BOB GARFIELD: Meanwhile, on Thursday, the buses ferrying journalists from one organized event in Pyongyang to another took a wrong turn. Here’s a quote from the report filed by the Associated Press’ Tim Sullivan.
“A cloud of brown dust swirled down deeply potholed streets, past concrete apartment buildings crumbling at the edges. Old people trudged along the sidewalks, some with handmade backpacks crafted from canvas bags. Two men in wheelchairs waited at a bus stop. There were stores with no lights and side roads so battered they were more dirt than pavement.”
‘Perhaps this is an incorrect road,’ mumbled one of the North Korean minders. The press on the buses unsurprisingly went wild photographing this bedraggled tableau. For its part, the Associated Press hopes it will see much more of the hidden realities of North Korean society.
In January, after a year of negotiations with North Korean leadership, the AP opened the first full time, full format western journalism bureau in Pyongyang. Kathleen Carroll is the Executive Editor and Senior Vice-President of the AP, and she says so far her staff in North Korea is only allowed to report freely within the capitol. Anywhere else, they have to ask their host’s permission.
KATHLEEN CARROLL: We generally need to tell the agency that we’re working with the kind of places we want to visit, and we often have a –
BOB GARFIELD: Minder?
KATHLEEN CARROLL: -person from the agency. Not a minder ‘cause it’s generally a journalist from the Korean Central News Agency. This is not an uncommon way to operate. I know a lot of people who don’t do foreign coverage and haven’t worked in difficult countries seem to have an idea that you land and wander about at will, and – you know, that’s not true in a lot of places, not just North Korea.
We have long had a bureau at the White House, for example, but we don’t wander the halls at will there, either.
BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough, but most likely those who you encounter there will bear no consequences for speaking to you. Will you be free to speak to ordinary North Koreans without fear that there will be repercussions for them?
KATHLEEN CARROLL: We already do talk to North Koreans. The challenge there is more that there is no tradition of an engaging journalists who asks the kinds of questions that we ask on the part of the people there. So I think the greater issue is to try and have a comfort level where people are actually talking with us about issues that are important to them, rather than feeling the need to say whatever they think is expected of them.
You know, it’s not something that people automatically know how to do, to talk to reporters, and particularly in a place where they had no access to the kind of journalism that we do.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it just a question of tradition, or is it fear of reprisal?
KATHLEEN CARROLL: It’s a fair question but we don’t think that the kind of journalism that we’re doing right now is the kind that is going to get somebody thrown in a gulag for answering a question on the street about their reaction to some world event.
BOB GARFIELD: Sometimes when western reporters are trying to work from the midst of hostile or repressive regimes, the reporting comes with a disclaimer, “This story was either censored or produced under heavy restrictions from the government.” Will your coverage require any kind of warning label such as that?
KATHLEEN CARROLL: Absolutely not. We do not submit to censorship. We would not ever have agreed to anything like that. We are going to write things and take pictures of things and make videos of things, both inside North Korea and outside North Korea that they might not necessarily like. It happens sometimes, and the argument is loud, sometimes. [LAUGHS] We both know that there are going to be some healthy disagreements ahead of us.
Obviously, if one of those disagreements led to AP being booted from the country, we would choose to be booted rather than to stay and be asked to compromise how we operate.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re aware, of course, that the White House has warned – not the AP in particular, but news organizations in general over this missile launch, not to get caught up in the North Korean propaganda machine. It seems to me that you face that problem every day. How do you as an organization keep from being an outlet for the North Koreans’ propaganda purposes?
KATHLEEN CARROLL: As opposed to taking my editorial direction from the White House? [LAUGHS] We don’t do that, obviously. The White House is making a political statement. It happens to be in the venue of journalism.
It’s much better to be there and be able to ask questions, whether or not you get all the answers that you might seek, than it is to not be there at all. It’s a process. You go there. You cover it to your best ability, and you push to try and get greater access. You push for additional information. And, before you know it, the world is smarter about the place that you’re covering because you’re able to be there.
BOB GARFIELD: What have you learned that makes you see beyond the caricature of the ultra-repressive, retrograde regime?
KATHLEEN CARROLL: The people of North Korea are just like anybody else anywhere in the world. They want respect. They want their children to grow up to be healthy. They want to enjoy a good meal at a restaurant. They want a good life for themselves. And the outside world gets a better sense of the people of North Korea. Whether or not we are able to provide that level of transparency about the government of North Korean will remain to be seen.
BOB GARFIELD: Kathleen, thank you.
KATHLEEN CARROLL: My pleasure.
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BOB GARFIELD: Kathleen Carroll is the executive editor and senior vice-president of the Associated Press.