AIWA! NO!|Following the abrupt collapse of his nuclear summit with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, President Trump, addressing reporters in Hanoi, said he walked because North Korea wanted full sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearization. It was a concession, Trump said, that the United States could not make. Later in the day, at a rare news conference, Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied Trump’s account, saying that his country asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions. In America, commentators argued over why Trump’s strategy failed, and whether he was right to bail. In North Korea, there was no such debate. State media glossed right over the collapse of the summit, describing it as an event of “great significance” that furthered “mutual respect and trust.”
Since Trump entered the office, US relations with North Korea have swung between extreme hostility and unlikely rapprochement. In two meetings with Kim, Trump has broken diplomatic ground. Yet the international reporters covering North Korea have little idea what Kim’s regime is really thinking, or—at moments like this one—what it might do next. At this week’s summit, Kim, for the first time ever, took questions from Western reporters; his answers were short and terse, though they were symbolically important, and offered some (albeit limited) insight into the situation. But now that the summit is over, the normal silence will resume.
The information climate of North Korea is dire. For the past two years, Reporters Without Borders has ranked it the worst country in the world for press freedom. The state controls the internet; citizens caught accessing foreign media are sometimes sent to concentration camps. The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse have established bureaus in the country, in conjunction with state media, yet foreign reporters are tightly controlled. Before the summit, Andrew McCormick, my CJR colleague, spoke with journalists about their experiences covering North Korea. Several of them described it as “a black box.” The constant challenge, Simon Denyer, Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, said, was resisting the temptation to provide complete narratives and limiting oneself to what is actually knowable.
In the absence of reliable sources, reporters, as well as academics and other experts, have had to get creative. In 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that American scholars in Seoul fed North Korean state media through a high-powered mathematical engine for clues about the regime’s plans. Doug Bock Clark wrote for The New Yorker that advances in commercial satellite photography have allowed civilian think tanks to source their own imaging of North Korea’s nuclear sites. A month after Trump and Kim’s first summit, in Singapore, Joby Warrick, a Post reporter, turned to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies to verify a tip from an intelligence source. Analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and 38 North, a news-site-think-tank hybrid with a roster of high-powered experts, has been widely cited in the press.
These sourcing workarounds have been useful in challenging the Trump administration’s official narrative that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. With talks now collapsed, the value of such sleuthing is even higher. But satellite cameras can only see Kim’s test sites, not inside his head.
Below, more on North Korea:
- Thumbs up: The Post’s David Nakamura became the first foreign reporter to ask Kim a question on Wednesday. “Once he began to speak, in his surprisingly deep voice, the Disney-like veneer faded,” Nakamura writes. “The bubble had been pierced, a reclusive control freak had revealed something, however small—the fundamental currency between a reporter and his subject had been exchanged.”
- “The risk of nuclear war”: In 2017, with tensions between the US and North Korea running high, Evan Osnos was granted access for what became a terrifying piece in The New Yorker. “In eighteen years of reporting, I’ve never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody—not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject—is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks,” he wrote.
- Diplomatic overture: Last year, Evan Ramstad, a former Journalreporter in Seoul, wrote for CJR on his coverage of a New York Philharmonic goodwill concert in North Korea in 2008. “Competitive news organizations lower their reporting standards in return for access to a place that is exotic, scary, bizarre and even entertaining,” he observed. “Unfortunately, often enough, it has been able to count on journalists’ shortcuts and short memories for some extra polishing of its reputation in the world.”
- Covering the Koreas: In our Fall 2018 magazine, E. Tammy Kim wrote about the role of the world press in shaping diplomacy with North Korea. In South Korea, the administration of Moon Jae-in “worries that its peace-first approach to North Korea could be undermined by the American media’s cynicism.”
PSA: The Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia Journalism School is offering two $10,000 fellowship opportunities. Fellows work under Jelani Cobb, the Center’s director and a staff writer at The New Yorker, to report a 5,000-word story or series linked to civil and human rights. For information on how to apply, click here.