Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Foreign media in North Korea: openness or propaganda?

North Korea, one of the most secretive nations on Earth, has invited nearly 200 foreign journalists and thrown open the doors of its space programme in a dramatic gesture seen as either a propaganda campaign or a new era of openness. Officially, the unprecedented invitation to such a large number of reporters coincides with celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary Sunday of the birth of the communist country's founding father Kim Il-Sung.

But the main draw is the firing of a rocket to launch a satellite in honour of the first leader, who was succeeded after his death in 1994 by his son Kim Jong-Il, who in turn was succeeded in December by heir Kim Jong-Un. The United States and regional allies South Korea and Japan accuse North Korea of preparing to carry out a disguised ballistic missile test in breach of UN resolutions.

To counter these accusations, North Korea for the first time allowed dozens of foreign journalists on Sunday to visit the Tongchang-ri space centre in the northwest of the country, where they saw the satellite and the Unha-3 rocket. On Wednesday they were treated to another unprecedented visit to the mission control centre in a suburb north of the capital Pyongyang.

James Oberg, a former NASA engineer who is one of several space consultants also invited to North Korea, visited Tongchang-ri with an NBC television crew. "I believe that this is not a military shot," he told his North Korean hosts in front of the cameras. French space expert Christian Lardier, another of the analysts invited by the North Koreans, agreed that they had shown the press a space launch vehicle and a satellite. "But the fact remains that the first two stages of the rocket use ballistic missile technology, as is often the case," he said.

An irritated US State Department on Tuesday voiced concern that foreign media might be "playing" into North Korean propaganda by visiting to cover the launch. "Our concern obviously would be that the North Koreans would use this for propaganda purposes and that... news organisations that cover it extensively might be playing into that," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "But it's obviously your call how to cover this thing," she told reporters. During both visits to the space facilities, North Korean media filmed and photographed the foreign journalists. State television station KRT has frequently broadcast those images, with a commentary saying the foreign reporters were convinced that North Korea would carry out a civilian satellite launch.

During both visits, officials said the "transparency" of these operations was ordained by new leader Kim Jong-Un, who this week has been named head of the ruling Workers' Party and the all-powerful Central Military Commission. But professor Yang Moo-Jin, at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said he did not believe it showed a real opening up of the secretive regime.

"The North is seeking to declare the opening of a new era under Kim Jong-Un's leadership amid the international spotlight," he told AFP. "Domestically, it is using this chance as a propaganda stunt, telling North Koreans that Kim and North Korea, which is becoming a 'prosperous and powerful socialist state', is now at the centre of the world's media attention." But Baek Seung-Joo, a North Korea expert at the state-financed Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said the apparent transparency might just be genuine. "The North, although boasting of the planned rocket launch, is afraid of getting isolated and condemned by the international community. They want to use the international press to show to the world how open they are," he said.

"The unprecedented openness also indicates the new leadership under Jong-Un may be more open-minded about interacting with the outside world, compared to Kim Jong-Il," he said. The new openness has its limits, however. As always on trips to North Korea, reporters have to be accompanied by a guide whenever they venture out of their Pyongyang hotel. The minders have been keen to take the reporters on guided tours of duck farms and the like. The media have been keener for a glimpse of the capital's streets as residents rehearse for Sunday's centenary celebration.

The minders on Thursday granted reporters a tour of a city department store and bowling alley. No photography or filming was allowed in the store, which was stocked with imported goods for sale only to holders of foreign currency.

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