This last question was raised again this week in a column by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, in which he essentially said that people who report from authoritarian places like North Korea and Iran — as well as those who went into Saddam Hussein-era Iraq — are being “useful idiots” for those regimes. “When reportage is propaganda,” the column was titled.
If we can’t report from the gulag without a guide, by Stephens’s logic, then we shouldn’t be reporting from North Korea at all. Or from Iran, or Syria, or Gaddafi’s Libya or probably present-day China, where journalists are closely monitored. Certainly not from the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain came down.
Whenever we journalists go to these places, though, we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there. And by passing that on to our readers and viewers, we can share information about countries — and their threatening regimes — with a wide audience that includes the people who make our policy towards these countries (and often can’t go to these places themselves.)
In the case of North Korea, we know so little about what happens there that every piece of information, no matter how small, can add meaningfully to our understanding.
Between 2004 and 2008, I was based in Seoul for the Financial Times, and I made five trips to Pyongyang. Then, I got the job of Tehran correspondent and was in and out of Iran for two years. I’ve also reported from Syria and from Libya during the Gaddafi era, where I had a government-appointed minder. Since I started working for The Washington Post in Asia a year ago, I’ve made one trip back to North Korea.
There, journalists must be accompanied by a guide at all times, almost without exception. On my first trip to Pyongyang, I went for a walk by myself near the hotel and saw a kiosk where a woman was selling a North Korean-English dictionary. I went up and asked — in Korean — how much it was, and caused a real scene, which ended with me being tailed back to my hotel by someone who said he was a policeman. I never tried to strike up conversation with a random person again, because I realized that all I had done was put that woman in danger — everyone around would have reported our interaction to the authorities.
A journalist’s regime-set schedule is always heavy on Kim-worship: I’ve been to Kim Il Sung’s birthplace six times, and have yet to discover any news there. And there are few options for dictating your own itinerary. Still, I’ve made interview requests that, surprisingly, were granted, and have spoken to an economics professor, a factory manager and a business tycoon.
Do I think I had frank and truthful conversations with those people? No. They would be risking their jobs, and maybe their lives, to deviate from the regime’s line. I always assumed I was being given the official story, and made this clear in my reporting.
But some information is always better than no information. You know what I learned when I went to see that economics professor at Kim Il Sung University? That there was almost no electricity in this most prestigious educational institution in the country. A staff member turned on the elevator so I didn’t have to walk up 20 flights of stairs (pity the students, who receive no such VIP treatment). You know what I found when I went to the Red Cross hospital in Pyongyang, the best medical facility in the country, one February? Again, very little electricity. I was inside in my Gore-Tex coat, shivering, while patients sat in their beds in thin pajamas.
And those details, which I picked up despite my official minders, were how I started the story I wrote for the FT afterwards, as the “six-party talks” to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program ground on:
In the depths of the North Korean winter, where temperatures frequently plumb -10ºC, government offices and even hospital wards in Pyongyang are so cold that people can see their breath indoors. Lights – not to mention medical equipment – constantly flicker on and off.
In the industrial areas along the east coast, the vast majority of factories and mines simply lie idle.
The time devoted to energy, rather than nuclear weapons, during the past five days of North Korean denuclearisation talks highlights the critical challenge that power shortages present to Kim Jong-il’s regime.
In going to these highly controlled places, it is incumbent on us as journalists to be transparent about the restrictions placed upon us, which I did during my last trip.
Sometimes these regime-appointed watchdogs can inadvertently offer glimpses into what life is like for the politically loyal of Pyongyang, though. I’ve had North Koreans brag to me about their watches and their e-mail accounts, and I’ve talked to them about what their children want to be when they grow up. I’ve even drunk the vodka-like brew soju in North Korean bars, just as I have in South Korea. (Note to IAEA inspectors: I think they store their nuclear material at the soju plant; nothing else can account for the hangovers that Pyongyang Soju precipitates.)
But even with the minders and the bugs and who knows what else, not even North Korea can control everything. Like when our bus got a flat tire on my trip last year and we got to stand on the side of the road — unscheduled! — and watch everyday people passing by. Okay, so that’s not Pulitzer-winning stuff, but watching ordinary North Koreans on their way to work or school is much more illuminating than not seeing them at all. Which is what would happen if correspondents followed Stephens’s advice.
Should our reporting on North Korea be based entirely on guided trips around the monuments of Pyongyang? Of course not. North Korea is a jigsaw puzzle and putting it together requires talking to refugees, analysts outside the country, propaganda experts who sift through the official “news” agency’s communiques and other foreigners who get to travel more freely than journalists do, especially aid workers. The Chinese border is a trove of information about the real North Korea. Visiting the Potemkin North Korea can still add another piece to the puzzle and maybe help us figure some things out.
My last trip to North Korea — my first in almost seven years — was illuminating to me because so much had changed. Pyongyang actually looked pretty good. One of the guides joked as the reflection of new apartment towers glittered in the river that the city now looked like Dubai. That was a gross exaggeration, of course, but isn’t this the kind of information we want American policymakers, who can’t go there, to know? That Pyongyang is not on the ropes?
I wrote about the relatively comfortable life that the elite of Pyongyang are now living. Are they less likely to rock the boat because they have so much more to lose? Or are the country’s millions of have-nots more likely to begin to agitate for more? We don’t know yet, but we do know that life in North Korea is changing a lot. We should be reporting on it.
That’s what I’m trying to do, from the outside and hopefully from the inside. But I won’t pull my punches just to try to get a visa. I write and tweet and photograph everything I think needs to be said and shared — including about the controls — without consideration of whether the regime will approve.
After all, I’m in the information business, not the isolation business.