Submitted April 27, 2012 as my final paper for Journalism: Reporting Conflict (AMST30100) at UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies
Since the establishment of the deceptively-named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea after World War II, the North Korean government has deliberately kept the nation hidden in a cloud of secrecy and reclusion, keeping its citizens blocked off from the outside world and often acting erratically in foreign affairs engagements. The Workers’ Party, the strict, authoritarian ruling regime of North Korea, holds tight control over the country’s borders, citizens and media; this often leaves the Western world unaware or under-aware of the political and social situation in the country. Over the past several decades, the scarce pieces of information coming from the reclusive state have suggested a significant humanitarian and human rights crisis, with widespread famine and starvation afflicting inordinate numbers of North Korean citizens. The D.P.R.K. also intimidates western powers as one of the last Stalinist societies, retaining the anti-western stance of the defunct Soviet Union. While they don’t wield the capabilities of the former USSR superpower, they have demonstrated potentially aggressive ambitions and threatened nefarious international behaviors. Further complicating the issue, North Korea is currently experiencing significant organizational and political changes following the December 2011 death of Kim Jong-Il, the nation’s second Head of State. His death led to the abrupt transition of power to his young son Kim Jong-Un, thought to be only in his twenties. This instability has brought worldwide attention to North Korea, and over the past few months, the country has stayed in the headlines with a number of international events and incidents.
With all the changes and newsworthy stories streaming out of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, none have matched the perfect storm of international, domestic, historical, military, diplomatic, scientific and journalistic implications of North Korea’s attempt to launch a satellite into Earth’s orbit on Friday, April 13th 2012. Given the historical position of North Korea and their current state of flux, the Western media’s involvement in the launch of the D.P.R.K’s Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 satellite offered valuable insight into the status of the ruling regime and demonstrated how new media technologies have changed breaking news reporting. Developing over several weeks, this story raised and offered answers to important questions about North Korea and its relationship with the international community and media over several different stages. Along with the launch itself, the initial announcement, preparations and aftermath all proved interesting in a number of ways and kept the saga in the spotlight of the international news community. In their coverage of the event, news outlets demonstrated how of social media, multimedia, and other recent developments in journalism have changed the way developing and breaking news stories are reported and consumed in today’s digital world.
In North Korea, the ruling regime controls the media completely, limiting free speech and free press so severely that Reporters Without Boarders have ranked it either last or second-to-last in every edition of its annual Press Freedom Index. Within the country, the regime-controlled Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, operates and oversees virtually all media activity, including newspapers, radio, and television programming. This organization is known for being extremely biased towards the ruling party, having been described as taking “”little or no role in gathering and disseminating vital information true to facts.” All of the KCNA’s journalists are official members of the Workers’ Party, receive their journalism training from the party, must qualify as ideologically sound and must come from a politically sympathetic family in order to become journalists. Since almost no North Koreans are allowed access to the internet, the KCNA has a largely insignificant web presence; their single, very basic website is hosted on a server in Japan.
In a surprising and historic development, in January 2012 the Associated Press established the first North Korean international news bureau in Pyongyang, employing one journalist and one photographer, both natives of North Korea. Both employees have previous experience with the KCNA and were selected by the AP from a list of candidates offered to them by the North Korean government, which has led some experts to believe that, while they probably do have some journalism training, the correspondents are likely associated with North Korea’s secret police or intelligence agency. Aware of the difficulties associated with hiring North Korean nationals to report on their country for an international audience, the AP seems to be closely editing and monitoring the Pyongyang bureau’s content to eliminate unfairness. While the AP has gained a (debatably reliable) foothold in the country, organizations in neighboring regions have turned to citizen journalism to spread information and truth about the country. In order to spread information about the serious issues in North Korean society, the South Korea-based Daily NK recruits D.P.R.K. citizens who are brave enough to share information about their country when the government grants them trips to visit family in China or elsewhere. This practice is condemned by the Chinese government as well as the North Korean regime, but the Daily NK’s correspondents consider it their duty to spread the word about injustices occurring in the D.P.R.K..
The desperation exhibited by the Daily NK and the risks accepted by the AP in the establishment of the Pyongyang office both show the lengths at which outside media organizations are forced to go to collect information about North Korea. In today’s modern world, so much information is instantly accessible from anywhere in the globe, but even gathering the most basic knowledge about North Korean life requires covert, largely illegal operations that essentially smuggle news across the border. This complete radio silence shows the complete control and authoritarian power that the ruling regime wields over its citizens, and how hard they work to maintain their stark isolation from the rest of the world. Considering this dedication to information control and secrecy, extending an open invitation for western journalists to visit the country is a significant gesture, and that’s exactly what Kim Jong-Un’s government did in March 2012, weeks before the North Korean space program’s third attempt at launching a satellite into orbit.
North Korea’s Kwangmyŏngsŏng satellite program began with a first launch in 1998 and a second in 2009. Via the KCNA, their government announced that both satellites had successfully reached orbit and that they were transmitting information back to earth as designed, including broadcasts of the nationalist hymns “Song of General Kim Il-sung” and “Song of General Kim Jong-il.” However, on both occasions the global aerospace community found evidence that the satellites had failed, with neither registering on radar or other tracking devices. According to Russian officials, the satellite launched in 2009 only flew for 42 seconds, and their space control system showed that the satellite “simply is not there.” Their ability to report counterfactual information shows the unchecked power that the North Korean government holds within its borders, even as its failures are publically-known abroad. This history of truth-optional domestic reporting explains why the country would be so hesitant to cooperate with foreign media organizations seeking to report about North Korean society, as they could expose the KCNA’s false propaganda and undermine the regime’s power.
Just three months into his reign as head of the Workers Party in March 2012, Kim Jong Un’s government announced plans to launch a rocket carrying Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, an earth observation satellite, into orbit. The launch date was set for mid-April, to coincide with the 100th birthday celebration of Kim Il-sung, the founding leader of the D.P.R.K. While this announcement and schedule emphasized the nationalist symbolism of the event, making it a propaganda exercise, it also had serious implications as an aggressive foreign policy gesture. Much like the American and Soviet satellite launches during the Cold War’s Space Race, the North Korean satellite launch was publicized as a peaceful, scientific pursuit but carried serious military connotations, as launching an innocent satellite into outer space uses essentially the same technology as launching intercontinental ballistic missiles. This implication of the satellite launch as a potential display of North Korea’s military capabilities raised objections from countries and organizations around the world, especially the United Nations and United States, whose State department said “a North Korean launch of a satellite would be highly provocative.” This action contradicted an agreement that the United States and North Korea made in February, in which the U.S. offered the D.P.R.K. 240,000 metric tons of food aid in return for suspension of all nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. In the face of the accusations and the threat of their food aid being revoked, the North Korean government emphasized their peaceful intentions for the satellite launch and claimed that they “have the ‘right’ to peaceful access to space, as do all other nations.” To demonstrate their benevolent motivations for the launch, Kim Jong-un’s government extended an open invitation to Western journalists and media organizations to visit the launch site, an unexpected gesture from the usually secretive state.
When the western journalists entered North Korea in March 2012, party officials shepherded them carefully and limited their use of technology, but they were given enough freedom to capture rich, if not completely comprehensive stories. Visiting the launch site, the journalists were not allowed to carry wireless communication devices like laptops and cell phones, but they were permitted to shoot film clips of their tour and take photographs, which are now widely available online. These videos show their train ride through the relatively barren countryside as well as the launch pad and satellite-carrying rocket itself. The international spread of these images formed the central purpose of the rare media invitation, as Jang Myong Jin, head of the launch site instructed the journalists (and by extension, the western world): “If you look for yourselves with your own eyes, then you can judge whether it’s a ballistic missile, or whether it’s a launch vehicle to put a satellite into orbit.” This tremendous effort and exception to standard North Korean media protocol showed the party’s desperation to prove their innocence in the face of international accusations of aggression. This seems unusual for a country that has made blatant, undeniable and unrepentant aggressive actions in the past with their nuclear launches and threats towards South Korea, and points to the possibility that the U.S. revocation of its promised food aid poised a larger problem for the North Koreans than the West expected. In reaction to the D.P.R.K.’s displays of benevolence, rocketry expert Christian Lardier explained “today what we see is a space launcher,” but also pointed out “I don’t know what they want to do in the future.” While the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 launch may have been peaceful in nature, its success would still amount to a menacing demonstration of military power if successful.
Considering the customary guarded secrecy of the North Korean government, inviting journalists into the country represented a significant undoubtedly fully-calculated strategic maneuver. By taking this unexpected step, not only did the western world get a glimpse of the rocket (which the North Koreans could have disseminated themselves, albeit with less credibility), but they offered clues about the state of their nation. The regime likely wasn’t willing to let Western objections interfere with their national celebration as it would have been an unacceptable and unprecedented sign of weakness and deference for Kim Jong-un, who is desperate to establish himself as a steadfast leader in his father’s absence. However, the lengths they took to prove the non-military function of their missile shows a certain level of concession to the accusations, especially the threatened withholding of food aid from America. CNN captured this paradox in video footage embedded on their website, in which correspondent Stan Grant asked the head of the launch site if they considered the satellite more important to the nation than food, only receiving a swift end to the interview in response.
While the media presence in North Korea gave the West rare clues about the stability of North Korean society, the event also gave the online news ecosystems a chance to demonstrate the changes in how outlets report breaking news in today’s digitized society. According to official sources, the Unha-3 rocket intended to carry the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 into orbit was launched at 7:39am Korean Standard Time, which equates to 11:39pm Western European Time. At 11:54 European time, only fifteen minutes later, the Reuters wire service bureau in India announced on their Twitter feed that the North Koreans had disobeyed international warnings and launched their satellite. This tweet reached the bureau’s 69,719 followers on the social network. Three minutes later, at 11:57, the Reuters “Top News” Twitter feed broke the story, citing the South Korean television station YTN as a source, and confirming the launch five minutes later at 12:02am. These tweets reached appeared on the homepages of Reuters’ 1,674,218 Twitter followers. Other news outlets began reporting the rocket’s launch on their own feeds almost immediately after Reuters broke the story, with CNN tweeting to the 7,238,553 followers of its “breaking News” feed at 12:01, The New York Times tweeting to 4,917,687 followers at 12:08, the Wall Street Journal tweeting to 1,657,986 at 12:10 and the BBC tweeting to 3,039,367 followers at 12:14. While many Twitter users may follow more than one of these outlets, news of the satellite launch appeared on Twitter homepages around the globe a staggering 18,597,530 times within 35 minutes of its liftoff in the North Korean countryside. This blinding quickness and massive spread shows the powerful capabilities of the internet, and specifically social media, as a channel for instant personal delivery of breaking news to previously inconceivable numbers of consumers.
At 12:17pm, Three minutes after the BBC’s tweet announcing the launch in North Korea, Reuters followed up with the first tweet announcing the rocket’s failure, with the other outlets following soon after. The failure of this much-anticipated event took the story in an unexpected direction, as North Korea’s propaganda effort and nationalist celebration became, as one global security expert described it, “a humiliation” for the country. As the feared demonstration of military capability became a display of North Korea’s weakness, the regime found itself in an extremely unfavorable position and the global Twitter community (predictably) erupted with jokes at their expense, including several off-color tweets likening the failure to sexual impotence.
The publicity surrounding the launch, which was partially fueled by North Korea’s invitation to journalists and inevitable due to today’s missile-tracking technology and information-spreading tools, forced D.P.R.K. officials to admit their failure, even doing so to their own citizens in a KCNA television broadcast. Because of the swift Twitter coverage, trying to insist that the failed rocket had reached orbit, as they had with their first two satellites, wasn’t a viable option. Analysts also accredited the public admission of failure to policy changes of the new leadership, explaining that “it would have been unthinkable for them to admit this kind of failure in the past” and reasoning that, because of its large implications about North Korea’s foreign perception, “the admission had to come from Kim Jong-un.” Chico Harlan, the East Asian correspondent for the Washington Post, noted on Twitter that many North Koreans may find the announcement of failure perplexing, because according to their media resources “there has been no failure in the history of North Korea.” This shows how unprecedented and unusual this admission of failure really was in the context of North Korea’s projections of its own image. Furthermore, telling North Koreans within the border about the failure seems to imply that the regime is no longer confident in their ability to shield their citizens from foreign information, another sign of their instability.
Without the western media’s involvement, the saga of North Korea’s failed launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 would not have had nearly as many significant international consequences. With the media landscape in the D.P.R.K. completely dominated by the ruling regime and newly-formed foreign wire service bureaus being staffed by state-selected journalists with questionable allegiance, North Korea isn’t usually known as a nation where journalists can play a significant role in society. In light of this closed media environment, the motivating factors behind the decision to invite western journalists into the country to view the preparation of the rocket, which related heavily to their threatened loss of food aid from the United States, hinted at the problems that North Korean society faces (but the tight-lipped regime will never admit to). Upon the rocket’s launch, the media showed the power of new media as a tool for circulating breaking news, as word of the launch and subsequent failure of the satellite spread around the internet and the globe at lightning speed, with information spreading far faster than North Korea could ever be able to control. This demonstrated how changes in technology have changed the way the world reports and consumes breaking news stories. It also shows the implications that this rapid information spread has for the parties involved, as word of the missile’s malfunction had spread so far around the world that the North Korean regime wasn’t able to deny its misfire, even to its own sheltered citizens. With its admission of failure, the D.P.R.K. showed not only its futility in combating the international media, but also a change in information policy with their seeming acknowledgement of that futility, which could point to a different North Korea in the future under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. Above all, it shows the power of information and the importance of news reporting in our society, two important influences on our world that North Koreans have been denied access to for over a half-century.
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