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Only two western media outlets have a permanent presence in North Korea, so Reuters and others must find ways to report from outside the country, relying on satellite imagery, photo analysis, accounts from defectors and other sources. Access to North Korea usually takes the form of press trips organized by the government around a particular event that it wants to promote to the world.
In mid-April a team of Reuters journalists traveled to North Korea’s capitol Pyongyang on such a trip, allowed in to cover the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea. Once there, they traveled via bus with other journalists – and government minders – to tourist sites like the Arch of Triumph, a new water park and a flower exhibition.
During this trip, Reuters journalists were careful not to stray from the commitment to independent journalism established by the Reuters Trust Principles. Press tours like this present a version of North Korea approved by the state, but that our journalists try to place in context by gathering information wherever they can.
On the flight to Pyongyang via Air Koryo, the state airline, Reuters Beijing-based Economics correspondent Sue-Lin Wong noticed that the airline was only serving its own brand of soft drinks. A conversation with her seatmate, a trader from Southeast Asia who exports consumer goods to North Korea, confirmed that these branded drinks fit in with the rise of “Made in North Korea” products, giving Wong a clear focus for her reporting.
Vendors at the Pyongyang International Airport sold Air Koryo-branded cigarettes. At supermarkets in the city, Wong photographed products and sent the images via WhatsApp to James Pearson in Seoul, a reporter with experience covering North Korea, to translate and provide additional insight into how the products are being marketed.
Officials bus journalists between state farms and factories to witness sites associated with North Korea’s moribund economy. The view from the bus window reveals much more. As they drove through Pyongyang, Damir Sagolj, Reuters chief photographer for Greater China, captured street scenes that provided details about consumption in the isolated country, such as the prevalence of electric bicycles or solar panels on homes.
Back in Beijing and Seoul, Wong and Pearson interviewed experts on North Korea’s economy and read reporting from the state-run media, both of which are difficult to do while in Pyongyang.
Their reporting confirmed what the journalists had seen. The result was a story that sheds light on how North Koreans spend their money, and how the country is trying to become less reliant on China.