(Un)Covering North Korea at Stanford


North Korean workers in a textile factory in the Rajin Sonbong (Rason) special economic zone, as seen through then camera lens of John Everard, former British ambassador to North Korea.
Photo credit: 
John Everard

Just hours ahead of North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, an event which pushed the country once again into headlines around the world, a panel gathered at Stanford to discuss the challenges journalists face “uncovering” facts about North Korea.

The discussion, organized by the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, was held on Feb. 11 at Stanford in conjunction with the 2012 Shorenstein Journalism Award.

Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and recipient of the 2012 Shorenstein Journalism Award, said it was the lack of access to North Korea that inspired her to first want to cover the country.

“I felt like if I could not go to North Korea, I should be able to get into the mindset of the people,” Demick said. “I think this has been true for my entire career as a foreign correspondent—you are trying to really understand how people tick.”

Susan Chira, assistant managing editor for news at the New York Times, emphasized that reporters have a responsibility to piece together credible news from the fragments of often unreliable or biased information about North Korea.

“I always feel as an editor that your responsibility is to write in the caveats as clearly as possible so readers understand that you are dealing—to a much greater degree than with other articles we publish—with highly fragmented information,” Chira said.

Adam Johnson, an associate professor of English at Stanford and the author of the novel The Orphan Master’s Son, suggested that literary fiction can help bring to life the incomplete and untold stories of North Korea.

“For fiction, the things you can’t use in journalism—legend, rumor, story, whisper, and suggestions—these are all equally valid in my realm,” Johnson said. “Those can all be used to conjure a portrait.”

Katharina Zellweger, a former development worker who lived in Pyongyang for five years and who is the current Pantech Fellow at Stanford, spoke of the need to provide more balanced coverage of North Korea, especially of its regular citizens.

“Nobody has the full picture,” Zellweger said, “But I hope there will be more efforts to give the North Korean people the attention they deserve.”

A full-length video of the panel is available on the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center website.

Established in 2002, the Shorenstein Journalism Award recognizes the work of veteran American and Western journalists whose work has generated a greater awareness of the complexities of Asia. It also honors Asian journalists and media organizations engaged in helping build stronger U.S.-Asia ties by presenting a clear picture of key issues facing Asia’s society and politics.