People who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read

October 5, 2012 6:45 AM

It’s not easy being a journalist.  Crashing barriers to entry have eroded whatever rents you once earned, and the growth of social media means you are under constant surveillance by self-appointed watch dogs. I berate the Washington Post and New York Times for repeatedly misinterpreting basic data on North Korea’s trade relations. Then Josh Stanton takes a whack at AP and the rest of us pile on. Now Tad Farrell at NK News puts out “EXCLUSIVE! How Reuters Sources Keep Getting It Wrong on North Korea,” a dossier that dissects the agency’s errant reporting on the DPRK.  He detects an extreme reliance on single, unnamed sources, and like Stanton, a tendency toward positive spin.

In that context, when warranted, it is worth giving the devil its due. While Josh may think that it was stage managed, at least AP did interview some farmers in connection with the touted agricultural reforms. This is the acid test. Who cares what people in Pyongyang think, how the farmers see the new deal is what matters.  And yes, it could be an elaborate ruse on the part of Pyongyang to dupe us into thinking that they are doing more reform than they really are. But surely going out and interviewing some farmers in the breadbasket is a contribution to knowledge.

And on the issue of spin, I have been as hard on AP as anyone this side of Josh, beating them like a piñata at my kids’ birthday party. So when they do put out something critical, we should at least acknowledge it. Case in point: AP’s story from June on how North Korean children are systematically indoctrinated to hate “American bastards.” The story depicts North Korea in an obviously unflattering light and carries the implication that if “bred to seek revenge” North Koreans who have grown up in such a system may have a very difficult time resolving issues with the US.  It reminded me of a conversation I had with one of our former negotiators from the 1990s. He had instinctively expected the younger members of the Korean team to exhibit greater flexibility but he said he encountered just the opposite: it was the older, Kim Il-sung generation who had experienced Japanese colonialism, spent time in the Soviet Union and/or China, and had experienced the founding of North Korea who were more worldly and pragmatic; it was the younger, Kim Jong-il generation, who had not experienced the war and had grown up entirely within the juche system who were doctrinaire. Score one for AP.


Joshua Stanton

I agree that the June story wasn't flattering to North Korea, although "critical" may be too generous. After all, the image may not flatter North Korea in our eyes, but -- like that video of a morbidly obese Kim Jong Un smoking at the gym -- it's still the image the regime wanted us to see. Here's ( what I said at the time: One thing I can’t say about this story is that it presents a sanitized image of North Korea (ergo there is a Zeus, and He intervenes in earthly affairs). But like the AP’s other reports from Pyongyang, it’s barely newsworthy, it’s a leash-and-collar recitation of the official propaganda, and it views North Korea though the same privileged Pyongyang soda straw, which means it isn’t very enlightening about the other 98% of North Korea. My issue with the farm story wasn't that Lee told it, it was that Lee misrepresented by omission the main causes of hunger in North Korea. And since you bring it up, I also have a problem with the fact that Lee's story, doesn't say how the farm in question was chosen, or whether she was escorted to that location by North Korean minders or "journalists." Readers deserve to know those things, because only regular North Korea watchers know how the system typically works. If in fact Lee has freedom to move around and talk to ordinary citizens in the North Korean countryside without an escort, as unlikely as that is, it would be a very big deal.

Adam Cathcart

Perhaps even easier for folks to do than giving AP the piñata treatment would be for the AP in Pyongyang to ask for an armload of Kim Il Sung's _Works_ (like all 40 volumes, but three or four would do), do some background reading (is this a problem?), and proceed to ask a handful of questions of whomever they have access to regarding the dear departed President's hatred of landlords. "How can you move forward with this ideology? Isn't Kim Il Song's hatred for the capitalists at this point purely symbolic? Do you believe that people who have made mistakes (such as messing with One Free Korea) can be rehabilitated? Now that Pyongyang is awash in meat soup, can you move on from the President's goals?" Establish, in other words, where we are with the Kim Il Sung Baseline as "reforms" or something like them are swizzled around. Is ideology a real counterweight to reform, a stabilizing cover for actual reform ("Markets in the Shadow of Kim Il Sung Statue," a la Southern Weekend), or (a la B.R. Myers and Juche [Acta Koreana, 2008]), does ideology have nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of how the country actually runs? Isn't this the kind of question our AP colleagues are ideally poised to answer, or are at least capable of posing? This is not to assume the North Koreans would stumble all over such queries; perhaps they have thought it all through and can put the new wine in the old bottles, full stop, as Ruediger Frank's invaluable reportage has seemed to indicate they are doing. These are marginal quibbles compared to the major stakes pointed out by Joshua, but hopefully the critique points to a line of reporting that would be both relatively (or apparently) "safe" for a country for whom the impervious booster Anna Louise Strong rather than the hard-edged muckracker (think I.F. Stone, or Bill Gertz, if you prefer a reddish tinge in your muck) is the model, and feasibly undertaken. The fact remains that there is a massive and potentially consequential terrain of official ideology that deserves much more interrogation by reporters in the DPRK, or interrogation that goes beyond this April 7 AP retread of "With the Century" for which "exclusive access" to Mount Paektu yielded all of a short quote from a ******** tour guide about how much she cried when the Big Guy died: Epic, or epic fail?

Charles Park

If you fairly diagnose the problems of low GDP and food production in NK, besides North Korean government mismanagement, you also have to analyze the historical and international situations. NK government policies yes - but also the collapse of world communism, NK's cold war politics with US-ROK, and the US/UN sanctions regimes... It's quite complicated. Still, the AP report is one of the most "official" confirmation of the 6.28 Measures in action so far. Thus, at least 6.28 Measures as it relates to agricultural reforms/improvements, should no longer be questioned. That was the value in the article.


Background reading, yes, and how about some foreground reading to go with it? Rodong Shinmun, which is freely available for the ever-so-slightly excessive price of a single Euro in Pyongyang, is currently directing the propaganda narrative in the direction of "change" through the contextual lens of "returning to the halcyon days of the 1970s." It's clever stuff, and worthy of analysis. I'd love Jean and her cohort to do it.

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