By Michèle Léridon
PYONGYANG—What will a global news agency do in one of the world’s most closed countries? The answer lies in the question itself. The fact that images from North Korea are so rare, and information coming out of the country is so meticulously and scrupulously controlled by the regime, is what makes both so precious. We have to be present here.
The necessity of reporting from inside became all the more apparent to me in early September, when I joined AFP CEO Emmanuel Hoog and the head of Asia region Philippe Massonnet in Pyongyang for the official opening of AFP’s Pyongyang bureau.
Because so little is known of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aside from the fact that it’s the world’s only Communist dynasty, all information becomes relevant—the patriotic songs played on Air Koryo, which takes us to Pyongyang from Beijing; the capital’s wide and immaculate thoroughfares, adorned with flowers; the young policewomen, with their spotlessly white hats and socks, regulating sparse traffic on the streets.
There are of course the omnipresent portraits of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s supreme leader from its establishment in 1948 to his death in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il, who took over to rule until 2011, and father to the current leader, Kim Jong-un. Drivers in Pyongyang slow down in front of the giant statues of the two historic leaders and billboards extol the virtues of the Juche, the country’s official doctrine of self-reliance.
The official propaganda is as omnipresent as the leaders’ portraits. Groups of women “volunteers” are posted at various intersections of the capital, the national red flag in hand, dancing and singing songs praising the “father of the nation” Kim Il-sung. Adult men and women—without exception—wear pins with Kim Il-sung’s image (an allowed variation is a rectangular pin with the image of both the country’s founder and his successor son). Television in one of the world’s most militarized countries plays, and replays, documentaries on the Korean war, a three-year conflict that erupted 66 years ago.
The information that a news agency can provide from a country as closed and tightly controlled as North Korea will be limited and tightly controlled. But to understand such a nation, we have to show images like the ones above. We also have to show as much as we are allowed to on daily life, and not only in the capital. All this will go a long way to help the world better understand a nation that is often thought about in cliches, and to witness any changes taking place.
Under an agreement reached in January with North Korea’s official news agency KCNA, to which AFP is a subscriber, our bureau in the country will include a North Korean photographer and videographer. Trained by AFP, they will produce images under the supervision of our Asia regional headquarters in Hong Kong.
When North Korea carried out a fifth nuclear test on September 9, widely condemned across the globe, these two correspondents quickly provided us with images from Pyongyang’s central train station, where a giant screen showed a smiling television news presenter announce the news, dressed in a traditional black and pink dress.
The January agreement will also allow AFP to send special envoys to the country more often. Aside from these reportages, North Korean stories will continue to be written and edited outside the country.
AFP is not the first world news agency to open a bureau in Pyongyang. Our one-room bureau lies within KCNA headquarters, which also hosts offices for Japan’s Kyodo and the US’ Associated Press, countries which along with France have not recognized DPRK.
We are of course aware of Pyongyang’s interest in opening bureaus like this in a pariah country, which is under severe international sanctions.
Our visit was scrupulously covered by the local press. We were treated to two separate articles in the Rodong Sinmun daily, which told its readers of our visit to the house where Kim Il-sung was born, where we “listened with attention to the glorious revolutionary history of the president and the patriotic lives of his family members.”
Rodong Sinmun’s readers did not, however, learn that a book on North Korea by French writer Philippe Pons that I had in my suitcase was confiscated when I arrived in Pyongyang. The explanation? “No work on the DPRK can enter the country.”
AFP is hoping that opening a bureau in Pyongyang will enable, however modestly, the inverse—information on DPRK to leave the country’s borders.