Last week, North Korea invited 128 foreign journalists from 12 different countries to Pyongyang to cover the most important political event in the country in 36 years, the 7th Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea. It was a tightly controlled trip, in which reporters were constantly monitored and followed by official government minders, and all visits and interviews had to be approved and pre-arranged.
The government didn’t even provide journalists with information on the official schedule, access to the Congress, and other important matters until the last minute. On May 6, the first day of the Congress, correspondents who had arrived in Pyongyang had to get their news about the event from South Korean and Japanese newswires writing from abroad. Government minders even took them to what was promised to be a press conference but ended up not taking place at all - yet another false start that was tweeted live by the foreign journalists with snarky comments and humor.
On Monday, however, things took a darker turn, when the North Korean government expelled Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, the Tokyo correspondent of the BBC, after alleging that he and his crew had distorted facts and spoke “ill of the system” and its leader Kim Jong-Un, apparently referring to the candid accounts of restrictions they published while in the country. Wingfield-Hayes was not part of the Party Congress journalist pool, but had arrived earlier in Pyongyang, covering the trip of three Nobel laureates. The journalist, along with his producer and cameraman, were detained in Pyongyang when they were trying to leave the country. The authorities questioned Wingfield-Hayes for eight hours before forcing him to sign a statement, the content of which has not yet been revealed, and then expelling him and his team.
Quite clearly, North Korea didn’t expect that some foreign journalists would dare violate their rules of slavish devotion to the ruling Kim family or report that Pyongyang was setting up Potemkin village scenes to deceive foreign visitors.
These events also reflected just how total Pyongyang’s contempt is for the basic rights of freedom of expression and the press. There’s a good reason that North Korea at the bottom of the Reporters Sans Frontieres media censorship index - an assessment that is mirrored by the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry, which said, “there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.”
Any hope that the 7th Congress might reveal a reforming North Korea has thus been dashed, with Pyongyang apparently sending a message that says we may be opening up further to the world and there may be more stories to cover, but if you want to come back – it’s on our terms. The international media will keep having to push back publicly and forcefully on Pyongyang’s regime of control.