North Korea’s ‘black box’

Yesterday, following the premature collapse of his nuclear summit with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, President Trump, addressing reporters in Hanoi, said he walked because North Korea wanted full sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearization. It was a concession, Trump said, that the United States could not make. Later in the day, at a rare news conference, Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied Trump’s account, saying that his country asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions. In America, commentators argued over why Trump’s strategy failed, and whether he was right to bail. In North Korea, there was no such debate. State media glossed right over the collapse of the summit, describing it as an event of “great significance” that furthered “mutual respect and trust.”

Since Trump entered office, US relations with North Korea have swung between extreme hostility and unlikely rapprochement. In two meetings with Kim, Trump has broken diplomatic ground. Yet the international reporters covering North Korea have little idea what Kim’s regime is really thinking, or—at moments like this one—what it might do next. At this week’s summit, Kim, for the first time ever, took questions from Western reporters; his answers were short and terse, though they were symbolically important, and offered some (albeit limited) insight into the situation. But now that the summit is over, the normal silence will resume.

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The information climate of North Korea is dire. For the past two years, Reporters Without Borders has ranked it the worst country in the world for press freedom. The state controls the internet; citizens caught accessing foreign media are sometimes sent to concentration camps. The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse have established bureaus in the country, in conjunction with state media, yet foreign reporters are tightly controlled. Before the summit, Andrew McCormick, my CJR colleague, spoke with journalists about their experiences covering North Korea. Several of them described it as “a black box.” The constant challenge, Simon Denyer, Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, said, was resisting the temptation to provide complete narratives and limiting oneself to what is actually knowable.

In the absence of reliable sources, reporters, as well as academics and other experts, have had to get creative. In 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that American scholars in Seoul fed North Korean state media through a high-powered mathematical engine for clues about the regime’s plans. Doug Bock Clark wrote for The New Yorker that advances in commercial satellite photography have allowed civilian think tanks to source their own imaging of North Korea’s nuclear sites. A month after Trump and Kim’s first summit, in Singapore, Joby Warrick, a Post reporter, turned to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies to verify a tip from an intelligence source. Analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and 38 North, a news-site-think-tank hybrid with a roster of high-powered experts, has been widely cited in the press.

These sourcing workarounds have been useful in challenging the Trump administration’s official narrative that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. With talks now collapsed, the value of such sleuthing is even higher. But satellite cameras can only see Kim’s test sites, not inside his head.

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Below, more on North Korea:

  • Thumbs up: The Post’s David Nakamura became the first foreign reporter to ask Kim a question on Wednesday. “Once he began to speak, in his surprisingly deep voice, the Disney-like veneer faded,” Nakamura writes. “The bubble had been pierced, a reclusive control freak had revealed something, however small—the fundamental currency between a reporter and his subject had been exchanged.”
  • “The risk of nuclear war”: In 2017, with tensions between the US and North Korea running high, Evan Osnos was granted access for what became a terrifying piece in The New Yorker. “In eighteen years of reporting, I’ve never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody—not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject—is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks,” he wrote.
  • Diplomatic overture: Last year, Evan Ramstad, a former Journal reporter in Seoul, wrote for CJR on his coverage of a New York Philharmonic goodwill concert in North Korea in 2008. “Competitive news organizations lower their reporting standards in return for access to a place that is exotic, scary, bizarre and even entertaining,” he observed. “Unfortunately, often enough, it has been able to count on journalists’ shortcuts and short memories for some extra polishing of its reputation in the world.”
  • Covering the Koreas: In our Fall 2018 magazine, E. Tammy Kim wrote about the role of the world press in shaping diplomacy with North Korea. In South Korea, the administration of Moon Jae-in “worries that its peace-first approach to North Korea could be undermined by the American media’s cynicism.”


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Other notable stories:

  • For the magazine, Nicholson Baker attempts to watch cable news. “It’s all a game,” he writes. “People seem to crave a ludicrously evil enemy, like Uncle Joe Stalin, like the Penguin on the old Batman shows. Trump is perfect for that role. But the enemy is not Trump (or Putin, or Stalin, or the Penguin), it’s us.”
  • Israel’s attorney general announced yesterday that criminal charges will be brought against Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister. In two of the cases against him, Netanyahu is alleged to have demanded favorable coverage from media companies in exchange for regulatory favors on behalf of their owners. The planned charges, which will bring the first ever indictment of a sitting Israeli prime minister, come six weeks before a crucial general election, The Times of Israel reports. Last year, Yardena Schwartz profiled “Benjamin Netanyahu, media puppeteer” for CJR.
  • Richard Plepler is out after 28 years at HBO, the last six as CEO. The announcement comes days after a court confirmed that AT&T, which owns HBO, can acquire Time Warner, and amid talk that the creative offices of each may be restructured. Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has more.
  • Also for the magazine, Camille Bromley spoke with Susan Bro, whose daughter, Heather Heyer, was murdered by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville in 2017. “I have become a public commodity and less of a person to a lot of the press,” Bro says. Bromley and Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, followed up with Bro on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • Jonah Goldberg is quitting National Review to launch a new conservative media venture with Stephen Hayes, who most recently edited the Weekly Standard, now shuttered. Axios’s Mike Allen reports that the new company will be “reporting-driven” and “Trump-skeptical.”
  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan asks whether Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony this week vindicated BuzzFeed’s controversial report that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress. “Yes, the story’s overall scope holds up,” she writes. But “I continue to believe that the use of the word ‘explicitly’ was an overstatement in the story—a bridge too far—because it was contradicted by Cohen in writing.”
  • As military tensions flared between India and Pakistan this week, an online misinformation war inflamed public opinion in both countries, BuzzFeed’s Pranav Dixit and Nishita Jha report. “India and Pakistan have fought wars previously and have been engaged in a decadeslong territorial dispute over the Kashmir Valley,” they write. “But this conflict is the first one to take place since social media became ubiquitous.”
  • For Reuters, Munsif Vengattil and Paresh Dave investigate poor working conditions at an Indian firm that handles content moderation for Facebook. “Job postings and salary pay-slips seen by Reuters showed annual compensation at Genpact for an entry-level Facebook Arabic language content reviewer was 100,000 Indian rupees ($1,404) annually, or just over $6 a day.”
  • The government of Tanzania suspended The Citizen newspaper and its website for a week, ostensibly for misreporting currency exchange rates. The decision, Agence France-Presse reports, “follows growing complaints by opposition supporters and civil society groups at what they say are moves to stifle dissent and create obstacles for journalists and rights activists.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.