Foreign Affairs

Digging beneath the surface of North Korea

The first US journalist to set up a bureau in North Korea talks about what most media miss when they report on the country, and whether peace talks stand any chance of success.

Growing up, Jean Lee always wanted to report on Korea.

Born and raised in the United States to parents who were themselves born in Korea when it was still one country, journalistic acumen ran through her blood - her grandfather was a well-known member of the South Korean press.

But it was not the South, but the North where Lee ended up making a name for herself.

Now the director of the Korea Center at American think tank the Wilson Center, in 2011 Lee became the first US journalist granted significant access on the ground in North Korea.

“My boss made it even tougher on my first day at work: he said, ‘Actually what we want you to do is open an office, a news bureau [for the Associated Press] in Pyongyang’,” she tells Newsroom during a New Zealand visit.

“We had until that point been reporting on it fairly exclusively from the outside, so I was given the challenge of trying to get on the ground and I really had no choice but to try to carry it out.”

While there were ethical reasons for staying out of the country given its dictatorial regime, Lee says the insights that could be gained from bypassing the steady stream of propaganda to the outside world and seeing North Koreans going about their everyday lives made inside access worthwhile.

“Every month, I asked to see a prison camp, every month, I asked to see a nuclear site - those things did not happen. Every month, I asked to interview Kim Jong-un - that did not happen."

Of course, working as a journalist based within North Korea was not particularly easy, with everything from a walk to an interview with a farmer requiring negotiation.

“I’ve never encountered a place as fascinating and as frustrating as North Korea, when there’s so much that you want to see and explore and understand but there’s so much that’s kept hidden away from you.”

Her bureau bid benefited from fortuitous timing, with an ailing Kim Jong-il trying to forge a better relationship with the US before his death, and once she had a foot in the door Lee invested time in training staff, building relationships and earning trust.

That won her benefits that other journalists, flown in on government-organised trips for some of the same assignments, didn’t receive: being allowed to take her phone into a briefing, or walk around on her own. But not every request was a success.

“Every month, I asked to see a prison camp, every month, I asked to see a nuclear site - those things did not happen. Every month, I asked to interview Kim Jong-un - that did not happen, but I do hope that I’ve laid the path there are other journalists who will keep pushing and eventually be able to do those things.”

US analyst and former journalist Jean Lee was the first American reporter to open up a bureau in Pyongyang. Photo: Supplied.

Kim Jong-un’s push for peace with US President Donald Trump also follows a path laid down by his predecessors as Supreme Leader.

Lee says Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung had both at points tried to sign landmark deals with their American counterparts even though their stand-off with the United States was so central to their foreign policy and ideology.

Kim Jong-il’s death before striking a deal left his son Kim Jong-un unready to follow his approach, instead reverting to hostilities.

“He needed to be stronger, and his path to strength was to build nuclear weapons. In order to justify pouring those resources into nuclear weapons he needed a conflict, and so that meant he had to raise tensions with the United States.”

Lee says his switch to diplomacy was again a strategic move, perfecting his nuclear weapons then using that arsenal to force the US to the negotiating table: “He read the situation very cleverly.”

She is less complimentary about Trump’s tactics, “in the sense that with diplomacy you typically see a summit as being the culmination of diplomacy rather than the start”, but says the talks are still worth pursuing given the stakes.

If Trump can bring the world out of what has been an incredibly dangerous situation, then [peace talks] will have been worth it. “Will he be able to do that? I don’t know, and I’m sceptical.”

“Japan and South Korea do not want to live with the threat of nuclear war, a nuclear holocaust, and so they would like to see that programme constrained.”

The downside of the talks, however, is that Trump has given Kim Jong-un “enormous credibility and legitimacy, simply by meeting with him”.

“Perhaps he feels that’s necessary in order to give Kim Jong-un the strength he needs to continue, and I acknowledge there’s a strategy to that, but...the risk is that it makes him stronger, a more emboldened leader and that will make him tougher to deal with.”

If Trump can bring the world out of what has been an incredibly dangerous situation, then it will have been worth it. “Will he be able to do that? I don’t know, and I’m sceptical.”

From cartoon to overcorrection?

The media is not blameless in giving a boost to Kim’s regime either.

During another New Zealand visit five years ago, Lee was critical of coverage which turned North Koreans into caricatures, such as the (false) report that the country’s university students had been ordered to have the same haircut as Kim Jong-un.

She says reporting has improved since then, in part due to the North Korean leader’s decision to make himself more available to the world at large.

“It’s tough to acknowledge...but it was a brilliant political move for him to make the decision to step out internationally, because it made him a much more real figure to the outside world, and particularly to South Koreans who had no real sense of who he was.”

But if earlier reporting was too cartoonish, the pendulum may now have swung too far in the other direction: “We’re giving him a little too much legitimacy, and treating him too much like a normal leader when he’s not.”

Reporting on the growth of consumerism and technology in Pyongyang may be interesting, but it glosses over the fact that North Korea remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with many suffering from malnutrition and a lack of access to the basics of life.

“If we only show a picture of the elites, the population of two million that live inside the capital, then we’re missing 90 percent of the population - and most of those people lead very different lives, very difficult lives.”

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