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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

People who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read

by | October 5th, 2012 | 06:48 am

It’s not easy being a journalist.  Crashing barriers to entry have eroded whatever rents you once earned, and the growth of social media means you are under constant surveillance by self-appointed watch dogs. I berate the Washington Post and New York Times for repeatedly misinterpreting basic data on North Korea’s trade relations. Then Josh Stanton takes a whack at AP and the rest of us pile on. Now Tad Farrell at NK News puts out “EXCLUSIVE! How Reuters Sources Keep Getting It Wrong on North Korea,” a dossier that dissects the agency’s errant reporting on the DPRK.  He detects an extreme reliance on single, unnamed sources, and like Stanton, a tendency toward positive spin.

In that context, when warranted, it is worth giving the devil its due. While Josh may think that it was stage managed, at least AP did interview some farmers in connection with the touted agricultural reforms. This is the acid test. Who cares what people in Pyongyang think, how the farmers see the new deal is what matters.  And yes, it could be an elaborate ruse on the part of Pyongyang to dupe us into thinking that they are doing more reform than they really are. But surely going out and interviewing some farmers in the breadbasket is a contribution to knowledge.

And on the issue of spin, I have been as hard on AP as anyone this side of Josh, beating them like a piñata at my kids’ birthday party. So when they do put out something critical, we should at least acknowledge it. Case in point: AP’s story from June on how North Korean children are systematically indoctrinated to hate “American bastards.” The story depicts North Korea in an obviously unflattering light and carries the implication that if “bred to seek revenge” North Koreans who have grown up in such a system may have a very difficult time resolving issues with the US.  It reminded me of a conversation I had with one of our former negotiators from the 1990s. He had instinctively expected the younger members of the Korean team to exhibit greater flexibility but he said he encountered just the opposite: it was the older, Kim Il-sung generation who had experienced Japanese colonialism, spent time in the Soviet Union and/or China, and had experienced the founding of North Korea who were more worldly and pragmatic; it was the younger, Kim Jong-il generation, who had not experienced the war and had grown up entirely within the juche system who were doctrinaire. Score one for AP.