Supervised Access

North Korea masks deep censorship by admitting foreign reporters
By Jessica Jerreat

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s absolute grip on the flow of public information and deadly approach to dissent have made the country one of the most brutally censored in the world.

Table of Contents

Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

Kim, the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is the latest in a dynasty of dictators that have restricted citizens’ communications and access to independent news. The media is state-owned, with the official Central Korean News Agency serving as a government mouthpiece, and the regime metes out harsh punishments for anyone accused of accessing uncensored information or sharing news from countries that it considers its enemies.

In recent years there have been subtle changes in this dynamic that have incrementally opened the lines of outside communication. In 2012, The Associated Press was the first Western news agency to open a bureau in the capital, Pyongyang, and Agence France-Presse (AFP) announced in January 2016 that it would follow suit. Groups such as the North Korea Strategy Center, a self-described “defector-led” organization, also smuggle information into the country and try to broadcast the reality of the North Korean experience to an international audience.

The existence of a Western news bureau offers a glimmer of hope that the regime is becoming slightly less hostile to the idea of outside contact. Before 2012, the only outside bureaus belonged to North Korean allies such as China, and interviews with government officials were seldom granted. “Before the AP opened its bureau, there were virtually no images coming out of North Korea, let alone words,” said John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president and editor-at-large for standards.

A North Korean man walks past propaganda posters in Pyongyang, North Korea, that threaten punishment to the 'U.S. imperialists and their allies.' (AP/Kim Kwang Hyon)
A North Korean man walks past propaganda posters in Pyongyang, North Korea, that threaten punishment to the ‘U.S. imperialists and their allies.’ (AP/Kim Kwang Hyon)

Since the AP established its bureau, the agency has secured unprecedented interviews with high-ranking North Korean officials, including with the foreign minister Ri Su Yong in April 2016–his first with a Western news group. Though journalists are making such inroads, they caution that the North’s response is likely driven by a want for favorable coverage or to counter allegations and negative stories. Any concessions by the regime are largely inadvertent and actually belie worsening censorship.

And although the North may present a new sliver of openness to the outside world by experimenting with Western media relations, its own journalists remain strident propagandists, and advances in technology that could open up channels to independent news are fought with ever-stricter censorship measures. In addition to harsh penalties for anyone who tries to gain access to independent media, such as listening to foreign broadcasts, the North Korean government prevents access to the internet on computers and smart phones, and fosters a climate of fear through the pervasive use of surveillance.

The North’s media experiment is a one-way line and, as Daniszewski says, the country is “an extremely tough nut to crack.” International journalists may be allowed in, but their work is not accessible to the main population, for whom the grip of censorship has only tightened.

To many Korea observers, the partial thawing of relations is less about press freedom and more a case of strategic media management as the reach of internet and smartphones threatens to undermine the internal propaganda used to subdue dissent. The government also controls media access and imposes strict guidelines. When more than 100 foreign journalists were invited to cover the ruling party congress in May 2016, Bloomberg reported that their accompanying minders were insistent about what terms could and could not be used, and refused to translate overly critical questions.

Still, the feeling among journalists and Western observers is that some access is better than none.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of just being there and imbibing by osmosis, even though access is severely restricted and you are up against many challenges,” Daniszewski said. “For us, not just the AP but everyone, having a few independent reporters in the country on a regular basis provides a little more window on the country.”

Daniszewski, who was involved in the negotiations to set up the Pyongyang bureau when he was the AP’s vice president for international news, and Eric Talmadge, the bureau chief, say that by having a steady presence there the AP has been able to cover stories that would have been beyond reach.

The bureau is staffed by a small team of international correspondents and photographers who, under Talmadge, spend prolonged periods inside the country. The bureau also has a TV station and employs a few North Koreans primarily as fixers. In addition to being granted interviews with Ri and other high-ranking officials involved in foreign policy, the AP’s reporters have covered stories on everyday life in and around Pyongyang, including an off-beat piece on Pyongyang Zoo’s dog exhibit, and serious reports on developments in the capital and interviews with the parents of a group of waitresses detained in South Korea after allegedly fleeing the North.

Among the persistent drawbacks is that international journalists on assignment are always accompanied by government minders or–as the North Koreans describe it–“guides.” The host country says this setup protects foreigners in a country where strong anti-Western rhetoric is the norm.

“That’s their rationale,” Daniszewski said. “They say, ‘Well, it’s for your protection, because the people are hostile to you and they need to understand you are there with permission. I’m not buying it one way or the other. I’m not endorsing it, but that’s what they say.”

Anti-foreigner sentiments pose other obstacles to journalists beyond the government’s justification for using minders. Jean H. Lee, a former AP reporter who opened its Pyongyang bureau, said, “North Koreans are educated from an early age to consider Americans the enemy, so there were certainly many times when interview requests were denied.”

Talmadge, who took over the bureau in 2013, likens working in Pyongyang to being embedded with the military. “Obviously the context is quite different,” he said. “But in practical and psychological terms, I find it very similar to my experiences embedded in Afghanistan and Iraq.” As with a military embed, working in North Korea is strictly controlled. One big difference, Talmadge said, is the rationale behind how the U.S. military sets its rules for embeds. “Its attitude toward freedom of the press and its respect for and support of the work of journalists in general is obviously quite different from what I encounter in North Korea.” He added, however, that, “Like an embed, [reporting from Pyongyang] is one component of a broader set of reporting efforts, from other sources and places, aimed at providing the fuller picture.”

For Talmadge, gaining access to sources remains one of his biggest challenges. He and Daniszewski both said the process has been getting somewhat easier, and that interviews with high-ranking officials rely upon formats that are surprisingly open. However, “impromptu, unsupervised access to people who are not in official positions–the general populace–is a different matter,” Talmadge said. “I cannot simply go out and start talking to people as I would do in, say, Japan, where I spent most of my career as a journalist. This is frustrating and clearly limiting.”

North Korea also maintains control over which interview requests are granted, and requires the AP to provide an outline of interview questions in advance, though Talmadge said his reporting style has not changed. “I am free to deviate from those topics and generally do, either in follow-ups or completely different questions, as I would in any interview,” Talmadge said. “Whatever the interviewee says on the record is fair game, and they understand that.” He said that although he has to be accompanied by a “guide,” without one he doubts that anyone would be willing to speak with him.

Talmadge said that within the obvious constraints, he is generally able to work without interference. “I have never had a complaint about a quote, nor have I ever been asked to give officials or anyone else a preview of a story before it hits the wires,” he said.

The AP has been able to make inroads without compromising its journalistic ethics, Daniszewski and Talmadge said. “They don’t run things on their terms,” Daniszewski said. “For whatever reason, they have not tried to interfere with the content. I’m sure it’s well monitored and access is severely restricted, but it has not been a case where memory cards have been taken or any notebooks demanded.”

Journalists who have reported from inside North Korea’s borders can only speculate about the reasons the government is granting them greater access to officials, but the consensus is that it should not be construed as a meaningful improvement in its stance toward press freedom.

Kang Cheol Hwan, president of the North Korea Strategy Center, told CPJ by email, through a staff interpreter, that although foreign journalists were being allowed to open offices inside the country, the “government continues to control the information,” and any freedoms granted to AP reporters are denied to would-be independent journalists inside the country. He added that verifying information inside the country “is a challenge and can also be dangerous,” and highlighted the case of a BBC reporter who was questioned and then expelled in 2016 as evidence of the regime’s continuing efforts to control its image.

“Journalism in North Korea is run by the state,” Kang said. “All the articles are written essentially through the party. As such, there is no such thing as independent inquiry or freedom of expression for journalists in North Korea.”

Lee, the former AP reporter who is now a global fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, which focuses on global issues research and dialogue, echoed Kang’s view. She described North Korean journalists as being “proud to serve their country’s publications” and said most had graduated from the country’s most prestigious universities. “They see themselves as messengers of key party, military and government policy,” she said, adding that most articles they produce focus on Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials. Lee said the country’s press publishes little international news but that there are sections “devoted to reporting on South Korea and the U.S. –mostly anti-government protests or other controversies that fit the North Korean narrative about their enemy.”

By republishing foreign media reports that perpetuate its anti-Western propaganda and ensuring that only a select few have a less blinkered view of world events, the government retains and even intensifies the control of information within the country.

Objective political coverage and international news is still off limits, Lee said. Otherwise, she noted, the average North Korean reader’s tastes “are not unlike ours: Sports and entertainment are hugely popular.” North Korean citizens rarely have access to an actual copy of a daily newspaper, and though television is popular, viewers often do not have adequate electricity to watch from home. Instead, most read copies of papers posted on news boards across the city or watch TV in public areas. “You’ll often see people gathered outside Pyongyang’s main train station to watch the news on a huge screen on the plaza,” said Lee, who also teaches a class on North Korean media studies at Yonsei University in South Korea.

Kang said the party elite has access to international information through a secretive newspaper, Chango Sinmun (“Reference Newspaper”) that is circulated among the country’s high-ranking officials. The paper contains a wider range of reports on foreign affairs and politics than is available to the average citizen, with stories often sourced from Voice of America, Russia’s TASS agency, China’s state-run Xinhua, and NHK in Japan, Kang said. A segment about the newspaper broadcast by the South Korean station TV Chosun shows text on its front page stating it is for “authorized Party officials only.”

Kang added that the average citizen who wants uncensored news either illegally tunes into foreign radio or relies upon word of mouth. “Information passes through quite quickly in North Korea,” he said. “I’ve found that word-of-mouth is quite a reliable way of spreading information. North Koreans are very interested in critical information, but in a quiet way.”

Advances in communications technology are also changing how some North Koreans can gain access to news and information. Lee said the regime’s elite can subscribe to the party-affiliated newspaper Rodong Sinmun through their cell phones or can access news via the country’s intranet. As is the case with the secretive newspaper, access to the internet is highly restricted. Foreigners and Western media have access to Wi-Fi, but North Koreans who are granted permission usually have a specific task, such as monitoring coverage or researching information that can be vetted and later distributed by the state, according to Lee.

Kang described a “tension between how citizens are using technologies trickling into North Korea and how the North Korean government seeks to use and control them.” In his view, “The problem is that when ordinary people access these devices and technology, they are able to have some control and access to information that they want, rather than just information from the government.” A common complaint among ordinary citizens is that authorities remove the memory chips and SD cards from phones before issuing them, he said.

In keeping with Kim’s efforts on the home front to appear that he is at the forefront of technology–while actually tightening control–North Korea has developed its own range of smartphones, tablets and software programs, including Red Star 3.0, an operating system that mimics iOS, Kang noted. “Ultimately, these products were carefully designed to control and monitor information,” he said. Red Star 3.0 has surveillance capabilities, and the interface of the intranet, Kwangmyong, is set up to give the impression that the user has full internet access, though that is not the case. An analysis of Red Star’s capabilities by the tech-focused outlet Fast Company found that its approximately 5,000 web pages mostly contain propaganda. Kang added that the country’s Arirang smartphone “looks, feels and uses like a Samsung… but lacks the very component that makes a smartphone a smartphone. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, YouTube, Gmail and internet browser are non-existent.”

When researchers from the German security company ERNW studied Red Star 3.0, they found it contained sophisticated surveillance properties, Reuters reported. Among the findings: If a user tries to change any part of its programming, such as disabling a firewall, the software reboots, and it also tags every document, media file or flash drive connected to a computer. “It’s definitely privacy invading,” Florian Grunow, one of the researchers, told Reuters. “It’s done stealthily, and touches files you haven’t even opened.”

The surveillance capability is particularly concerning in a country where the trade of flash drives containing news and other information is one of the key ways for average citizens to access news. The North Korean Strategy Center is among the groups distributing flash drives loaded with news, films and practical advice in an effort to combat North Korean censorship. Sharon Stratton, the center’s program officer, told the Guardian the organization is careful not to include any media that criticizes the government because doing so would reinforce the “stereotype that the outside world is out to destroy North Korea.”

Kang said the content typically loaded on flash drives includes PDFs of South Korean newspapers, Wikipedia pages translated into the North Korean dialect, guides on how to run businesses, radio programs, and TV shows and films that show people running their own enterprises or about democracies. Movies such as The Romantic President, about South Korea’s democratic elections, and 12 Years a Slave and Lincoln, which cover the foundation of democracy in society, have also been included, he said.

Though internet access is severely restricted, the use of cell phones has been rising in North Korea thanks to a black market and porous border with China. Foreign visitors have been allowed to bring their cell phones into the country since 2013 and to use the 3G network, though the general population does not have the same level of access and is barred from making and receiving international calls, Lee said.

Anyone who seeks to buy a phone has to register with authorities, and rights groups including Amnesty International estimate only 3 million of the country’s population of 25 million currently have access to a phone. A 2016 report by Amnesty International on North Korea’s telecommunication trade said that anyone caught using a cell phone to contact a loved one who had fled risks being imprisoned. Buying a phone and SIM card on the black market is also dangerous and expensive. One North Korean who fled the country told Amnesty that SIMs could be bought for 100 yuan (US$16), which represents about a 10-month salary for an average worker.

Authorities have been quick to clamp down on such lines to the outside world through harsh new laws used to deter citizens from using cell phones. The Daily NK, which focuses on North Korea, reported in March 2014 that North Korea had added new clauses to Article 60 of the penal code– “attempts to overthrow the state” –which include a minimum penalty of five years of “re-education” and a maximum penalty of death for communicating with the outside world, including through cell phone contact, and 10 years of “reeducation” for watching South Korean media or listening to foreign radio.

Though a sentence of “re-education” pales in comparison with a death sentence, it is still a terrifying prospect. Kang has experienced firsthand the horrors of a North Korean prison camp. When he was nine, Kang was imprisoned in one of the brutal camps after his grandfather was accused of treason. In North Korea, up to three generations of a family can be forced into hard labor for a relative’s transgression. Radio Free Asia in 2016, citing testimony from three survivors of such camps (including Kang), and a former guard, reported that they are beset by inhumane conditions and physical and psychological torture are common, with detainees being beaten with branches and whipped by guards, forced to use their food bowls to collect human waste, denied rations and medical treatment, and encouraged to attack one another for failing to keep up with work quotas. The government denies the camps exist.

The expansion of such restrictions and the continuing intimidation of citizens who seek independent information are evidence that, despite its efforts to appear more open with Western media, the government is simply responding to the increasing availability of communications technology.

Even with the availability of censorship work-arounds, such as sharing flash drives loaded with news, Kang said, “Once North Koreans escape and resettle, it’s quite difficult for them to come to terms with the influx of information available to them.” The information overload was evident when North Koreans who, after fleeing, were provided with media training by the North Korea Strategy Center.

The idea behind the center’s journalism academy was to provide nascent North Korean journalists with media training both to enhance their ability to find work and to help them inform others on conditions inside the country. Between 2011 and 2014, 286 North Koreans, most of whom had only a middle school level of education, took part in the program, and 57 of the most talented progressed to one-on-one workshops that led to the publication of their stories in the Korean-language magazine Eyes of Pyongyang, which covers daily life under the Kim regime. Nine interns were also placed with outlets including Chosun Ilbo, Daily NK and North Korea Reform Radio.

“Adjusting to a more free style of reporting once they escape is very difficult,” Kang said. North Korean journalists, he said, “write from a purely ideological perspective. There’s no training in independent or critical thought or writing.” The trainees at the academy had to “essentially re-learn from the very beginning,” Kang said. “Both in style and mindset, and what is ‘newsworthy.'”

The need for such training illustrates the efficacy of the North Korean government’s unrelenting censorship efforts against its own citizens. And Western journalists caution that the government’s slightly softening approach toward them should not be viewed as a sea change. “I have not gotten any indication of an official shift in attitude toward more freedom of access,” Talmadge said. “I do believe some parts of the government itself are experimenting with more media contact.”

Daniszewski added, “When the AP started the bureau, I didn’t know if it would fall apart in six months or a year. So I have a lot of satisfaction that it has gone on for more than four years. Before, it was considered audacious and unprecedented that any Western news agency could have a toehold there. After four years I think it’s become normalized.” Though he acknowledged that North Korea is clearly different from countries “with a more liberal viewpoint about journalism,” he said that by having a regular presence, the AP has been able to build up contacts. “North Koreans never submitted to any kind of interviews before,” he said. “It’s been slow, incremental work but I think by being there, we’ve begun to change the environment for journalists.”

Lee shared that view, saying that part of the success of the bureau is that it allows AP reporters to spend more time on the ground. “Most foreign correspondents are lucky if they make one short trip organized by the government,” she said. “It’s very hard for first-time visitors to distinguish between the theater and the reality–and that is how the North Koreans prefer it.” Longer and more regular visits help “develop a solid understanding of what’s real and what is not,” she said.

The flip side, Kang said, is that although the arrival of the AP bureau has given “the world an unprecedented glimpse inside [North Korea’s] borders, they have no customers inside North Korea and the government continues to impose heavy restrictions on foreign journalists.”

And the danger of this slightly changing dynamic is that Western journalists also face risks when reporting from inside a country with a history of detaining foreigners. BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was detained and questioned for 10 hours in May 2016 after being accused of insulting the host country in his articles. In an account of his questioning, Wingfield-Hayes said he believed the government wanted to make an example of him, and before being expelled from the country, he was required to write a note of apology for his alleged transgressions.

Daniszewski said that freelancers and journalists who do not spend regular periods of time in North Korea should be cautious. Speaking generally about conditions for freelance journalists, he said North Korea “isn’t the kind of place where you are likely to be a victim of random violence or mugging, but it’s a highly regimented, centralized society that sees things on its own terms, and that can create risks.”

The opportunity to have a physical presence inside such an oppressive country is important, however, Daniszewski said. “I know that people criticize or feel it was not worth the effort,” he said, “but I believe in every case it is better to have some access than no access.”

Jessica Jerreat is senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She previously edited news for the broadsheet press in the U.K., including for the foreign desk of The Times of London, and at The Telegraph. She has a master’s degree in war, propaganda, and society from the University of Kent at Canterbury.