Pyongyang Seen as Possible Testing Ground for Change

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Jean Lee during her talk. Photo; Rita Sevell

Jean Lee during her talk. Photo; Rita Sevell

The OPC will continue the dialog on North Korea's future on Monday, December 3 with panelists Hannah Song, Sue Mi Terry, Stephen Noerper and moderator Melanie Kirkpatrick. Learn more about the event >>



Jean H. Lee, the Associated Press bureau chief in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, on October 19 offered an audience at Columbia University a series of AP pictures of apparent change in North Korea. Nearly everyone in Pyongyang, with a population of about 1 million, now has cell phones that they use to play games and take photos. Large screen televisions have appeared in public places. An electronics shop is offering a DVD of the “101 Dalmatians.” Amusement parks and mini golf courses have popped up. The Pyongyang Department Store sells Minnie Mouse bras and platform shoes. But do these and other changes portend that Kim Jong-un, the third generation of the Kim family who took power a year ago, is going to undertake sweeping changes in his isolated country that will improve the standard of living for his people and mark an opening to the outside world, much as Deng Xiaoping achieved in China? “It’s still very early in this leadership,” Lee said. “Whether this represents systematic change is not clear.”

Even though the images and words that the AP produces from Pyongyang are clearly shaped and influenced by the regime, Lee defended her bureau’s presence against accusations from media critics that it is serving the interests of a brutal regime rather than investigating the truth about starvation and a vast gulag system. “Some critics don’t want us there,” she said. “But isn’t it better that we are there? We try to get on the ground to see what’s happening. We have to flesh out the narrative.”

Lee was born in the United States to a Korean-American family but joked that she failed her language classes at Korea school. After years of covering North Korea from the AP’s Beijing bureau, she is quickly learning the North Korean variation of the Korean language.

Lee is a graduate of Columbia’s journalism school, hence her appearance at an event co-hosted by the journalism school as well as the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Center for Korean Research, the APEC Study Center and the National Committee on North Korea. The room was packed to capacity. She was based in London for five years before being transferred to Beijing with the assignment to start covering the Koreas.

APTN, the television arm of the AP, opened a bureau in Pyongyang in 2006, but the wire service itself did not open a full bureau until January 2012, making it the first Western news agency to have a full-time presence. Lee has hired a North Korean photographer and relies on North Korean guides to help her move around the country and obtain access, so she is deeply aware of how her efforts are circumscribed. When Kim launched a rocket test that failed, the large television screens in Pyongyang were silent about it. It was only because Lee has Internet and telephone connections with the outside world that she learned of the failure. “Sometimes you know less inside the country than you do outside,” she said.

One great difficulty is understanding the difference between Pyongyang and the countryside. Rural regions have been stripped of trees and farmers are thin and hungry. Some rely on the burning of wood to fuel their agricultural vehicles because petroleum isn’t available. Lee visited one commune where she was told that Kim has promised farmers that he would relax the policies requiring them to give all crops to the government, but nothing has been announced to confirm the policy change.

In contrast in the capital, Skippy Peanut Butter and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer are available in a supermarket joint venture with the Chinese. The Chinese presence, as well as the presence of ethnic Koreans from Japan and China, means that the Western embargo against Pyongyang is largely meaningless. Other products are available from Singapore, Malaysia and Singapore. The North Koreans in the capital are flocking to new karaoke bars and the flights into and out of Pyongyang to Beijing are fully booked. It might be that the Kim regime is using the capital city as an experiment as it flirts with Chinese-style reforms. If they suddenly are preceived as representing a threat, they can be choked off.

The OPC will continue the dialog on North Korea's future on Monday, December 3 with panelists Hannah Song, Sue Mi Terry, Stephen Noerper and moderator Melanie Kirkpatrick. Learn more about the event >>

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