned and staffed subsidiary of the propaganda arms of the North Korean regime, critics contend.
The AP foreign reporters do not go anywhere, meet anyone, see anything, or report stories without the permission of the Pyongyang government, the record shows.
The Associated Press Korea coverage is nothing short of a stain on, and an embarrassment to, the principles of a free press, and it is past time they cut it out, close their bureau in Pyongyang and apologize.
AP should quit shilling for the most offensive, oppressive dictatorship in the world and knowingly misleading their readers by saying that they operate a news bureau “like every other AP news bureau”as part of a deal to pimp for the thugs in power in Pyongyang.
Not to mention soiling the reputation of the free press, and by extension, me.
With the absence of reporting of a simple fire this week, which would confront the official propaganda sanctioned by Pyongyang, it is has become clear that the AP has agreed to operate under conditions to maintain a news bureau in Pyongyang which the AP has deemed worth the price of taking direct orders from the most egregious violators of the rights of man in the world.
With this week lack of reporting on something so inconsequential as a building fire, the AP gives credence to the argument that they are told not only what they can report on, but what they cannot.
The AP has set a very low bar for journalistic integrity. It is an embarrassment. No one should accept it.