Attacks on the Press 2001: North Korea

Under the totalitarian rule of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the press is nothing but a government propaganda instrument. One political observer noted that the only variation in the country’s media is the relative degree of vitriol directed against South Korea, Japan, and the United States, calibrated to suit the foreign policy priorities of the regime.

Overtures from South Korea’s president Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his “Sunshine Policy” of improving relations between North and South Korea, were scorned for most of the year as part of Pyongyang’s angry response to being snubbed by the United States. After the White House suggested that North Korea could not be trusted as a negotiating partner, Kim Jong Il targeted his diplomatic efforts toward China and Russia.

Foreign journalists have had more access to North Korea during the last two years, but their movements within the country are still highly restricted and monitored. In May, a record 75 foreign journalists–including journalists from South Korea–were permitted to spend two days in North Korea to cover the visit of a European Union delegation, led by Swedish prime minister Goeran Persson.

However, when the notoriously reclusive Kim Jong Il embarked on his epic train journey across Russia at the end of July, no journalists were invited. Though it was a historic trip–the first time Kim had traveled to a foreign country apart from China–the leader apparently preferred to keep a profile so low as to be almost invisible.

The North Korean press was not permitted to mention his absence for days, and the foreign media were kept at a distance throughout the trip. The Times of London noted that Kim’s trip “will make the Guinness record for the longest train journey taken by a visiting head of state, [but] it has also been one of the most secretive since the Germans shipped Lenin in a sealed train to the Finland Station.”

The North Korean government’s efforts to control the media have helped ensure that its chronic food shortage is one of the most underreported disasters in the world. This year, a book by Andrew Natsios, head of the United States Agency for International Development, presented shocking evidence that at least 2.5 million people–one-tenth of North Korea’s population–have died in the famine, which began in 1994.

Domestic media are forbidden to report on either the famine or the roots of the crisis. While it is true that, in the words of one activist, people do not need the media to tell them when they are starving, the lack of access to accurate information within North Korea is a tragedy. Meanwhile, the country’s harsh Penal Code cites listening to foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications as “crimes against the state,” which are punishable by death.