Eric Talmadge is a usually Western contributor frequently in North Korea. Here’s …

January 19, 2015 - fall Denim


The Associated Press’s North Korea business chief, Eric Talmadge, snaps scenes of life in downtown Pyongyang with his iPhone. In a credentials is a 105-story pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, that has been underneath construction given 1987. (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)

The initial thing to remember about stating from North Korea, says Eric Talmadge, is that a answer to roughly all is no.

No, we can’t go there. No, we can’t talk that person. No, we can’t have that information. Talmadge, a Associated Press’s business arch in Pyongyang and a usually Western contributor frequently in a reserved country, is used to it. North Korea didn’t get to be a total state with a prolonged track of human-rights abuses and a worst record of media leisure in a universe by being easy to reporters, generally a American kind.

In Pyongyang, Talmadge is shadowed constantly by a minder, a supervision representative who accompanies him whenever he leaves his hotel or office. The minder doesn’t mind Talmadge so many as keep an eye on his would-be contacts; articulate to other foreigners is fine, yet any communication with a North Korean raises red flags. On a recent, and rare, highway outing by a North Korean countryside, Talmadge and an AP photographer were chaperoned by a minder who done certain that they didn’t deviating from a government-approved track or stop to talk people during random.

“This trip,” Talmadge wrote, in a colorful and eye-opening travelogue, “was on North Korea’s terms.”

There’s also consistent electronic surveillance. Talmadge deduction on a arrogance that his e-mails, Internet searches and phone calls, as good as his conversations, are being seen and heard. “I usually assume that all we say, to anyone, is on a record,” he says. “Always.” (He spoke with The Washington Post around e-mail.)

Talmadge can say usually a semi-permanent participation in a country. He travels to Pyongyang any month from Tokyo, where he lives with his family, and stays in North Korea about 10 days any month, or however prolonged a state method feels like vouchsafing him stay.

The restrictions tend to extent a kinds of stories Talmadge can report, during slightest yet being diminished or jailed. Since holding over a business in 2013, he has lonesome a construction of North Korea’s initial ski resort, a arise of a renouned all-girl singing organisation called a Moranbong Band and a nation’s endless efforts to enclose a Ebola virus, notwithstanding a miss of a singular box in Asia and a many firmly rhythmical borders in a world.

Even these scattershot topics can produce some insights into a inhabitant psyche. Writing about Pyongyang’s fast Westernizing conform clarity in September, for example, Talmadge noted, “Jeans are closely compared with American tastes, so wearing them is roughly tantamount to treason. North Korea never quite criminialized them, yet we don’t see people wearing a same blue denim that is common roughly everywhere else in a world.”

During his week-long outing into a hinterlands this fall, Talmadge saw no signs of a fast that swept a nation in a mid-1990s. But he did see lots of free-roaming goats — a run-amok outcome of the late “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il’s ­famine-fighting tact programs. Talmadge also detected that automobiles are so singular outward North Korea’s cities that troops and soldiers snapped to courtesy and saluted as his automobile upheld by. They insincere that such a car contingency be conveying critical officials.


Scenes from typical life can confute Western assumptions about North Korea: Here, nightfall rollerblading on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. (Instagram print by Eric Talmadge/Associated Press)

People on a North Korean beach in Wonsan, a pier city. (Instagram print by Eric Talmadge/Associated Press)

In further to his dispatches, Talmadge frequently posts his photos of bland life in North Korea on Instagram. Like his created work, they can confute Western assumptions about a nation and North Korea’s relentless promotion about itself.

One of Talmadge’s photos shows a child happily rollerblading in Kim Il Sung Square, a immeasurable open space in a collateral named for a country’s owner and a stage of large troops parades. Another shows people enjoying a float during a Pyongyang entertainment park. There are street and beach scenes, a volleyball game, ice skaters, karaoke singers, women dan­cing in a parking lot.

“I consider there is a bent abroad to mimic North Korea in ways that aren’t constructive, and to review to dismissiveness or hoax many too easily,” says a 53-year-old Talmadge, who has lonesome Asia for decades. “During my time there, we have been surprised, and reassured in a way, to see how normal North Koreans caring about a same things everybody else does — their family, their finances, their health, their friends, how to get by. It’s too easy to yield North Korea as an unintelligible place. Fundamentally, of course, it’s not.”

On a other hand, a total of stories that Talmadge hasn’t reported is revealing, too. He has created zero about a regime’s nuclear-weapons program, a jail labor camps or the execution of high celebration officials who’ve depressed out of preference with a nation’s autarchic leader, Kim Jong Un.

When a Pyongyang apartment building collapsed in May, apparently murdering dozens of chosen families, a AP moved news about a eventuality from a Seoul bureau, even yet it happened usually a few minutes’ expostulate from a Pyongyang office. Talmadge says that he was stating another story outward a collateral during a time and wasn’t wakeful of a disaster — there were no sirens or live TV updates — when he left a nation for a outing a subsequent day.

And there were no Pyongyang datelines on North Korea’s purported hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computers, presumably in response to a designed recover of the North Korea-themed movie “The Interview.”

This has led to suspicions among Western observers that a Associated Press done a understanding with a demon when it got North Korea’s go-ahead to open a business in 2011. Although a AP insists that a stating standards are a same in Pyongyang as in New York, skeptics consternation either a classification pulls a punches to stay on Kim’s balmy side.

The business “has reported no news that is exclusive, and zero disdainful that is news,” says Joshua Stanton, a Washington-area counsel who blogs about North Korea and has suggested Congress on sanctions opposite it. “The coverage mostly appears to be inequitable [in preference of North Korea]. AP seems to be fearful of offending a host.”

NK News, an English-language site that focuses on North Korea, also questioned a firmness of a AP’s stating last month in an article that questioned either a agency’s Pyongyang operation is “a Potemkin news bureau.” Among other things, it remarkable that a AP’s internal staff includes a North Korean contributor and a photographer, both hired underneath an agreement with a state-controlled Korean Central News Agency. The KCNA is a supervision promotion indent prolonged suspected of surreptitious intelligence-gathering.

AP orator Paul Colford disputes many of a stating in a NK News article, yet he acknowledges that a AP employs a KCNA journalists. Hiring North Korean nationals, he says, is “the sheet for admission” into a nation and is customary use for each general classification handling there.

But any contributions from a KCNA journalists, Colford says, are vetted by Talmadge and others before a AP distributes them. “We have never published anything piped or built or willfully false” from North Korea, he says.

For a record, Talmadge says that no North Korean central has ever screened one of his articles. “I can write whatever we want,” he says flatly. “The North Korean authorities see my work during a same time everybody else does, [which is] when it hits a wire. They don’t get previews [and] they don’t get to bury content.”


Eric Talmadge, center, during a media lecture in Pyongyang. Although a supervision restricts a subjects he can cover, Talmadge says a stories he does write are not censored. (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

The incomparable doubt might be either carrying a contributor in North Korea, with all a restrictions, beats a alternative. Western reporters can transport to North Korea usually on singular occasions and usually underneath resources quite choreographed by state officials.

Talmadge’s conditions might be equivalent to a efforts of Western reporters to news from a Soviet Union or China during a tallness of a Cold War, when both governments customarily spied on unfamiliar visitors or kept them out altogether.

“Of course, it is not probable [to have unobstructed reporting] in North Korea, yet it is improved to have something than nothing,” says Andrei Lankov, a former Soviet citizen who complicated in North Korea and teaches Korean story during Kookmin University in Seoul.

That’s radically a viewpoint of Jean H. Lee, a AP’s initial business arch in Pyongyang and Talmadge’s predecessor.

“I don’t consider we learn really many by not being in a place you’re covering,” pronounced Lee, now a academician during a Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington who specializes in Korean story and North Korea. “We tend to assume North Koreans are robotic or brainwashed. In fact, they’re tellurian beings vital in a tough environment, politically and economically. I’d make a box that we need to know who they are, since once we do, we’ll be improved means to understanding with them.”

Sometimes, training what isn’t loyal might be as profitable as anticipating out what is. When Kim left from open viewpoint for several weeks this fall, fueling rumors of ill health or even a coup, Talmadge suggested opposite reading too many into it. Pyongyang was functioning normally, something that would have been unfit if there were a remarkable change in a country’s scarcely deified leadership.

“There’s also zero quite surprising about North Korean leaders laying low for extended periods,” review Talmadge’s dispatch from a Seoul bureau. “Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, no fan of a limelight in his after years, would disappear during times; Kim Jong Un, who seems to honestly like being during a core of things, took off yet a word for 3 weeks in 2012.”

Kim seemed in open a subsequent day.

Talmadge also didn’t tumble for another widely reported story — that North Korea had systematic immature group to obey Kim’s high-on-the-sides, floppy-on-top haircut. He could see that wasn’t a box by walking a streets of Pyongyang.

As a unsentimental matter, Talmadge says, it’s probably unfit to get officials or civilians to yield accurate information about issues such as tellurian rights, a troops or North Korea’s chief program. He compares a conditions to being embedded with a U.S. troops during wartime. “By being there on a ground, we are means to yield a current and suggestive perspective, yet one that has a limitations,” he says.


North Koreans carrying fun: At a Kaeson fun satisfactory in Pyongyang. (Instagram print by Eric Talmadge/Associated Press)

Dinner and karaoke in Pyongyang. (Instagram print by Eric Talmadge/Associated Press)

When he’s not working, Talmadge socializes with other expatriates staying in and around his hotel. He cooking in internal restaurants, including an Italian corner that creates a possess goat cheese and serves “pretty good” pizza. He’ll take walks by a Taedong River or Kim Il Sung Square. Often, he’ll stay in his hotel room and listen to music.

Sometimes, he goes bowling.

There’s a bowling alley famous as a Golden Lane in Pyongyang. It’s many like bowling alleys everywhere, Talmadge says, right down to a American-made pin-setting equipment. He once faced off in an unpretentious compare opposite dual immature women who were training for a inhabitant team. “They demolished me,” he says, “but we all had a good time, and there were lots of accessible high-fives.”

Talmadge grew adult in Olympia, Wash., and emigrated to Japan during 19 to attend college. A smooth Japanese speaker, he assimilated a AP in 1989 after operative for a Mainichi Shimbun journal in Tokyo. He has lonesome stories worldwide, including 5 Olympics, a wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a 2011 Japanese trembler and tsunami.

Working in North Korea has given him perspective, not usually about North Korea.

“Every time we come behind home, we arise adult a initial morning thinking, ‘I can go anywhere we wish today,’ ” he says. “I could go to a beach, we could go see a movie, we could get on a craft and go to Florida if we wanted. Even if, in a end, we usually stay home and eat potato chips on a couch, it’s a really liberating feeling. we don’t take it for postulated anymore.”

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