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Earlier this year, the Associated Press established the first full-time “Western” news bureau in North Korea. But in a country that ranks 178th in press freedom–out of 179 countries measured–gathering accurate, uncensored information remains a challenge. We go behind-the-scenes with the AP’s top editor to learn how the news organization established access and ground rules for doing journalism in one of the most restricted countries in the world.
- Kathleen Carroll Executive Editor, The Associated Press
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast on Your Turn, was the 30-day sentence in that Rutgers University spying privacy case appropriate? Is it appropriate to bring up Mitt Romney's high school shenanigans in the presidential campaign? What do you think about the NAACP's endorsement of same-sex marriage? That's later on Your Turn.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, for nearly 65 years, North Korea has been isolated behind an iron curtain. Our knowledge of this reclusive state directly contradicts the images the regime stages for the world while millions there are mired in poverty. What you see are photos of strong, goose-stepping soldiers or happy, colorfully-dressed dancers, all attempting to tell a different tale.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINews agencies have traditionally relied on these choreographed events for a peek inside and reporters have gathered their information from defectors, satellites and heavily-monitored visits. But for the first time, The Associated Press has established a bureau inside the capital of Pyongyang and in January, the bureau began full-time operation just days after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe arrangement followed months of negotiation and gives Western media a rare foothold in the secluded nation. Joining us from the studios of AP radio in New York to discuss this is Kathleen Carroll, executive editor and senior vice president of The Associated Press. Kathleen Carroll, thank you for joining us.
MS. KATHLEEN CARROLLThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDII'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation, too. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you follow the news from North Korea? How do you interpret the information coming out of the country? 800-433-8850. This is a country that ranks 178 out of 179 in press freedom so the challenge, Kathleen Carroll, of gathering accurate, uncensored information, I guess, remains just that, a challenge.
NNAMDIAP spent close to two years preparing to open its bureau in Pyongyang. What kind of steps did you take to build trust with the North Koreans during your negotiations?
CARROLLWell, you know, we have had a video bureau, a television bureau, our AP television office in Pyongyang for six years so they already had a bit of a relationship with us. But like any other negotiation, what we did was spend a lot of time just getting to know people in the government and getting to know people in the host agency, the North Korea Central News Agency.
NNAMDIYou'll be housed inside the headquarters of the North Korean Central News Agency?
CARROLLWe are, that is correct. And we rent space from them as we do in many other locations around the world, rent space from a local agency. And it was just a lot of dinners and conversations as we talked about who we are and how we do journalism and how we would do journalism in North Korea or, as they call it, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
NNAMDIHow does the bureau you opened in January expand the AP's work in North Korea?
CARROLLWell, we've been able to visit frequently with international journalists, meaning not North Korea journalists, who have made frequent trips to the country, including two who have been as often as eight times in the last year. And what we have now are eyes and ears on the ground full-time, four North Korean journalists, two video journalists, one photographer and one text reporter.
NNAMDIHow did you -- oh, I'm sorry, go ahead, please.
CARROLLNo, please. And they are supervised and communicate regularly, daily, with their international supervisors who are in Asia, but outside of North Korea.
NNAMDIHow did you cover North Korea before this?
CARROLLWell, with lots of visits and, you know, around the margins, as you do with any country that is closed, you know, secondhand, sometimes with diplomats or business people or dissidents who have been in the country and left. But obviously being there on the ground is preferable.
NNAMDII would imagine there were some major differences between the AP and the North Koreans over how AP's bureau would function. Can you tell us about some of those differences, cultural, if you will, that you had to work through as you established this bureau? I guess there are a lot of fundamental questions about how journalism is done.
CARROLLThere are and it's a very good question and it's one we spend a lot of time on with the hierarchy at KC & A. Largely, they style themselves very proudly and have a very proud tradition of being an agency that is there to promote the regime. Obviously, that is not our job and it has not been our job ever and that's not how we do business so we spend a lot of time talking about our coverage, how it works.
CARROLLWe're going to ask questions. We're going to want to go and see things and we are not going to submit our work to any other filter.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Kathleen Carroll, executive editor and senior vice president of The Associated Press, which has opened a bureau in North Korea. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you of the opinion that North Korea's regime is now showing more signs of openness to the West? What do you think about that? 800-433-8850, or if you just have questions for the executive editor of The Associated Press, you can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet at kojoshow. Kathleen Carroll, does the AP have secure lines of communication and a secure internet connection in Pyongyang?
CARROLLWe do have secure lines of communication and the internet connection is evolving. We have a commitment for an internet connection and are just working through the last of the technical hurdles. That actually has to do with winter having ended there and the ground being soft enough that we could dig trenches to take the lines where they needed to go.
NNAMDISo it's a work in progress, so to speak?
NNAMDIYour bureau will be staffed by two North Koreans and supervised by two long-time American AP journalists. What were the criteria for selection of the North Korean journalists?
CARROLLWe looked for people who had good technical skills, particularly in photography. We ran some training workshops in Pyongyang last year, late last summer and got a chance to look at quite a number of photographers and wanted to interview several of them for the position and talk to them about their skills and our needs. We feel like we did very well with the photographer that we chose.
NNAMDINeedless to say, there's been speculation that the two North Koreans who are staffing the Pyongyang bureau are likely intelligence officers who will report to the regime. What is your response to that speculation?
CARROLLWell, obviously, people are going to speculate about that sort of thing all the time. The number of times that AP journalists have been accused of being American spies in whatever location we were in is too numerous to count. But AP has a system of checks and balances across the world. No one has direct access to our distribution network. The journalists there pitch story ideas or we pitch ideas to them and direct them to go out and do the reporting and the news gathering and that's a collaborative process with their supervisors outside of North Korea.
CARROLLSo I don't believe they are, but even if they are, we have a system of journalistic checks and balances that make sure that the work that comes from Pyongyang meets our standards.
NNAMDIAnd it's got to be said that there are good reporters all over the world and presumably you have selected two in North Korea. But did they have to get any kind of special instruction, any kind of special guidance about reporting essentially for western readerships and audiences?
CARROLLYes, and that's not a one-shot thing, you know. We're still working with them on some of those issues. There are things that are just not familiar or comfortable for them and, frankly, I think the issue is more with the text reporter, not because he's unable to ask questions, but because the people he's talking to aren't used to being in a situation where they're asked a question by a journalist and expected to answer openly.
CARROLLYou know, we have to sort of work with the citizens that we're interviewing, many of whom have an expectation that there's a particular kind of answer that they're supposed to give, and so that creates some additional challenges for us. We actually do better with things that we can go and look at and then talk to people, but stories that are dependent entirely on man-on-the-street interviews are going to be more challenging.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Ian in Washington, D.C. Ian you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IANHey, Kojo, I've seen a little bit of North Korea on videos online and I'm highlighting here this one interview I saw on VICE. It was just a little documentary piece about his travels in there and it was highly censored. It was overshadowed by government officials just hovering over him, watching every single thing that they documented and at the end of the piece what I took away from that was that North Korea is just a giant façade. And I'm very interested in seeing the other aspect of this abject poverty and the starvation that's rampant through North Korean people that are just dying out there.
IANAnd I want to know how the AP is really going to cover these hard-hitting issues when North Korea is so entrenched in its image to the world? I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIOkay, Kathleen, before Ian gets you kicked out of the country, Kathleen Carroll, could you talk a little bit about that challenge and how the AP is dealing with that?
CARROLLSure, and it's a really good question. The truth is Ian, though, we would never be able to approach any of those topics if we weren't in the country so, you know, AP has a lot of experience at opening bureaus in places that aren't necessarily warm and friendly toward Western journalists and building a reputation of accuracy and fairness and pushing the envelope more every day so that we can tell the stories that we want to tell.
CARROLLNobody, no matter what they tell you, nobody parachutes into a place cold and goes and uncovers the greatest scandal the world has ever known.
NNAMDIYeah, that's not going to happen immediately, but AP has been given unprecedented access to this closed society. There are two North Korean journalists who live in North Korea. What does that access look and feel like otherwise because the other journalists, the western AP journalists, will not be living inside North Korea, but they will have access to the country? They'll be on tourist visas. Will they always have escorts at all times?
CARROLLWell, they travel there frequently and our hope is to have them in residence. That's one of the things that we're pushing for and we're talking with the government about. But they're there for long stretches of time, sometimes a month or more and they live in a hotel. They do not move about quite as freely as we would like.
CARROLLWe usually have someone from the news agency with us, but we do...
NNAMDIBut how is that different? How is that different from the fixers that we use when we go to other countries?
CARROLLIt's very similar, it's very similar. It has to do with transit, you know, how you can get around. We need government permission sometimes to go places, which is true in many, many, many countries that we cover, not just places like North Korea.
CARROLLSome people find that surprising, but...
NNAMDINo, it's not, it is true.
CARROLL...and so that's not different. Our goals are, obviously, to have -- and we've talked about this with the government so I'm not revealing any deep secrets here. Our goal is to work toward having international journalists as well as our local journalists to be able to move freely about the country and do the stories that they choose to do. And we're making progress toward that goal, but we haven't arrived at it yet.
NNAMDIHere is Ann in Washington, D.C. Ann you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNThank you very much for taking my call. I think that unfortunately there's a way of viewing North Korea and some other countries around the world and organizations like the AP that are associated with western governments as though the western governments are neutral and objective and, as you said, have a reputation for fairness and honesty and then you have the terrible North Koreans. We have to remember that sanctions were enacted on North Korea and that is what has caused the massive starvations. I mean, very severe sanctions and it's been part of a whole history of the United States following the Japanese program to control the peninsula.
ANNSo I definitely question how objective the AP would be. And I think that if you look at the way media has handled issues, for instance, of the nuclear program in North Korea and Iran, for that matter, and you compare that with the way it gives carte blanche to India and particularly Israel, who are not seen notorious to the nuclear nonproliferation treaties, that's just one instance of bias. But the other is really striking is the difference in coverage between the way South Korea is portrayed and the way North Korea is portrayed. South Korea...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to raise a question with you, Ann. Would you prefer the AP not be in North Korea at all?
ANNI would really prefer that we -- yeah, I don't see any reason for organs of the western governments to be there. And I don't believe that they are anything -- I think that some reporters are probably sincere and they're trying to do good.
NNAMDIWell, if the reporters are sincere and trying to do good, why would you call them organs of the western government? I'm sure Kathleen Carroll would like to respond to that, but stay on the line, Ann. Kathleen Carroll?
CARROLLWell, Ann certainly has some strongly-held views. And we live in a country where she has the Constitution. She's entitled to them, but the AP is not an arm of the U.S. government. We are not funded by the U.S. government. We're not a state-run agency. We are global and dependent, privately-owned, a private news company. And we absolutely do not tact to one side or the other of the many complex political issues that she raised. We're there on the ground to get facts, to see things and to talk to people and to try and push for some of the answers, factual answers, to many of the questions that all sides of the debate around North Korea champion with great volume and vigor.
CARROLLAnd I encourage you, Ann, if you want to know a little bit more, if you can see your way clear to reading and viewing the work of the AP, I think you will find it perhaps a little less (word?) .
NNAMDIWell, I wanted to share with Ann some of the other side of the coin because, Ann, some of the reporting from the AP bureau has sprouted scrutiny by bloggers and media watchers who are speculating as to whether the AP is being fed news and information from what they call the North Korean government's propaganda machine. What would you say to those people, Ann?
ANNWell, there's no question in my mind that North Korea has distortions in terms of what I would call workers' democracy or real democracy for people. What I would look at is what creates those conditions where a certain caste can try to gain control of what started out as a very progressive government that was part of a national liberalization struggle. I mean, people are not aware that all of the Korean peninsula, essentially, backed Kim Il Sung in his struggle against the Japanese. And there are thousands upon thousands of communists in South Korea who were butchered after WWII.
NNAMDIWell, I'm sure that the AP is interested in bringing you the news. In terms of the historical record, you are clearly well read on this issue. And there are volumes of information that people can access if they want to read the history, but I'd just like to ask Kathleen Carroll the extent to which she thinks that the AP can provide what Ann obviously wants, is that there should be some context, maybe even some historical context to the reporting that they're getting from inside North Korea.
CARROLLWell, I think our obligation is to always provide facts and the context that help people understand those facts. Those facts are more easily gathered when you are in a place than when you're not. And certainly plenty of our work from North Korea is edited to include context that helped people understand that. And I guess the only difference between Ann's point of view and others might be and the way we operate is that, you know, we don't bring a value judgment to whether things should or shouldn't be covered. We're trying to help people understand a place and go there and look at it and talk to folks and put the facts out. And then people like Ann can make their own decisions about what they think about what we have told them.
NNAMDIAnn, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Kathleen Carroll, executive editor and senior vice president of the Associated Press, which has established a news bureau in North Korea. First time any western-based news media have such a bureau in North Korea in more than 60 years. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. 800-433-8850. Is any news out of North Korea, even though it may be considered to be propaganda, better than no news out of North Korea? What do you say? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast, it'll be your turn to weigh in on the appropriateness of the 30-day sentence in the Rutgers University spying case and the appropriateness of bringing up Mitt Romney's high school shenanigans in the presidential campaign or the NAACP endorsing same-sex marriage. Right now, we're talking with Kathleen Carroll, executive editor and senior vice president of the Associated Press, which has established a bureau in Pyongyang in North Korea. Kathleen Carroll, AP's North Korea Journal, which we've linked to on our website, kojoshow.org, also gives readers a flavor for daily life there. Tell us a little bit about that project and what you want to do with it.
CARROLLWell, people are so deeply curious about everything in the world that goes on in North Korea. They're curious about, you know, how people have birthday parties and are there restaurants and what does the food look like? Everybody asks me when I get back what's the food like. And so we just try to use as much time as possible, in addition to the other reporting that we're doing, to show people what it looks like, to show the electric blue of the winter uniforms that the traffic police wear and what the insides of restaurants look like and what the food looks like and what houses look like.
CARROLLAnd just try and get at that really basic human level of where are the stores, what do the stores look like, what's inside the stores, what are people buying? Why do they all goosestep in these parades? Why do the children wear eyeliner in their performances? I mean, just a million questions that people have about the place. And that's what the Journal is intended to do, is try and provide some of those small answers to small questions that help fill out the portrait of a place.
NNAMDIWe've seen some, I guess, schizophrenic examples recently of the government's treatment of the media. In April, for example, North Korea invited western reporters to cover its rocket launch, which failed spectacularly, but the reporters in Pyongyang only found out about the launch from their editors overseas, sending them scrambling to catch up on the story. On the other hand, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fessed up about the failure quickly, something his late father would presumably not have done. Is there a sense that the new regime is kind of testing the waters right now since the media are changing at such a fast pace?
CARROLLIt's a little bit hard to tell, but you're right. There are some differences. And there are plenty of differences between the son and his father and his grandfather. It's hard to say exactly how things have changed because there is not particular transparency into the government operations. And it's important to also remember that many of the government officials that surround Kim Jong Un or who are his advisors or who also hold offices in the military or in the government have been in the government for quite a time.
CARROLLThey also held those roles with this father and many of them were in the trenches with his grandfather. So it's a little bit hard to make sweeping prognostications at this point, but I think it is important to note differences when we see them, as you did.
NNAMDIHere is Sue in Alexandria, Va. Sue, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUEYes. Kojo, I thank you for covering this topic. I just wanted to comment that I think AP has done a very commendable job that no other organization has attempted so far. And I think it's very important for the organizations like AP to try and cover, you know, bring out the news as much as possible from the field. And, you know, any news is better than no news. It's, you know, it's easy for all the people, I mean, here in the U.S. or any other advanced countries to say, oh, you are not doing this right, that right or you're not covering human rights and many other things.
SUEBut it's very, you know, people have to keep in mind that you cannot bring everything to the standards of the advanced countries in a very short period in one attempt.
SUEAnd in the long run, what AP is doing is very, very important and very valuable.
NNAMDIWell, Sue, allow me to share with you the kind of inside media perspective on this because Kathleen Carroll and AP have a lot of weight on their shoulders since their experience could pave the way for the rest of us, other news organizations to set up shop there someday. So we're saying, hey, don't mess this up. No. Kathleen Carroll, do you feel that kind of weight on your shoulders?
CARROLLWell, we'll do our best, Kojo.
SUEAnd I'm sorry...
CARROLLBut we always believe more journalists in a place covering it is better than fewer.
SUEIf I may make one more comment.
SUEI think it's very important for everyone to keep in mind to distinguish between what the government does and what the people are going through. And I think in the long run what AP is doing is eventually going to also serve the people of North Korea, not just listeners around the world outside North Korea.
NNAMDIOkay. Sue, thank you very much for your call. We move onto Shree Rim (sp?) in Chevy Chase, Md. Shree Rim, your turn.
SHREE RIMYes. Thank you, Kojo. Hello, Miss Carroll. You know we lived in South Korea in Seoul for three years during the Asian financial crisis and we've been to the DMZ. And also we were there when Kim Dae Jung, the president of South Korea visited Pyongyang to try to make a peace. And from all we've seen, yes, there is a change in regime, but many of the old stalwarts, like his uncle, remain in power. How much do you think you can get beyond the official sources? How much freedom do you think your people will have to travel in the country to tell us what things are like behind the scenes or in the countryside? And what are the main challenges that you think you are likely to face as you move forward? But I do admire your decision to go there. I think it's a wonderful decision.
CARROLLThank you very much. Those are really excellent questions. And, you know, our goal is to be able to move around. We've been able to travel outside the capitol a fair amount. We hope to do more of that. We would like to be able to do that in a way that allowed us to choose our topics, not always needing permission. I think that's probably going to take a long time, if our experience in other countries is any guide. And, you know, you've just described the very nirvana that we would like. I think these things are step-by-step, you know.
CARROLLWhen we first started going we could only go in Pyongyang and to certain places. And we had to, you know, do a lot of touring first. Now, we can go in with lists of businesses or industries that we want to see and places outside of Pyongyang that we want to visit. But I think, Shree, on the greater challenge for us is going to be what I mentioned earlier, establishing the kind of relationship with people that they feel they can talk honestly with us. And I just don't know how long that’s going to be.
RIMYeah, well, anyway, good luck. And we look forward to your reports.
NNAMDIAnd Shree Rim, thank you very much for your call. Give us a feel for what it's like dealing with North Korean bureaucracy. Was there anything that you were asked to do that the AP said, look, absolutely not, we're not going to do that?
CARROLLWe were never asked to do anything that we would not do because we made it pretty clear that we wouldn't come unless we could operate with the same amount of freedom and openness that we do in other places. Meaning that we don't submit our questions ahead of time. We don't submit our copy or our videos or our photos to anybody else. The assignments are decided by AP journalists alone. You know, all the kind of normal things. And we were never asked to compromise on any of those things.
CARROLLAnd we also were pretty honest with each other and our colleagues at KCNA that we knew there were going to be times when we were going to butt heads, that we were not going to agree on something and that we were going to have some conflicts. And we've had a few of those and managed to work through them. And I suspect we'll have quite a few more.
NNAMDIWelcome to the American News Room. Here's Jeff in Fairfax, Va. Jeff, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFFOh, hi. Hey, I just wanted to state and it's really only my opinion and I do respect you both, but I really do believe that the AP is chasing windmills. I think free press in a place like North Korea is an absolute joke. And I'll take my response off the air. I don't mean to sound harsh, it just seems kind of silly.
NNAMDIYou're tilting at windmills, Kathleen Carroll.
CARROLLWell, he's certainly entitled to his opinion. Obviously, I disagree. I’m not quite sure what we would, you know, I just keep going back to the same point, we can't know about a place unless we're there. And it's just too easy to dismiss a place if you're not there looking at it. And we choose to be there. That's the business that we're in. Other people have a different view. They're not in our business.
NNAMDIJeff, thank you for our call. Here is Lee, in Falls Church. Lee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEEHi. First and foremost, I'm really excited to have journalists over there. I don't expect major issues to come out. I would love to know the little things in life because we don't know much about anything. My main concern though is, ethically, how are you planning on protecting your sources over there? I mean especially with some of the new reports that have come out describing the political rehabilitation camps and things of that nature.
NNAMDIAnd how do you protect your journalists, especially your North Korean reporters?
LEEYes. How do you protect your journalists? How do you protect your sources?
NNAMDIKathleen Carroll? Oh.
LEEI just think that ethically that could be a huge potential issue.
CARROLLLee, thanks for the question. It's a really good one and one that we actually have a lot of experience with in working around the world in a lot of countries with varying different kinds of political systems and variously different kinds of journalistic traditions. We are extremely mindful of looking after the safety of our journalists in whatever that means, either from, you know, IEDs or from putting them in a situation where their government might come down on them.
CARROLLWe have found over the years that having the local expertise of local journalists and the outsider's curiosity of expat journalists is a very good combination that works for us and allows us to navigate the complicated areas that you've identified. We also work very hard not to put anyone that we're talking to in a position where they will have undue consequences visited upon them. Obviously, that's not entirely within our control, but we're reasonably mindful of a circumstance that might put one of our sources in danger and we ethically don't do that. There's no story worth someone else's life, obviously.
NNAMDIKathleen Carroll, what have you learned about North Koreans, as they say, everyday North Koreans, from your experience there?
CARROLLI have found the folks that I have met and spent time with to be, once we're able to establish a bond of communication, very warm people. They're very witty. They love music and love to sing. The level of English is quite high in the groups of people that I'm fortunate enough to be talking with, and, you know, they have a reputation that they're very proud of being very hard workers and being very strong personalities, and they like to blow off steam with a local rice liquor which I have not yet developed a strong ability to handle. (laugh) Neither can I -- and they love karaoke, and they will sing you off the floor if you let them, because they're quite good singers.
NNAMDIAnd with a little help from the liquor, did you also attempt to do some singing?
CARROLLI absolutely did and it was -- I was -- I did not do the AP any particular credit on that front.
NNAMDIKathleen Carroll, thank you for joining us.
CARROLLThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIKathleen Carroll is executive editor and senior vice president of the Associated Press which is the first western journalism organization to have a full-time bureau in North Korea. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, it is your turn. You can call us or send us an email to talk about whether it was appropriate or inappropriate for a 30-day sentence in the Rutgers University spying case, whether it's appropriate to talk about Mitt Romney's high school shenanigans, and the NAACP endorsing same-sex marriage. 800-433-8850. You can start calling right now or send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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