- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

SEOUL — Associated Press Television News yesterday announced the opening of a full-time office in North Korea, making it the first Western news organization to establish a permanent presence in the secretive nation.

APTN Executive Director Nigel Baker hailed the opening as “a groundbreaking opportunity” in a press release datelined Pyongyang.

Others questioned whether the organization, which will operate in association with North Korea’s state-run broadcaster, will be able to function independently in one of the world’s most tightly controlled societies.

APTN said the agreement is the result of four years of negotiations with the state broadcaster and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The operation, to be staffed principally by North Koreans, will be directed from the London newsroom of APTN, which is the television arm of the Associated Press.

“The bureau will employ three local staff from Korea Television Radio,” APTN spokesman Toby Hartwell said from London. “It will be a video-based operation, with, initially, a producer, a cameraman and an office assistant.

“This is the first big step — to set up a permanent office — and we are pushing for further presence.”

Although North Korean television offers such fodder as mass games, giant military parades and rare glimpses of reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, APTN’s freedom to operate likely will be limited.

Seoul- and Beijing-based foreign reporters who visited North Korea during Arirang’s Mass Games last year found their schedules controlled to the point where they were not permitted to visit local markets, although many managed to walk unaccompanied after dark around Pyongyang, the capital.

“Our position is that we only do it if we maintain control over news content. The local staff will follow AP reporting, and we will see how it works,” Mr. Hartwell said. “We will not cover something that puts us in the position of being a mouthpiece. We have had a lot of experience resisting censorship.”

Mr. Hartwell added that APTN staffers would travel to Pyongyang to work with the bureau.

Some veteran journalists who have reported from North Korea said the bureau could contribute to a better understanding of North Korea.

“It’s always valuable to be there. You can pick up and feel the mood, and pick up pieces of information,” said Donald Macintyre, the former Seoul bureau chief of Time magazine, who visited the North six times as a reporter.

“The problem is, if they did uncover something, there would be a tension between their desire to maintain their bureau and their desire to put out real news, so they are going to be playing a balancing act,” said Mr. Macintyre, who is writing a book on North Korea.

“I don’t think they will be covering famines and gulags. They won’t be able to go on trips without their political minders, and will be on a pretty tight leash — showing propaganda and things the regime thinks are suitable for the outside world to view.”

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