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Hither and Yon

Why North Korea has become flavor of the month for American media

"What counts is the story the North Koreans want the world to know"
Donald Kirk August 11th, 2016
North Korea is looking like the flavor of the month for American broadcast media.

ABC’s Bob Woodruff was just there, interviewing a foreign ministry official, flying over Pyongyang for an unprecedented view of the capital, mixing it up with people in a park and going down to Panmunjom, the truce village on the North-South line, where he interviewed a Korean People’s Army major.

Woodruff is not the only one. CBS has a crew there, and NBC dispatched a managerial team from London and New York for a look-see, laying the groundwork for future coverage. And CNN has been going repeatedly for the last few years.

But why is North Korea welcoming these TV teams?

“Both sides are prepared to dance,” says Tony Namkung, who has been to Pyongyang many times over the years. “There is a thirst in the general U.S. public for life in North Korea –every day stuff.’

The deal is the North Koreans show off what they’ve got as long as their visitors don’t mind having minders constantly on their side.

No one’s going to visit the infamous prison camps or range around the countryside interviewing hungry people, but they do get the quotes dished out by officials, all embellished by seemingly spontaneous conversations with just plain folks.


The onslaught of TV types comes more than four years after the Associated Press opened what purports to be the first U.S. foreign bureau in Pyongyang. Whether the AP operation there merits the term “bureau” is questionable, since its two local staffers are hand-picked government intelligence people and the bureau “chief” only visits spasmodically from Tokyo when the North Koreans grant him a visa.

Nonetheless, AP has set the precedent for the type of reporting the North Koreans love. You don’t see negative or critical stories with Pyongyang datelines challenging the “exclusive” interviews that the AP gets with top North Korean officials.

AP has set the precedent for the type of reporting the North Koreans love
Thus it was that Woodruff got to interview Han Song Ryol, director-general for U.S. affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, more than a month after AP Bureau Chief Eric Talmadge scored what he proudly wrote was Han’s “first interview with an American news organization since assuming the post three years ago.”

Actually, there was little to be proud of. All Han told Talmadge was straight regime propaganda.

“They have to stop their military threats, sanctions and economic pressure,” as Talmadge quoted him. “Without doing so, it’s like they are telling us to reconcile while they are putting a gun to our forehead.”

Han was eager to talk up the launch of a pair of medium-range ballistic missiles, calling it “a significant and novel step that my country must take to produce a powerful nuclear deterrent.” Of course, the U.S. was all to blame. “The real provocation is coming from the United States,” Han told Talmadge. “How can my country stand by and do nothing?”

A month later, after the U.S. singled out leader Kim Jong Un for sanctions, Han gave Talmadge another regime-serving exclusive. “The United States has crossed the red line in our showdown,” Talmadge dutifully had him saying. “We regard this thrice-cursed crime as a declaration of war.”

As a bonus for his faithful reporting, Talmadge got an interview with Hyon Kwang Il…talking about plans for a moon landing
And as a bonus for his faithful reporting, Talmadge got an interview with Hyon Kwang Il, director of scientific research in North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration, talking about plans for a moon landing.

“Even though the U.S. and its allies try to block our space development,” Hyon told Talmadge, “our aerospace scientists will conquer space and definitely plant the flag of the DPRK on the moon.”

Never mind how much such a program takes out of the daily food budgets of hungry people whom visitors don’t see in Pyongyang. That’s the line the visitors from TV land aren’t likely to be able to refute on the basis of any real reporting.

What counts is the story the North Koreans want the world to know.

“They are in a position to wield a judicious combination of sticks and deterrent,” says Namkung. “Now sticks, now carrots.” Does such confidence reflect the North’s emergence as a nuclear power? “They have a nuclear capability that emboldens them to carry out economic development and open up.”


Toward that end, the AP will soon have a rival in Pyongyang in the form of a bureau that Agence France Presse is opening next month. Like the AP, AFP has had to hire two local staffers from the Korean Central News Agency, but they’ll be for video and still photography – no pretense, as in the case of the AP, that one of them is a real reporter.

AFP, to judge by initial reports filed by Giles Hewitt, the Seoul bureau chief, who recently visited Pyongyang, will be less inclined to write the sort of goopy-woopy features that have characterized AP reporting from Pyongyang since Jean Lee first went there as Talmadge’s predecessor.

In one report, Hewitt wrote that “international sanctions” had “inadvertently disrupted the already challenging work of aid agencies there….” In another, he described commuters spurred on “to a full-day’s work by a drum-beating, flag-waving propaganda troupe” to engage in mass exercises that Human Rights Watch in New York described as “forced labor.”

AFP will be less inclined to write the sort of goopy-woopy features that have characterized AP reporting from Pyongyang
Turning to the Rio Olympics, Hewitt saw the games as offering “a rare opportunity to take to the global stage and compete for applause and prestige rather than censure and condemnation.”

Though “a virtual pariah state due to its nuclear weapons program, Hewitt said the country had made “international sporting success a strategic priority, with leader Kim Jong Un as cheerleader-in-chief.” Their best hope, he said, was weightlifting – though the star this week had to apologize for finishing second with a silver.

“While rival South Korea is an international sporting success,” Hewitt wrote, “the North’s sporting record has largely failed to fulfil its aspirations.”

But how much of such skepticism will the TV people who’ve gone there inject in their stories?

For them, the optics are what count. “There’s been a sea change, a veritable construction boom,” Namkung observes. “This place is clearly on the move. They’re in the driver’s seat, they’re in control.”

Foreigners may wonder “how to respond to this greater exposure to the western media,” but Namkung sees no “contradiction” between “active diplomacy and testing missiles.” Rather, he predicts the North Koreans engaging in “a lot more diplomacy” while granting interviews “with increasingly higher leaders.”

Might Chairman Kim Jong Un himself receive the foreign media while pressing for a peace treaty in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War? Nobody knows, but certainly those TV people are there making their case.


Donald Kirk

Donald Kirk is a veteran correspondent and noted author on conflict and crisis from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Northeast Asia. Don has covered wars from Vietnam to Iraq, focusing on political, diplomatic, economic and social as well as military issues. He is also known for his reporting on North Korea, including the nuclear crisis, human rights and payoffs from South to North Korea preceding the June 2000 inter-Korean summit. Kirk earned his Bachelors at Princeton and a Masters in International Relations from the University of Chicago. He also holds an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Maryland College Park.
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