Attacks on the Press 2003: North Korea

North Korea’s goal in a global nuclear crisis put the country on the front page of international papers throughout 2003. But the regime’s absolute control over news and information ensured that the world continued to know little about what happened inside the country’s tightly fortified borders.

Six-nation talks–between the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia–made little progress toward negotiating an end to the nuclear standoff between the U.S. administration and the regime of Kim Jong Il. After the first round of talks in August, both sides made demands that the other was unwilling to accept: North Korea wanted the United States to lift “its political, economic, military sanctions and blockade” before freezing its nuclear program; the Bush administration demanded that North Korea first fully dismantle its nuclear facilities. In December, a diplomatic impasse forced the postponement of a second round of talks until 2004.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and other arms of the North Korean propaganda machine are often the only means through which international observers can learn the reclusive Kim Jong Il’s position on the nuclear issue, as well as his regime’s view of the world. After various members of the Bush administration criticized Kim’s government, KCNA called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a “psychopath” and a “typical stupid man”; U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton was termed “human scum” after he called Kim a “tyrannical dictator”; and President Bush was referred to as “maniac,” “lunatic,” or just, “that man.” KCNA, which employs 2,000 people, broadcasts worldwide in Korean, English, Russian, and Spanish.

Foreign journalists are rarely permitted inside North Korea, and those allowed in are assigned government minders. In 2003, British journalist Jonathan Watts had a rare opportunity to accompany a World Food Programme monitoring mission in Songrim, North Korea. Despite restrictions on his reporting, he was able to describe the desolate and impoverished conditions of a children’s hospital in Songrim, where a third of the population relies on international food aid. In March, Pyongyang admitted that 200,000 people died of starvation between 1995 and 1998, but human rights activists believe that the death toll may be as high as 2 million.

Often, the only insight into life in North Korea comes from defectors, who flee the country by the thousands, most often across the border into China, where they seek asylum through a third country. In October, the private, bipartisan U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released an extensive report, based primarily on testimony from defectors, claiming that up to 200,000 political prisoners are currently detained in North Korea’s extensive gulag system, where slave labor and torture are rife. Some of those imprisoned in the camps had committed the offense of reading a foreign newspaper, or “not taking proper care of” a newspaper containing a photo of Kim Jong Il.

All televisions and radios in North Korea must be registered, and those sold or imported into the country are programmed to receive only official government broadcasts. Those who surreptitiously listen to shortwave broadcasts from South Korea, the Voice of America, or other international services risk imprisonment. In August, South Korean police foiled an attempt by human rights activists to use helium balloons to smuggle radios into North Korea that were programmed to the frequencies of international broadcasters.

North Korean journalists were allowed two rare opportunities to glimpse the world outside their borders in 2003. In August, reporters from state media outlets were allowed to attend the World University Games in Daegu, South Korea, which was organized to promote reconciliation between the two neighbors, which have technically been at war since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended without a peace treaty. The reporters themselves made news when they berated and punched protesters carrying placards denouncing Kim Jong Il, launching a 10-minute brawl that had to be broken up by armed riot police.

In October, the Reuters Foundation was allowed to hold an unusual weeklong workshop in Pyongyang on business news reporting for researchers and editors from the Korea Trade and Economy Institute. The participants are responsible for distributing financial news from Reuters and other sources to the business community in North Korea–an elite and privileged group that is allowed access to information forbidden to the general population. The workshop, led by two Reuters journalists, focused on reporting on free markets and introduced the participants to the concept of a press conference.