13 Oct 2019

News in and out of North Korea

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 13 October 2019

Jean Lee had one of the trickiest jobs in journalism - running the first international news agency bureau in North Korea. This former news blackspot has become much more newsworthy recently thanks to the unorthodox diplomacy of  Donald Trump. But do we get a better picture of what really goes on there? And what do North Koreans see in their own state-controlled media?

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Jean H. Lee stands on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Photo courtesy Jean H. Lee. All Rights Reserved)2

Photo: Jean H. Lee All Rights Reserved

When Korean-American journalist Jean Lee last visited New Zealand five years ago - and dropped in on Mediawatch - she had been working flat out establishing and running the Associated Press (AP) bureau in Pyongyang, the capital of the so-called "hermit state". 

The country was rock-bottom in every index of global press freedom and people there needed government permission to even speak to international journalists.  

There were very few reports from the place in the media elsewhere. Most zeroed in on international alarm over the leader’s sabre-rattling and nuclear weapons programme. 

Back then, the idea of western journalists getting anywhere near North Korea’s president was absurd.

Back in 2014, Hollywood star Seth Rogen even made a comedy movie out of the notion that US journalists would be invited there to meet Kim Jong-un.  

Five years later things have changed thanks to President Trump’s unorthodox diplomacy.

A serving US president planting a foot on North Korean soil and shaking the hand of his North Korean counterpart was a sight few journalists thought they would ever see. But it happened last year, with a global media press pack in tow. 

Ms Lee has handed on AP's Pyongyang bureau to a successor after nearly five years of exhausting work. She was back in New Zealand recently, this time as an analyst working for Washington-based think tank The Wilson Centre.

Jean Lee and Colin Peacock . . . five years later.

Jean Lee and Colin Peacock . . . five years later. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ

French news agency AFP has followed AP in opening a Pyongyang office, managed from Seoul in South Korea. So is the world getting a more reliable picture of what’s actually happening in the country?  

"The bureau is still there but we've had few other journalists through since then," Ms Lee told Mediawatch.

"It shows how challenging it is to maintain the kind of access that I had.

'It's a personal decision when you're on the ground in North Korea whether you push the envelope or stick to the guidelines laid out. It's very stressful to constantly push." 

The unprecedented meetings between Kim Jong Un and President Trump propelled North Korea into the headlines, but Ms Lee said there was a danger of the media being distracted by them.

Now, much of the news about North Korea comes from sources in Pyongyang, but it says little about life outside the showpiece capital.

"The narrative from Pyongyang . . . is propaganda," said Ms Lee. 

"That's not to say the images are fake. There's more construction, cars, taxis and consumer products. The capital is the centre for the elites and their lives are improving. What we lack without correspondents on the ground is what's happening in the rest of the country." 

In the 1990s there were reports of mass-starvation after failed harvests in the rural regions but it was almost impossible to get reliable information.

Can correspondents based in the country - as she was - get out and find those stories around the country?

"If they push for that access they can get out to the countryside. We need to understand how the rest of the country is living. There is a population of 25 million and if you look at the figures from aid groups and the UN, 70 per cent struggle to get food on the table and many are going without basic necessities," she said. 

But reporters who do get out of Pyongyang will still find it hard to get first-hand accounts. North Koreans still need official permission to talk to foreigners.

 "When you put a microphone in front of a North Korean they are going to repeat only the propaganda because that is what is safest," she said.

"They are mindful that everything they say may be listened to and they will be held accountable. That compromises the reporting we do on the ground.

"But if you can get away from that type of formal interview and you can speak the North Korean dialect and communicate then you might get a sense of who they are and what their concerns are. We need a pipeline of Korean speakers going in to North Korea." 

In addition to running AP's Pyongyang operation, Ms Lee has led teams - including a New Zealander - training North Korean journalists. 

But North Koreans cannot join foreign news organisations, and North Korea's media are completely state-controlled outlets for official propaganda. 

"Part of the objective was to show how western journalists do journalism - and not propaganda. This also helped them understand what kind of access we needed and how we go about our jobs," said Ms Lee.

"It's unhelpful for us to look at North Korea only through our framework and our filter, we have to understand where they're coming from. We have to understand the person sitting across from us." 

So what about the media diet of people inside North Korea, where media is totally state-controlled. Has that changed with the times in any meaningful way?

News outlets are still a steady diet of propaganda, she said.

"The state news agency KCNA website is full of coverage of Kim Jong Un and carefully vetted foreign news . . . but we are seeing interesting things especially on state TV as they try to modernise their broadcasts. The only US content that is allowed are cartoons - but it's a good first step," Ms Lee wrote in a recent analysis called Socialism and Soap Operas

"They are using TV soap operas to promote party policy - but make it fun.

"They play a crucial political role by serving as a key messenger of party and government policy. They aim to shape social and cultural mores in North Korean society. And in the Kim Jong Un era, they act as an advertisement for the good life promised to the political elite.

North Korean TV drama 'Sunset in the North'

North Korean TV drama 'Sunset in the North' Photo: screenshot / YouTube

"Through TV dramas, the North Korean people learn what the regime says constitutes being a good citizen in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea today: showing loyalty to the party, using science and technology to advance national interests, thinking creatively in problem-solving, and facing the nation’s continued economic hardships with a positive attitude." 

The family is a recurring theme emphasised in soap operas, she said.

"For 17 years (the rule of the current leader's father Jong-Il) they tried to rip that apart and put the state first," she told Mediawatch.  

A common theme in dramas was runaways frustrated with life, with an underling message to dissuade defections, she said. 

"There was often an emphasis on what it would do to a family if a character' ran away.

"There's an acknowledgement that people have their own ideas and they struggle to carry out the group mission - and tools they need to deal with that. You see how to deal with power outages, how to deal with 'self-criticism' sessions - all sorts of aspects of daily life.

"Even if you don't go to North Korea, analysing the messaging transmitted to the people through sources like their state media is fascinating," she said.