The Associated Press, the American news agency whose reports appear in nearly 2,000 papers, opened a permanent bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea, at the beginning of last week, only a few weeks after Kim Jung Il died and was replaced by his son, Kim Jung On. It is the first time that a Western media agency has had a full-service bureau in that country.
Although the opening of the bureau, which will employ two local journalists and several American staffers, was very exciting for AP and for journalism in general, it has also been criticized. Questions have been raised about whether the reporters will be subject to censorship or manipulated by the North Korean regime, particularly given the fact that they are sharing an office with the Korean Central News Agency, which is a mouthpiece of the regime.
AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski, who is responsible for international news, dismisses the criticism. Speaking to Haaretz from his New York office, Daniszewski called the opening "a very happy occasion" and explained why the agency had taken this controversial step.
He stressed that reports will not be censored but conceded that reporters' access would be limited at this point, though he hoped that will change with time.
The first exclusive story that the North Korean bureau filed was an interview with Politburo member Yang Hyong Sop. During the interview, Yang tried to reassure the West that North Korea was more stable than ever and that its new young leader, Kim Jung Un, was experienced and the country was in good hands.
Such articles are likely to reinforce the doubts, but Daniszewski views the interview as an achievement.
"It's extraordinary, by any measure, to interview a senior North Korean official," he said. "It's rare that there's an opportunity to ask them questions. It's better to be there than not to be there. We of course hope that as we remain for a longer period of time, as in Cuba, the habits will change and there will be a degree of normalization."
Prof. B.J. Lee of Sookmyung University in Seoul is less optimistic. He believes that relations between a news agency operating under Western standards and a dictatorial regime are likely to be problematic.
"[AP] would like to get any information possible out of the North Korean government. But of course, the North Korean government has so many things to hide at this point," he told the Voice of America.
Daniszewski isn't worried about somehow being a pipeline for transferring information that will serve Pyongyang's agenda.
"For us, to tell the story is the important thing," he said. "What people do with the information is not our responsibility. The reporter's job is to tell the story. Of course we are concerned about being manipulated, but we will try to operate according to our standards."
He said he was not worried about the safety of the journalists who will be working in the bureau.
"My first assumption is that they won't do them any harm," he said. "As in other places, it's possible they may expel them or deny them a visa. I have no particular concerns about our American reporters. The Koreans, I assume, will work according to the rules they're familiar with. I'm much more concerned about places where there are terror attacks and violence, like for example Israel or the Middle East."
AP hopes that some of its reporters will find their way to the people of North Korea, either directly or through China. "I think the main point is that this is really a starting point and we very much want it to work over time," Daniszewski said. "We've opened the door a little."
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