NEW YORK -- North Korea, a totalitarian country ranked near the bottom in the world on the press freedom index, presents one of the toughest challenges for journalists.
But the Associated Press made significant progress Wednesday in increasing its access within the secretive country by signing agreements with North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, to open a bureau in the capital Pyongyang. The AP has operated a television office in North Korea for five years, but the new operation will be the “first permanent text and photo bureau operated by a Western news organization in the North Korean capital," according to a release.
The AP and KCNA have been working on the agreement for several months. In March, AP chief executive Tom Curley, executive editor Kathleen Carroll and senior managing editor for international news John Daniszewski traveled to Pyongyang. More recently, KCNA president Kim Pyong Ho led a delegation to New York.
"This agreement between AP and KCNA is historic and significant,” Curley said in a statement. “AP is once again being trusted to open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world. We are grateful for this opportunity and look forward to providing coverage for AP’s global audience in our usually reliable and insightful way."
While the partnership sounds promising, does the AP really have the freedom to file dispatches with a Pyongyang dateline and not face government interference?
Carroll, the AP’s top editor, says the news organization will be able to act independently.
“The AP operates independently, regardless of location. Period,” Carroll said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “We have been able to work from Pyongyang as we do elsewhere, by asking questions and seeking to learn more about a country and its people and then doing stories. Our coverage of North Korea from inside and outside the country has been straightforward, insightful and fair. None of it has ever been censored.”
Indeed, one reason to be hopeful about the arrangement is that the AP has already made significant inroads into North Korea over the past year. AP Seoul bureau chief Jean Lee and chief Asia photograph David Guttenfelder have made several reporting trips into North Korea and even attended a staged government news conference in April -- a significant moment in terms of western press access, according to the Wall Street Journal:
The AP story generated much more attention, in part because American journalists are rarely granted access to North Korea. The AP has operated a TV news bureau there, staffed by North Koreans and managed from Hong Kong, that chiefly delivers video feeds of North Korea events to other news organizations. Recently, the AP’s president, Tom Curley, visited North Korea as part of an Asia tour.
The largest group of American journalists to enter North Korea was in 2008, when 80 were granted access to cover a visit to Pyongyang by the New York Philharmonic. In 2009, North Korea detained two American journalists it captured on its border with China for six months.
Given the amount of suspicion leveled at American journalists by the Pyongyang regime, reporting and writing from North Korea has got to be difficult. It’s unclear from the AP’s story whether Ms. Lee was allowed to ask a question at the news conference.
In addition to the news conference, Lee has covered several events from Pyongyang over the past year, including a huge magic show and a parade where Kim Jong Un -- son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- was introduced to public as heir apparent. She spoke about covering the latter event in a narrated slideshow featuring photographs from the AP's Vincent Yu.