The Communist government of North Korea has at least partial control over hiring, news collection, and story selection for the Associated Press' Pyongyang Bureau, according to a report from NK News.
The report hinges on a 2011 draft of an agreement between the AP and the state-run Korean News Agency of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (KCNA) obtained by sources within the AP, and in interviews with 14 current and former AP staffers.
The Associated Press said in a statement that the report is "full of errors, inaccuracies, and baseless innuendo," and called into question the credibility of the reporter who wrote the story, saying he had worked as a stringer for the AP in the 1990s and was "disgruntled."
The AP’s official statement did not deny the authenticity of the 2011 draft agreement, but said only that it is "remote from the final document."
When asked directly about the agreement's authenticity, AP director of media relations Paul Colford told the Washington Free Beacon, "Simply put, I don’t know what that ‘draft agreement’ is."
When asked again whether the 2011 document was an authentic draft created during the negotiation process between the news company and North Korea, Colford declined to respond. He also declined to release the "final document" referenced in the AP's statement.
The leaked 2011 draft agreement at the center of the NK News report outlines how the AP's Pyongyang Bureau, which opened in 2012, will operate within North Korea.
"Bureau shall serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government and the reality in the DPRK with a view to deepening the relations between KCNA and AP, promoting mutual understanding between the two peoples and contributing to the improvement of the relations between the two countries," the document read.
Though the AP previously said it "wouldn't have set up a bureau if we hadn't been able to operate the way we'd like to operate," AP staff members told NK News that North Korea has ultimate say over much of what the bureau does.
"AP tries not to be a mouthpiece of North Korea, but it is basically impossible under the terms the bureau operates," an anonymous source identified as a senior AP Asia-based journalist told NK News. "The foreign AP staffers are under so many limitations that there has not been any unfettered real journalism produced by the AP bureau in Pyongyang."
The 2011 document shows that these limitations extend to the hiring process.
"KCNA shall nominate one text and one photo journalists [sic] and one driver, three in total, to work for AP with its agreement," the document said.
A NK News source identified as being involved with the negotiations also said the KCNA had final say over whom the AP’s Pyongyang bureau was allowed to hire. "The agreement was that North Korea said AP must hire three specific North Koreans as AP staff reporters—a supposed reporter/fixer, a photographer, and a driver. Who these were was specifically decided and forwarded by KCNA," the source said.
"There was never a question from either side that we would accept the North Korean AP staff correspondents who the North Koreans told us to hire."
The source said the AP's attempts to hire reporters other than those recommended by the North Korean government were rebuffed.
"There was one person whom the AP would have preferred to have hired—a woman who had done some translating in the past for AP—but the KCNA said no," the source told NK News. "Mr. Rim, the KCNA adviser from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told us in no uncertain terms: ‘These are the two people you are going to hire.’"
"We hired the two people the KCNA told us we had to hire to staff the bureau in Pyongyang."
The 2011 document also dictates how AP staff in North Korea will be paid.
"The cost for the operation of the Bureau including salaries and rent shall be set at the average of USD $12,000 per month," it said. "AP shall make monthly payment by a method requested by KCNA."
NK News said the AP brings $12,000 cash every moth directly to Rim Ho Ryong, the "KCNA external affairs adviser from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," to pay for their reporters' salaries and office rent. NK News said five separate sources within the AP confirmed the payment process to them.
North Korea also controls the content of the Pyongyang bureau, NK News reported.
"The North Koreans said, ‘Just don’t write about our leader—anything else we can live with,’" a second NK News source involved in AP negotiations with North Korea said of the restrictions. The 2011 document features a section dictating the "monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles on politics, economy and culture of the DPRK as well as interviews and about 30 related photos together with descriptions," from the AP.
Additionally, the document said the "KCNA shall be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of the bureau" and would "render help" with collecting "news items and photos" for the AP.
It also said the "bureau shall strictly abide by DPRK laws and regulations in its operation and news coverage."
The NK News report also questioned the way the Pyongyang bureau conducted interviews with Americans imprisoned by North Korea and the editorial process involved in whether those interviews made it to publication.
"The Pyongyang Group was toeing the party line in the questions they asked, for sure," former prisoner Jeffrey Fowle told NK News. "I believe they were affiliated with AP, but they were not free to ask questions. At least they asked the same questions that my minders had coached me to answer.
"They were an extension of the government."
The AP has denied many of the claims made in the NK News report. Its statement on the NK News report focuses on the author of the story.
"In the late 1990s, Nate Thayer, a former AP stringer, became disgruntled over a distribution agreement with AP covering video he had shot in Cambodia," it said. "More recently, he dismissed the value of AP’s North Korea bureau shortly before he sought from AP detailed proprietary information about the bureau for further articles that were published on Dec. 24 by NKnews.org."
"No serious news organization would hand over the kind of business agreements, salary information and other payment documentation that Mr. Thayer sought."
The AP also claimed that "it is unlikely that Mr. Thayer spoke to as many AP sources as he claims."
"Indeed, Chad O'Carroll, the editor of NKNews.org, told an AP news leader several days ago that he would not publish Mr. Thayer's latest attack against AP after all," the statement said. "It is regrettable that the website decided to reverse course on Dec. 24 because of a newly found ‘draft agreement.’"
When asked, the AP declined to say whether it believed the interviews with anonymous AP current or former staffers had been fabricated.
The AP also responded to several of the specific claims made in the NK News report.
"Journalistically, our local staffers in Pyongyang are supervised and in regular contact with their supervisors," the statement said in regard to staffing practices in Pyongyang. "We rely on our international staff for our journalism and the local employees do not ever file or transmit stories on their own, independent of supervision."
On their interviews with Americans being held in North Korea, the AP said, "In accordance with normal practice, AP editorial decisions were made about the news value of very similar material available from three different interviews in short order from a captive individual. When we felt the material was newsworthy, we filed stories; when we felt it offered nothing new, we passed."
"We recognize the unique challenges in reporting from North Korea," the statement said. "We are proud of our work in all formats and will continue to provide robust coverage going forward that will widen still further the world’s view of this little-known state."
"AP does not submit to censorship. We do not run stories by KCNA or any government official before we publish them. At the same time, officials are free to grant or deny access or interviews."
The AP’s critics are unconvinced.
"The absence of anything on the Sony story from AP bureau in Pyongyang really says it all," Mike Chinoy, a former CNN journalist with a decade's experience in covering North Korea, told NK News.
"When the only Western news agency in North Korea has not made any news file on what has been the top world story for a week, it is hard to pretend that this is a normal AP bureau."
Joshua Stanton, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and principal drafter of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, compared the AP's actions in North Korea to that of the fictional talk show host in Sony's recent comedy The Interview.
"For all its flaws, The Interview approached brilliance on one level—not as a parody of Kim Jong Un (Randall Park wasn’t nearly fat enough) but as a parody of the Americans who choose to nuzzle up to him," he said. "When James Franco was immediately taken in by his minder’s display of a store, so well-stocked with (plastic) food, and by a fat kid licking a lollipop, he might as well have been an AP reporter."
Stanton then questioned whether the AP should face legal action from the United States if the leaked document is accurate.
"I’ll let the Justice Department decide whether, as a matter of law, the AP should register as a North Korean propagandist—the answer depends on whether the AP is acting under North Korean direction or control, and whether it’s practicing ‘bona fide’ journalism here," he said. "But surely, from a citizen’s perspective, this must be precisely the kind of arrangement the Act was designed to make subject to public disclosure."
"By wrapping its brand around content essentially extruded by the North Korean secret police, the AP is undermining attempts to expose the truth about the regime, not to mention damaging the AP’s own reputation as a news organization," Mark Sauter, an author and former journalist who visited North Korea as a reporter and now writes for DMZWar.com, told the Free Beacon. "The AP should immediately make public its operating agreement with North Korea’s propaganda ministry so news consumers around the world can judge for themselves the reliability of ‘AP reports’ from the Pyongyang bureau."
Sauter added, "They should affix a warning label to each story produced under this arrangement: ‘This article was approved by North Korean security officials. News that contradicts North Korean propaganda themes cannot be moved by this AP Bureau.'"