James Pearson on covering the ruling party congress in North Korea
Earlier this month, a group of foreign journalists were invited to North Korea to cover the ruling party congress, a week when thousands of Workers’ Party delegates were in the capital.It was the first such congress to be held since 1980, before leader Kim Jong Un was born, and an opportunity for the 33-year-old to cement his grip on power and project his authority to the outside world. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Reuters Korea correspondent James Pearson offers a behind-the-scenes look at the trip and reporting inside the isolated nation.
Q. What was your assignment in North Korea?
A. A team of three Reuters journalists along with 125 members of the international media were granted visas to visit isolated North Korea to cover a rare congress, held by the ruling Workers’ Party. It was the first time in 36 years a Party congress had been convened.
Q. What was the process of coverage during the trip and can you describe your experience there?
A. I travelled with Reuters photographer Damir Sagolj and video journalist Joseph Campbell. Damir and I have worked in or around North Korea a few times before. It was Joseph’s first trip. Although we were there for the congress, the closest we got to the event itself was standing 150 metres across the road from the April 25 House of Culture – the enormous grey concrete building in central Pyongyang where the congress was being held.
Q. Any interesting anecdotes to share?
A. On my last trip in October 2015, I remember thinking how bright Pyongyang seemed at night. A city which for years has suffered constant and unpredictable blackouts. The Pyongyang night seemed significantly brighter than on my first trip in 2011, in part thanks to the proliferation of cheap and domestically-assembled LED light bulbs. Those bulbs cost about $5 at black market exchange rates but can be powered by solar energy and bask the entire city in a kind of dull, faint glow. Remember when you first swapped your tungsten light bulbs for energy-saving ones that made your flat so dim you kept putting the wrong shoes on? It’s like that, at city scale.
At the time, our team and a group of other journalists were getting the bus from the airport into the city. As I was in awe of the bright dim lights everywhere, a colleague from another news organisation on their first trip to North Korea began a piece to camera telling viewers how incredibly dark Pyongyang was. Only in North Korea could two journalists from two respectable news organisations look at the exact same thing and come to entirely opposite conclusions, I thought.
Q. How did expectations vs. reality of reporting in North Korea compare?
A. By the time our BBC colleagues had been expelled from the country and the world’s major news organisations had been taken on tourist tours of factories and farms instead of seeing the congress, the media itself was starting to become the story. However, it is always possible to glean something from a trip to North Korea. Journalists may have become part of the sideshow to the congress but, for me, the congress itself was a sideshow to the more interesting developments we noticed in Pyongyang from our last Reuters trip in October 2015.
On our first day, it was clear by comparing photos of the Pyongyang skyline from our last trip that there had been some significant construction and development unreported by state media in the centre of the city. We used this starting point to write a story from Pyongyang about the ongoing construction boom, and the private investors who fund it.
We also noticed a massive rise in private electric bicycle ownership – we had noticed this in October, but felt they weren’t widespread enough to be confidently called a trend. This time, however, there were plenty. Local residents confirmed to us that numbers had increased massively over the last several months.
We also spotted a lot more adverts in shops and Pyongyang department stores advertising various different domestically-made products. Rather than replace the billboards glorifying the Party, these adverts are usually inside shops, placed loosely on counters, and have just the kind of incredible advertising claims you’d see elsewhere. Toothpaste which can make your teeth perfectly white, and pills to make you grow taller. North Korea has a complicated relationship with its unofficial economy, and these adverts tell some of that story
All of these things tell a much bigger story about North Korea than the congress – how ordinary people lead ordinary lives in the world’s most isolated country.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. With journalism, you can change people’s perceptions, contribute to a collective understanding, and pique people’s interest in remote corners of the world that would otherwise be totally inaccessible to them. North Korea is very much a live issue yet is sadly too often a source of tabloid amusement. There are moments of light relief but it is fundamentally one of the most unexplored human frontiers today. It’s a country full of absolute tragedy, but also some of the most incredible people you’ll ever meet, full of great talent and potential.
Q. What exactly is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I cover politics and general news in both Koreas for Reuters from Seoul, but usually focus more on developments in the North, somewhere that for so long has been viewed as impossible for journalists to cover. It is still an immensely difficult place to cover but with time and patience, it’s usually possible to put little pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. I am particularly interested in North Korea’s unofficial economy and how that shapes daily lives, which is something I have written about at length in my 2015 book North Korea Confidential, an extract of which you can read on Reuters.com here.
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