The first thing to remember about reporting from North Korea, says Eric Talmadge, is that the answer to almost everything is no.
No, you can’t go there. No, you can’t interview that person. No, you can’t have that information. Talmadge, the Associated Press’s bureau chief in Pyongyang and the only Western reporter regularly in the reclusive country, is used to it. North Korea didn’t get to be a totalitarian state with a long trail of human-rights abuses and the worst record of media freedom in the world by being accommodating to reporters, especially the American kind.
In Pyongyang, Talmadge is shadowed constantly by a minder, a government agent who accompanies him whenever he leaves his hotel or office. The minder doesn’t mind Talmadge so much as keep an eye on his would-be contacts; talking to other foreigners is fine, but any interaction with a North Korean raises red flags. On a recent, and rare, road trip through the North Korean countryside, Talmadge and an AP photographer were chaperoned by a minder who made sure that they didn’t deviate from a government-approved route or stop to interview people at random.
“This trip,” Talmadge wrote, in a colorful and eye-opening travelogue, “was on North Korea’s terms.”
There’s also constant electronic surveillance. Talmadge proceeds on the assumption that his e-mails, Internet searches and phone calls, as well as his conversations, are being seen and heard. “I just assume that everything I say, to anyone, is on the record,” he says. “Always.” (He spoke with The Washington Post via e-mail.)
Talmadge can maintain only a semi-permanent presence in the country. He travels to Pyongyang each month from Tokyo, where he lives with his family, and stays in North Korea about 10 days each month, or however long the state ministry feels like letting him stay.
The restrictions tend to limit the kinds of stories Talmadge can report, at least without being expelled or jailed. Since taking over the bureau in 2013, he has covered the construction of North Korea’s first ski resort, the rise of a popular all-girl singing group called the Moranbong Band and the nation’s extensive efforts to contain the Ebola virus, despite the lack of a single case in Asia and the most tightly guarded borders in the world.
Even these scattershot topics can yield some insights into the national psyche. Writing about Pyongyang’s rapidly Westernizing fashion sense in September, for example, Talmadge noted, “Jeans are closely associated with American tastes, so wearing them is almost tantamount to treason. North Korea never officially banned them, but you don’t see people wearing the same blue denim that is common almost everywhere else in the world.”
During his week-long trip into the hinterlands this fall, Talmadge saw no signs of the famine that swept the country in the mid-1990s. But he did see lots of free-roaming goats — the run-amok result of the late “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il’s famine-fighting breeding programs. Talmadge also discovered that automobiles are so rare outside North Korea’s cities that police and soldiers snapped to attention and saluted as his car passed by. They assumed that such a vehicle must be conveying important officials.
In addition to his dispatches, Talmadge frequently posts his photos of everyday life in North Korea on Instagram. Like his written work, they can belie Western assumptions about the country and North Korea’s relentless propaganda about itself.
One of Talmadge’s photos shows a boy happily rollerblading in Kim Il Sung Square, the vast public space in the capital named for the country’s founder and the scene of massive military parades. Another shows people enjoying a ride at a Pyongyang amusement park. There are street and beach scenes, a volleyball game, ice skaters, karaoke singers, women dancing in a parking lot.
“I think there is a tendency abroad to caricature North Korea in ways that aren’t constructive, and to resort to dismissiveness or mockery much too easily,” says the 53-year-old Talmadge, who has covered Asia for decades. “During my time there, I have been surprised, and reassured in a way, to see how average North Koreans care about the same things everybody else does — their family, their finances, their health, their friends, how to get by. It’s too easy to treat North Korea as an incomprehensible place. Fundamentally, of course, it’s not.”
On the other hand, the tally of stories that Talmadge hasn’t reported is revealing, too. He has written nothing about the regime’s nuclear-weapons program, its prison labor camps or the execution of high party officials who’ve fallen out of favor with the nation’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
When a Pyongyang apartment building collapsed in May, apparently killing dozens of elite families, the AP moved news about the event from its Seoul bureau, even though it happened just a few minutes’ drive from the Pyongyang office. Talmadge says that he was reporting another story outside the capital at the time and wasn’t aware of the disaster — there were no sirens or live TV updates — when he left the country for a trip the next day.
And there were no Pyongyang datelines on North Korea’s alleged hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computers, supposedly in response to the planned release of the North Korea-themed movie “The Interview.”
This has led to suspicions among Western observers that the Associated Press made a deal with the devil when it got North Korea’s go-ahead to open the bureau in 2011. Although the AP insists that its reporting standards are the same in Pyongyang as in New York, skeptics wonder whether the organization pulls its punches to stay on Kim’s sunny side.
The bureau “has reported no news that is exclusive, and nothing exclusive that is news,” says Joshua Stanton, a Washington-area lawyer who blogs about North Korea and has advised Congress on sanctions against it. “The coverage often appears to be biased [in favor of North Korea]. AP seems to be afraid of offending its host.”
NK News, an English-language site that focuses on North Korea, also questioned the integrity of the AP’s reporting last month in an article that questioned whether the agency’s Pyongyang operation is “a Potemkin news bureau.” Among other things, it noted that the AP’s local staff includes a North Korean reporter and a photographer, both hired under an agreement with the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency. The KCNA is a government propaganda mill long suspected of clandestine intelligence-gathering.
AP spokesman Paul Colford disputes much of the reporting in the NK News article, but he acknowledges that the AP employs the KCNA journalists. Hiring North Korean nationals, he says, is “the ticket for admission” into the country and is standard practice for every international organization operating there.
But any contributions from the KCNA journalists, Colford says, are vetted by Talmadge and others before the AP distributes them. “We have never published anything piped or fabricated or willfully false” from North Korea, he says.
For the record, Talmadge says that no North Korean official has ever screened one of his articles. “I can write whatever I want,” he says flatly. “The North Korean authorities see my work at the same time everyone else does, [which is] when it hits the wire. They don’t get previews [and] they don’t get to censor content.”
The larger question may be whether having a reporter in North Korea, with all its restrictions, beats the alternative. Western reporters can travel to North Korea only on rare occasions and only under circumstances strictly choreographed by state officials.
Talmadge’s situation may be analogous to the efforts of Western journalists to report from the Soviet Union or China at the height of the Cold War, when both governments routinely spied on foreign visitors or kept them out altogether.
“Of course, it is not possible [to have unfettered reporting] in North Korea, but it is better to have something than nothing,” says Andrei Lankov, a former Soviet citizen who studied in North Korea and teaches Korean history at Kookmin University in Seoul.
That’s essentially the view of Jean H. Lee, the AP’s first bureau chief in Pyongyang and Talmadge’s predecessor.
“I don’t think you learn very much by not being in the place you’re covering,” said Lee, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington who specializes in Korean history and North Korea. “We tend to assume North Koreans are robotic or brainwashed. In fact, they’re human beings living in a tough environment, politically and economically. I’d make the case that we need to understand who they are, because once we do, we’ll be better able to deal with them.”
Sometimes, learning what isn’t true may be as valuable as finding out what is. When Kim disappeared from public view for several weeks this fall, fueling rumors of ill health or even a coup, Talmadge advised against reading too much into it. Pyongyang was functioning normally, something that would have been impossible if there were a sudden change in the country’s nearly deified leadership.
“There’s also nothing particularly unusual about North Korean leaders laying low for extended periods,” read Talmadge’s dispatch from the Seoul bureau. “Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, no fan of the limelight in his later years, would disappear at times; Kim Jong Un, who seems to genuinely like being at the center of things, took off without a word for three weeks in 2012.”
Kim appeared in public the next day.
Talmadge also didn’t fall for another widely reported story — that North Korea had ordered young men to emulate Kim’s high-on-the-sides, floppy-on-top haircut. He could see that wasn’t the case by walking the streets of Pyongyang.
As a practical matter, Talmadge says, it’s virtually impossible to get officials or civilians to provide accurate information about issues such as human rights, the military or North Korea’s nuclear program. He compares the situation to being embedded with the U.S. military during wartime. “By being there on the ground, we are able to provide a valid and meaningful perspective, but one that has its limitations,” he says.
When he’s not working, Talmadge socializes with other expatriates staying in and around his hotel. He eats in local restaurants, including an Italian joint that makes its own goat cheese and serves “pretty good” pizza. He’ll take walks by the Taedong River or Kim Il Sung Square. Often, he’ll stay in his hotel room and listen to music.
Sometimes, he goes bowling.
There’s a bowling alley known as the Golden Lane in Pyongyang. It’s much like bowling alleys everywhere, Talmadge says, right down to the American-made pin-setting equipment. He once faced off in an impromptu match against two young women who were training for the national team. “They demolished me,” he says, “but we all had a good time, and there were lots of friendly high-fives.”
Talmadge grew up in Olympia, Wash., and emigrated to Japan at 19 to attend college. A fluent Japanese speaker, he joined the AP in 1989 after working for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in Tokyo. He has covered stories worldwide, including five Olympics, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
Working in North Korea has given him perspective, not just about North Korea.
“Every time I come back home, I wake up the first morning thinking, ‘I can go anywhere I want today,’ ” he says. “I could go to the beach, I could go see a movie, I could get on a plane and go to Florida if I wanted. Even if, in the end, I just stay home and eat potato chips on the couch, it’s a very liberating feeling. I don’t take it for granted anymore.”