Attacks on the Press 1999: North Korea

Despite North Korea’s professed commitment in 1999 to pursuing a course of modernization, the country remained as isolated as ever, maintaining a stringently controlled system to restrict freedom of speech, the press, and any form of unregulated cultural activity. As a result, there was almost no independent scrutiny of Communist leader Kim Jong Il’s stern policy of national self-reliance. Despite more than four years of horrific famine and economic hardship, the government continued to dedicate a significant amount of North Korea’s scant resources to military development.

Government censors ensure that no domestic news medium carries news of the famine or of other crises facing the country, and the state severely limits the public’s access to information from the outside world. Radios and television sets sold in North Korea are customized to receive only domestic government broadcasts, and those obtained from abroad must be modified so that unauthorized channels cannot be tuned in. North Koreans caught listening to foreign media broadcasts (except for a small section of the political elite who are allowed to monitor such news) are subject to harsh penalties, including forced labor. Only a small minority of North Koreans had access to telephones, most of which could only be used for domestic calls. Internet access was prohibitively expensive, and complicated by North Korea’s antiquated telephone system.

It remained extremely difficult for foreign journalists, particularly western journalists, to visit North Korea. Only three foreign news organizations had bureaus in the capital city of Pyongyang: Itar-Tass, the Russian news agency; Xinhua, the Chinese news agency; and the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily. “There’s no one else here,” said Alexander Valiev, Itar-Tass’s Pyongyang correspondent. “If you come from a western country with a critical viewpoint, you are not welcome here.” CNN, however, has made several reporting trips to North Korea, and in August broadcast footage of a North Korean independence day celebration. But such officially sanctioned visits are closely overseen by government minders who effectively determine what is reported.

Reporting by visitors without official press credentials emerges occasionally, often gathered through the use of hidden cameras or other clandestine means. Foreign aid workers, diplomats, and South Korean intelligence reports are other sources for information. However, because of the myriad restrictions imposed by the government, it is virtually impossible to follow up on a story. “Any information coming out of North Korea is extremely unreliable and totally unverifiable,” said Agence France-Presse’s Seoul bureau chief Marc Lavine.