Dateline: PyongyangOct. 2, 2012
Thank you for that kind introduction. And thank you to the Halle Institute for the opportunity to talk with you.
While I'm thanking people, I'd also like to salute my old friend Hank Klibanoff, whose news instincts have always been sharp and swift. We were still unpacking from the trip to open AP's new bureau in Pyongyang when Hank was on the phone asking if I'd come here to Emory to talk about it.
It was brisk and clear on Jan. 16 when we stood in front of the newest AP office and hung the sign that proclaimed, in two languages: AP Bureau, Pyongyang.
Inside were desks, chairs, a sofa and some North Korean folk art hung on freshly plastered and painted walls. The AP journalists were testing their computers and cameras and trying out Korean and American slang.
The presidents of The Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency beamed, shook hands, drank a toast and sat down for interviews with AP and KCNA journalists about the historic opening.
Just a month earlier, we weren't sure we'd see that day.
On Dec. 17, a good number of AP's news leaders were gathered in our Beijing bureau finalizing the last little details before heading to Pyongyang to open the bureau. We were taking in everything needed to furnish the bureau -- boxes and suitcases filled with cameras, computers, AP letterhead, office supplies and lots of little extras like electric teapots and small fans.
We also had a shopping list for the Beijing airport duty free store, including champagne to celebrate the opening. After we realized we had no glasses for champagne, two of us sped off to the Beijing Walmart, where we battled holiday shoppers to snag the last 13 flutes to be had.
At last, we were ready for Monday's flight to Pyongyang and the planned festivities.
It had been a whirlwind year of negotiations and visits between AP and KCNA executives in Pyongyang, Beijing and New York. Both agencies were committed to the goal of opening an AP text and photo bureau in Pyongyang, but there were plenty of bumps along the way.
The United States and North Korea -- the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- do not have diplomatic relations. And while that doesn't govern how the AP decides where to open a bureau, it does complicate things.
We are a not-for-profit international news cooperative with a headquarters in New York. We could argue all day long that we are independent of the U.S. government -- because we are -- and seeking only to report fairly and objectively on life in the DPRK. But we all carried American or British passports and we often fought the expectation that we were promoting an American political agenda.
KCNA is a part of the government in DPRK, its mission is the promotion of the country, its leaders and its way of life, and it is very proud of that mission.
Our business models, fair to say, were different.
There were cultural differences as well. Few people have visited the DPRK and few of its citizens have traveled abroad in recent decades. President George W. Bush called the country part of an axis of evil. North Korean school children are taught that Americans are to be feared and hated because they seek to destroy the DPRK.
We were strangers to each other.
Yet, for the most part, the North Koreans we met were hospitable, proud of their capital city and their country, gracious and, after we spent a little time together, warm and witty people.
And that is one of the reasons we wanted to have a bureau of AP journalists in North Korea.
To show the world what it is like there.
How do people get to work, what work do they do? How do they celebrate birthdays, what do they do for fun, what do their homes look like, what is the countryside like and how is that different from the capital city? What do they do when they are sick? Hungry?
We also figured that over time, we would gain a better understanding of the leadership, how the country sees itself in the wider world and how it might be changing in the years ahead.
It is one of the last unexplored nations on the planet. Who wouldn't want to go there?
So we did.
At this point, you're probably curious about the food, because that's what everyone asks about.
Clearly our experiences were not the norm, but perhaps indicative of what is available to visitors and some city residents.
There was plenty of food served in restaurants where Pyongyang residents and scattered foreigners dined.
There were a handful of international restaurants, but most serve North Korean cuisine, which is quite varied and delicious.
One day we went to a newly opened pizza restaurant with sourdough crusts that our North Korean colleagues found, well, very sour and kind of heavy.
Some of us, and I count myself in this number, developed an affection for the city's signature dish: Pyongyang cold noodles ... buckwheat noodles served in a flavorful chilled broth topped with a few thin slices of meat, egg, pickles and vegetables. You can oomph up the flavor by adding vinegar and mustard.
People discuss such dishes in great detail ... the quality of the buckwheat, where it was grown, the best water for the broth and so on.
Street restaurants and several grocery stores can be found in Pyongyang, but it's clear they are not options for everyone. Especially when you get out of the capital city, as our journalists have been able to do several times in the past year.
Present at every business meal is Soju, the potent rice-based liquor that is served in small stemmed glasses that are meant to be drained with every toast. Most of us who visited North Korea are familiar with adult beverages, but we were challenged to keep up with our hosts.
Indeed, keeping up was seen as a gesture of collegiality and we were sometimes at pains to balance our desire to break down communication barriers with our tolerance for strong adult beverages.
Music often helped us through those thorny bits. The North Koreans love to sing and many we met had splendid voices. They could break into tunes a cappella or with the ever-present thrumming karaoke machine. It would be fair to say that in a sing-off, the KCNA team would wax the AP team every time.
Not even close.
We didn't sing so much when we hosted the KCNA team in New York in July of last year. The usual tourist haunts were visited and we all enjoyed a baseball game at the new Yankee Stadium with several of us trying to explain the game's many and complex rules to folks who had never seen a game before.
During those visits back and forth and numerous other trips to Pyongyang to sort out details, we began to think the new AP bureau was going to be possible.
It wouldn't be AP's first .... six years earlier, AP's international video division, then called AP Television News or APTN, had opened a video bureau in Pyongyang, a process that had a lot to do with the fact that APTN is based in London, not the United States.
The North Korean video journalists are based in the Korea Radio and Television office in Pyongyang and are supervised by Raf Wober, a talented AP producer who travels monthly to DPRK from his base in Hong Kong.
All of that explains why we were hopeful as we loaded up the boxes and bags and headed to the Beijing airport on Dec. 19 for our afternoon flight to Pyongyang. Everything was checked and we were about to board the flight when suddenly, our phones exploded with a shocking bulletin from Pyongyang: The country's leader, Kim Jong Il, was dead.
The flight was about to leave, so we stayed on and headed on to Pyongyang. Our Korea bureau chief, Jean Lee, interviewed some of the North Koreans on the flight, Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder made some pictures, and we hoped to file more after we landed.
Instead, we were on the ground less than an hour. The country, reeling from the shock, was not prepared for any kind of celebration and we were asked to return to Beijing with assurances that the project would move forward at the appropriate time.
As we got back on the plane, we wondered when that would be.
Meanwhile our journalists already in Pyongyang had plenty to do covering the death, the transition of power to Kim Jong Un and attempting to understand what all that would mean for the country, its people and its relationship with the rest of the world. Raf Wober, that Hong Kong-based producer I mentioned, was already in Pyongyang, the only foreign journalist working in the country during that period.
Our North Korean journalists -- the two video journalists who work with Raf and the photographer and reporter we had just hired -- had their hands full and worked nonstop for the entire month.
And when the official mourning period was over in mid-January, we were invited back and the bureau was opened as scheduled.
It's important that you understand that in all the travel and meetings and negotiations for the bureau, we were upfront and firm about one thing:
We would not change how we gather and report news in return for a bureau.
We would only open a bureau if we were allowed to operate as we do in all 300 AP locations. And we intended to cover the country factually, fairly and extensively.
We expected our approach to put us in conflict from time to time with both the government of DRPK and our hosts at KCNA. We even talked about that with them.
As we expected, we have had some disagreements and we will certainly have more.
How is it going?
Pretty well so far. We've traveled to a number of places in the city and out in the countryside, where few foreigners go.
We watched several kindergarten classes where children were learning to hate Americans, though they were perfectly nice to our American journalists.
We have chronicled a growing consumer culture in Pyongyang, where shoppers try out a Chinese-funded supermarket and ride escalators up to floors filled with brightly colored sweaters and shoes.
We have been at the many mass games and celebrations that are a key part of public life there and images from one of those helped identify Kim Jong Un's female companion as his wife, Ri Sol Ju.
Our reporting on North Korea also draws on AP staff expertise outside the country.
Some fruits of that teamwork: We reported on the unexpected dismissal of North Korea's powerful army chief and were first with news and photos of the replacement.
We explained how this spring's failed rocket launch shows that Pyongyang is a long way from producing a nuclear weapon that can threaten the United States. And by examining the photos of an April military parade, we revealed that the missiles shown were in fact fake.
We introduced the world to North Korea's first-ever Paralympian, a swimmer who doesn't live in North Korea and, until a few months ago, didn't know how to swim.
Inside the country, we reported exclusively from a collective farm and learned of upcoming changes to the country's collective farming policy. Farmers will now get to keep part of their harvest, a development similar to changes China made in the 1970s.
That trip also gave us some rare images of a farmer inside her home ... spartan, clean and neat.
We're learning more about the country and its people at a time of change under Kim Jong Un. How much change? Hard to say yet.
And while there is far more than we want to know and understand, more people we'd like to interview, there is no denying it's a fascinating time to be on the ground.
And that's just what journalists should be doing.
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