Attacks on the Press 2000: North Korea

THOUGH NORTH KOREA OPENED UP SLIGHTLY as its leader Kim Jong Il emerged onto the world stage, the country remained a totalitarian backwater with no independent local media and only limited access for foreign journalists.

Reporters from South Korea and the West are viewed with particular suspicion and were generally refused visas until last year. In June, on the occasion of a historic summit meeting between Kim Jong Il and South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, the government allowed 50 South Korean journalists into the country, though they were restricted to filing pool reports. Most other foreign journalists were barred, except for representatives of the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, and People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, all of which have accredited correspondents in Pyongyang.

After the summit, Pyongyang promised to halt its propaganda offensive against South Korea. In August, the government hosted a group of South Korean media executives to discuss ways of creating a climate for reconciliation. At that meeting, North Korea’s Central Broadcasting Station reported, “Journalists of the North and South [were] merrily singing to the melody of reunification.”

The reality was not quite so merry. Sporadic bursts of anti-South propaganda continued, particularly against conservative politicians and the strongly anti-communist Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo. On June 27, officials prevented a Chosun Ilbo reporter from disembarking at Changjon Port. The journalist was part of a South Korean delegation that had sailed in for Red Cross-sponsored discussions aimed at reuniting families separated by the Korean War. In early July, state radio broadcasts suggested that Chosun Ilbo should be bombed.

In November, North Korea threatened to cancel future reunions after Monthly Chosun, which is also published by the Chosun Ilbo Company, carried an interview with the head of the South Korean Red Cross in which he spoke frankly about poverty and repression in the North. And on the night of December 1, authorities detained a Chosun Ilbo photographer for several hours of interrogation at his hotel room in Pyongyang, quizzing him about the newspaper’s coverage of the family reunions.

The government did not loosen its grip over the country’s domestic news media, which carry only official propaganda. North Korea’s harsh Penal Code cites listening to foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications as “crimes against the state,” punishable by death. Because of the government’s lock on information, the public remains ignorant of many of the problems plaguing the country, which hovered near total economic collapse last year.

When U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright visited in October, some 60 foreign reporters were allowed into the country. Once in Pyongyang, these journalists were restricted to covering carefully orchestrated press events and forbidden from leaving their hotel unaccompanied by a government minder. Nevertheless, many reporters managed to sneak away unnoticed for short periods, later filing vivid reports based on these glimpses of life inside one of the world’s most tightly controlled dictatorships.

The once reclusive Kim Jong Il, known to his subjects as the “Dear Leader,” had often been portrayed abroad as an unpredictable madman. Facing increased media exposure in 2000, he confounded expectations and received largely positive reviews from international reporters, who were struck by his humor, intelligence, and apparent sanity.

Kim In-koo, Chosun Ilbo

North Korean officials prevented Kim, a reporter for the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, from disembarking at Changjon Port. The journalist was part of a South Korean delegation that had arrived by ship for Red Cross discussions aimed at reuniting families that had been separated by the Korean War.

Kim had been randomly selected by the South Korean media to file pooled reports of the meeting. Authorities permitted the five other members of the journalists’ pool to proceed.

Chosun Ilbo, a conservative, anti-communist newspaper, is a frequent target of vitriol from Pyongyang.