After months of negotiation, the Associated Press opened a bureau in North Korea on Jan. 16, making it the first respected Western news organization to have a full-time presence in the Hermit Kingdom. Since that time, the Associated Press (AP) has filed around 20 stories with contributions from its journalists in Pyongyang. In December, AP's relationship with the North allowed it to field the only Western journalist working inside North Korea in the days after leader Kim Jong Il's death, shooting exclusive images of Kim's body lying in state; additionally, the global news agency beat South Korea's largest English-language wire service in announcing Kim's passing.
Yet almost two months after opening, AP's Pyongyang bureau still lacks Internet access, according to an AP senior managing editor, though the journalists can use the Internet elsewhere in the city. North Korea has only issued temporary visas to the journalists managing the bureau, Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee and chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder, who are based in Seoul and Tokyo, respectively. And Lee and Guttenfelder have little, if any, opportunity to leave their hotel in Pyongyang unaccompanied. Ten weeks into the reign of the unknown Kim Jong Un, AP's ability to navigate reporting in North Korea and the government's response to it could be a key indication of North Korea's openness to the West.
AP declined a request to interview its journalists working inside North Korea; AP's media-relations director, Paul Colford, said that to his knowledge they have not given any interviews. He arranged an interview with AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski, who accompanied AP CEO Tom Curley in negotiations with the North Koreans and at the bureau's opening ceremony. "I think it's novel to have an office there, and we're very pleased and happy with it," said Daniszewski, a veteran foreign correspondent. "It's new territory for them and for us as well."
North Korea remains the world's most opaque country, in part because of the difficulty foreign journalists have working there. "It's unique in having walled itself off for so long," says Mike Chinoy, a former senior Asia correspondent for CNN who has visited North Korea 15 times. "Therefore the mere fact of a decision [to allow the opening of a bureau] must have been taken at a very high level, and to me that is very encouraging."
Questions remain about AP's ability to independently gather information inside North Korea, however. The full-time presence at the bureau consists of two North Koreans, journalist Pak Won Il and photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, about whom little is known. Daniszewski describes Pak as a "young journalist with multimedia experience at KCNA, speaks English, said he had lived in Thailand for part of his youth," but didn't have any information on Kim; Colford later added that Kim had previously worked for Kyodo, and that he impressed Guttenfelder when he saw Kim's work during a photo workshop last fall. KCNA is the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's state news agency, which "speaks for the Workers' Party of Korea and the DPRK government," according to its website. Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar, says that Pak and Kim may have journalism training but puts the odds at "99 percent" that "they come from the secret police or intelligence services." (AP's Colford responded to that allegation with "I don't know Mr. Lankov, I'm unfamiliar with his point of view, and I'm not going to comment on it.")
KCNA hosts the AP office in Pyongyang. When asked about secure communications between Pyongyang and the outside world, Daniszewski said that the bureau doesn't have any means of communicating with the outside world that wouldn't be monitored, adding "I think in every country in the world, even in the United States, they can monitor the communication. Do you assume that in Germany no one is listening when you make a phone call?" He declined to provide further details about other telecommunications links to the outside world for competitive reasons.
While AP, which has sent Lee and Guttenfelder to North Korea roughly a dozen times in the past year, has far more access than competing Western news organizations, its actual access compared with what reporters elsewhere in the world enjoy appears extremely limited. Asked whether Lee or Guttenfelder walked around Pyongyang without a minder, Daniszewski responded, "They do a little wandering around, but they're generally either in the office or in the hotel."