North Korea coverage guarantees big ratings | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 02.05.2017
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North Korea coverage guarantees big ratings

News from North Korea always captures interest around the world. Even when there is little to report and a lot of speculation, audiences are paying attention. What makes Kim's kingdom so fascinating?

Last week, German news weekly Der Spiegel ran a cover story featuring a cartoon drawing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump portrayed as whining babies in diapers straddling a nuclear bomb. The headline read "Death match - Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un risk nuclear war."

The cover is only one example of how North Korea has been dominating the news cycle lately with eye-catching headlines and provocative imagery. And news outlets don't need to go to extra lengths to attract readers - when it involves North Korea, people pay attention. And this isn't limited to nuclear tests and military provocation.

Practically any news coming from the internationally-isolated and secluded regime arouses interest. This includes softer stories with little journalistic value, like the opening of an amusement park or a riding club in Pyongyang. But there are many other and often disturbing reports.

In February, Kim Jong Un's older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, died after he was accosted and poisoned with the powerful nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur international airport. It is widely believed that the North Korean regime was behind the attack, but Pyongyang has disputed this claim. And in December 2013, Kim had his uncle and former mentor executed, purportedly for treason.

Kombi-Bild Kim Jong Un Donald Trump

US President recently said he would be honored to meet North Korean leader Kim

Curious fear and fascination

The exact details of these cases are not completely clear. Many reports and stories from North Korea have this in common and it is also what makes them intriguing. Where there is comparatively little room for solid information, there is a lot of room for speculation. 

Adding a new dimension to the world's fascination with North Korea is the unpredictable policy of the US under President Trump, and the fear that conflict will escalate.

Stephan Weichert, professor of journalism and communication at the Hamburg Media School, told DW that the Kim family and its self-dramatization was another source of fascination. And while the previous dictator Kim Jong Il mostly kept away from the public eye, his son and successor relishes in public appearances. "Kim Jong Un appears like a regular YouTube star and wants to be celebrated by the masses," said Weichert.

Eckhard Pabst, professor of media and literature at Kiel University, told DW that North Korea is fascinating because it provides a counter-image to western values. "It is an image that shows many of our ideals negatively and the standards that we hold as right and true are seen as a counter-object," he said, adding that observing these values from the outside makes people believe more that they are right.

A challenge for journalists

International media is often limited in its North Korea coverage because it is very difficult for foreign journalists to access the isolated country. Most reports on North Korea are written in offices located around the world, but not in the country itself.

International correspondents in North Korea are subjected to constant surveillance and are often accompanied by an escort. Only during major events are large groups of journalists permitted entrance to North Korea. For example in April, over 120 journalists were invited to the celebration of the 105th birthday of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung.

But there are very few foreign correspondents who have a constant presence in North Korea, and only two western news agencies have offices in Pyongyang. The Associated Press (AP) opened an office in 2012, and in 2016 Agence France Presse (AFP) opened a small office.

At the time, Philippe Massonet, head of AFP Asia-Pacific told DW that it made sense from a commercial and editorial standpoint to have an office in North Korea.

"It is a big opportunity to report from a country where very few journalists are permitted access," he said. "Despite all of the rules, I think there is a lot of room for journalistic reporting from North Korea."

Bildergalerie Nordkorea Alltag (picture-alliance/AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

It is very difficult for foreign journalists to access the isolated country

A pioneer in Pyongyang

As the founder of AP's office in Pyongyang, Jean H. Lee knows a lot about fighting for access. Today she lives in Seoul and works as a global fellow for the Wilson Center. Looking back, she said it was a constant struggle for access. "I spent 90 percent of my time fighting for the right to report on my own topics," she told DW.

In a country where foreigners can't even take a walk without permission, it was a huge success to be allowed to report on a story. "Those were hard-earned successes," she said. "Every single story was a challenge, and the preliminary negotiations took months."

Lee would also hear during her time in Pyongyang that she was the first American journalist to ever be granted access to whatever school, factory or farm she was reporting on. She still maintains that North Korea is one of the toughest places in the world to be a correspondent.

Whether it is restricted access or the lack of reliable information, solid reporting on North Korea is difficult and global media coverage is also affected.

"When you report on North Korea from the outside, your reporting depends on state media," said Lee. "And, of course, it is all propaganda. It takes time to recognize facts to filter out the news."

Lee added that for the untrained reader, all of North Korea's rhetoric sounds frightening and a lot of media fall into a trap of reporting it directly. "But certainly, all reporting from abroad is slowly getting better," said Lee.

Lee has a simple explanation for why North Korean issues are so popular in international media. "North Korea is a country full of secrets and the last remnant of the Cold War, and people are fascinated by that," she said, adding that the North Koreans know this and take advantage of it.

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