Behind the Secrecy Shroud in North Korea

Buildings and Juche Tower are reflected in the Taedong River Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014.  Photo Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Buildings and Juche Tower are reflected in the Taedong River Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

North Korea is a country so shrouded in secrecy that even the most seemingly implausible stories can sometimes get traction in the news media.

 “We know so little about what really happens inside the country, and especially inside the leader’s head, that very little is disprovable,” wrote Max Fisher of The Washington Post in a January article, examining the story that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had executed his uncle by feeding him to 120 hungry dogs. Fisher’s conclusion: “probably” not true.

“There’s no other country to which we bring such a high degree of gullibility,” Fisher wrote.

But now, several online efforts – and one mainstream media company – are attempting to pull back at least a corner of the shroud of secrecy. The Associated Press opened the first western news bureau in Pyongyang in January 2012 “to document the people, places and politics of North Korea across all media platforms at a critical moment in [North Korea’s] history.”

AP has won both praise and sharp criticism for its high-profile initiative.

Less attention-getting has been the rise of single-subject blogs, like NK News, devoted exclusively to North Korea. Founded in 2010, NK News runs investigative reports and long-form analysis, as well as op-ed pieces from North Korean experts.

In one investigative piece in January, NK News ran photos from the North Korean press agency showing snowmobiles, snow blowers and other equipment from Western countries in use at a North Korean ski resort. The site raised questions about whether the equipment’s presence there violated United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

The website also offers a window into other issues that few news organizations report on, such as North Korea’s social welfare and assistance to the physically disabled.

And in one feature, called “Ask a North Korean,” refugees answer questions on everything from food rations to plastic surgery in North Korea.

“We’re not Korean, so we don’t have a vested interested in protecting one Korea over the another,” said Chad O’ Carroll, the head of NK News. “A lot of [South Korean] newspapers get very sensationalist in their coverage of North Korea.”

O’Carroll said the site’s reporting is based on “a small network of trusted individuals who go in and out of the country quite regularly, most of them foreigners. A lot of them have access to the cell phones and emails while they’re actually in North Korea.”

Daily NK, another single-subject website based in Seoul that launched in 2004, says that it was the first news website focused on North Korea. Its reports appear in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese, and they feature information from North Korean sources as well as analysis and interviews from others who study the country. Daily NK has a section called “Defector,” which writes about North Korean refugees.

Daily NK’s founder, Han Ki Hong, created the site in partnership with Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, a human rights non-profit group based in Seoul.

“Daily NK sees the people of North Korea separate from the regime,” the site says on its About page. It “dreams of going forward with them to time of peaceful unification based on democracy and the realization of human rights.”

Rimjin-gang, another site, is managed by the Japanese-based photojournalism group Asia Press. It provides news in English, Korean, and Japanese and says it gets reports from North Korean civilians and defectors who have been trained in China and go back to North Korea to work undercover.  It was founded in 2007, and their content consists of both news and photos of North Korea. A compilation of their content is also published as a book for sale.

T.K. Park, a lawyer from D.C., runs the blog “Ask a Korean” (from which NK News’ “Ask a North Korean” was inspired), where he answers questions that readers ask about South Korea. Park has also forayed in North Korean affairs by translating and posting articles About North Korea from Joo Seong-ha, a refugee from the north who now works as a journalist at the Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo.

Park said that the reporting by most Western news sites does not cover the north as deeply as South Korean media do.

“As far as North Korean news is concerned I don’t know any English-language news media that has[sic] more reliable/path-breaking than South Korean news media,” he said in an email correspondence.

Park said some of the South Korean media coverage is sensationalized, but noted that a sober look at North Korea by any media is a rarity.

“I think major newspapers in South Korea are more or less credible, as long as one reads it with critical eyes,” he said.

AP’s arrival in Pyongyang two years ago marked a journalistic first. For decades western news organizations have covered North Korea from the south. Access to the north has been granted only rarely, and those western reporters who have traveled there found their movements and ability to speak with people highly restricted.

Jean Lee, who recently left Pyongyang after serving as AP’s first bureau chief there, said in an email interview that, contrary to popular perception, the North Korean government does not “restrict everything.” Lee said that while in North Korea she had “unfettered access to the Internet” and could use both iPhone and laptop with a 3G mobile router at the hotel where she stayed. In contrast, she said, she has worked in China where she could not access some U.S. websites, and in South Korea, where some North Korea sites are blocked.

“Most foreign correspondents covering North Korea never even have the chance to set foot in the country, and certainly aren’t able to ask North Korean officials or ordinary North Koreans the kinds of questions we ask on a daily basis,” she said.

However, the Internet access that Lee describes is exceptional, since most North Koreans have neither computers nor Internet access. Only foreigners are allowed limited 3G cellular access in North Korea, and most North Koreans with computer access are only able to use their domestic intranet.

AP’s work from the Pyongyang bureau has met mixed reviews. AP’s North Korea Journal, a multimedia website, displays photos (though most links are currently broken), videos, and articles on the daily happenings in North Korea. Jean Lee’s instragram account also shows photos and videos of North Koreans in everyday settings, providing a more human side of the country that media normally present.

But on serious North Korea-related stories, what’s filed from the AP Pyongyang bureau appears very similar to the same news reported from outside the country. For instance, in an article covering the execution of Jang Seong-thaek, uncle of Kim Jong Un, AP had just one quote from a civilian and no quotes or other information from North Korean authorities.

“They’re not very agile in covering stories,” said O’Carroll of NK News, who described AP stories with Pyongyang datelines as not .far removed from what’s filed on the heavily-censored North Korean news agency.

Max Fisher, who has worked as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, described the AP decision to open a bureau in such a highly censored country as “a deal with the devil, some critics charge, but if nothing else it produces an awful lot of very good photos of life in North Korea.”

Lee said she is critical of North Korea coverage by other news organizations – she did not specify any – but said it’s not surprising because western correspondents only see the country on tightly controlled, orchestrated trips that feed the storyline of bizarre secrecy.

“Unfortunately, sensational stories, or those showing North Korea to be bizarre, tend to sell well,” Lee said. “And since journalism is a business, there’s a demand for that type of story from North Korea. The real news tends to get lost in the shuffle.”