North Korea was just two weeks out of a national period of mourning the death of Kim Jong-il in January when two Associated Press journalists, Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee and chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder, opened the AP’s Pyongyang bureau. The move was sold to the regime as a print and photography expansion of the video bureau the AP established in the city in 2006. But for Lee and Guttenfelder, it was a project with very new, very real challenges, one that would make the AP the first international, independent journalism agency with a full-time, full-format bureau in the North Korean capital. At the time, the AP refused many requests for interviews with the journalists involved to give them time to get established. Now, seven months on, Lee tells CJR about reporting from a country where visiting international journalists are usually required to relinquish their cellphones, work without Internet access, and submit to constant surveillance.
How have things changed since the bureau opened in January?
We’ve been in North Korea for seven months now, through the challenging early stages of the move. At the moment we’re still concentrating on building the operation, training local staff and building a network in North Korea. I visited here a dozen times in the last two years, especially leading up to January, and I have had incredible insight into how things work here. But it is a very difficult place to work.
What are the biggest challenges?
There are very strict rules for foreign visitors in North Korea, which includes journalists. The rules require all cellphones to be left at the airport, and foreign visitors must be accompanied by a host at all times. I can’t think of another place in the world where that is the case. You can’t even leave your hotel to go for a walk. There is no interacting with locals unless you’re in the presence of a North Korean. Many journalists have previously entered the country on the invitation of the foreign ministry or by pretending to be an academic or a tourist, but that can have implications for their companies if they get caught. The issue with cellphones is a big one—it’s very difficult to get a cellphone here, and there isn’t much Internet access. Simple things like filing become an issue for journalists.
Do you feel like you’re being watched?
I operate under the assumption that everything I say, everything I write, everything I do is being recorded.
You share an office with the Korean Central News Agency, which is state-run. How much do you work with them on stories?
We do work with the local news. It’s quite amazing to be included in the local press corps with the local media, and to be invited to state press conferences alongside them. It’s a real coup to be the first Western news organization there.
Do you show the KCNA your work?
I never show them anything before it’s published, but they can always ask me questions. I need the help of my staff and the KCNA in making requests for access and interviews. They are aware of who I need to speak to more than I am. I sometimes show them the stories once they are on the wire. I also work with them in training our North Korean journalists, because their form of journalism is propaganda.
Is there any resistance to training North Korean journalists to work for the AP?
There is no resistance. They are keen to learn how Western journalism works, and they see it as an opportunity to practice their English. I’ve also seen them adopt Western reporting techniques over the last year. They take what they need and they try and learn from it. It’s really important to build these relationships. North Korea is a closed country and they are suspicious of outsiders, so it takes time. There is quite a lot of training involved!
Why did the AP get the gig?
Our TV office did the hard work when they opened a bureau here in 2006. We went in as their partner, but it is clear to the North Korean regime that we are one company. Aside from that, there are two main reasons: firstly, my colleagues and I have been working here for years, so we have a certain longevity. Secondly, AP is the largest news organization in the world. We are completely independent and funded by international subscribers. If the regime wanted to make a political statement about the direction it is heading, this is it. North Korea is taking a big risk in working with us. Technically the US and North Korea are still at war—to reach out to an American company goes against decades of policy. Hopefully we can pave the way for other media.