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N. Korea opening up toward Western media for better ties

‘Chance of North’s News analysis communication with S. Korean media slim’


North Korea’s recent gesture to open its doors wider to Western media indicates the reclusive state’s dilemma of wanting to escape international isolation while keeping its people marooned, analysts and officials here say.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency recently signed agreements with the New York-based Associated Press and the London-based Reuters to allow them to open permanent news bureaus in its capital Pyongyang.

Upon the new agreements, South Korea has become the only country of six nations of the denuclearization talks that does not have a news bureau in North Korea. Japan’s Kyodo News, China’s Xinhua News Agency and Russia’s Itar-Tass also have bureaus in the communist state, although their news coverage has been very limited.

“North Korea apparently wants to show the world that it is willing to solve pending issues via communication with the international society,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

“It can also be seen as an indication of the Kim Jong-il regime’s confidence that it can control the Western media with its stable system,” he said.

Cho Byung-jae, a spokesman of Seoul’s Foreign Ministry, called the move an “encouraging development.”

“The more North Korea opens up, the better it will be for us,” he said.

The ironfisted Kim regime, however, will be making backstage efforts to reveal only what it wants the world to see, officials said.

“For instance, it will want to show it needs food aid from outsiders, but not the real aspect of how its people are being treated,” an official at the Unification Ministry here said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

North Korea rarely reveals its news to outsiders except for state-run propaganda, and keeps its own people strictly isolated from outside news. But it appears to have made the rare decision to keep in close contact with Washington in particular.

The communist state has been suffering from deepening food shortages and international isolation since it conducted a second nuclear test in 2009. Even after being slapped with U.S.-led sanctions, it conducted two deadly attacks against Seoul last year, turning allies more reluctant to do it any financial favors.

Frustrated with the prolonged suspension of talks with its southern rival, North Korea may push to squeeze one-on-one negotiations with the U.S. instead, analysts have said in recent weeks.

The multinational talks on North Korea’s denuclearization, stalled since the end of 2008, were the communist state’s main window to access outside aid. The talks involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

Kim Pyong Ho, president of the North’s KCNA, said he hopes the agreement “contributes not only” to the strengthening of relations between the news agencies “but also to the better understanding between” Washington and Pyongyang, hinting at his country’s major purpose of the agreement.

The five-member KCNA delegation led by Kim had flown to the New York last month for talks with their AP counterparts.

AP maintained a cautious stance and refused to give further comments about its agreement with the Pyongyang media.

“We will have more to say in the future. For now, everything we have to say is in our June 29 press release,” AP media relations manager Jack Stokes said in an email response.

The U.S. government is also keeping low key over the issue.

“We would just hope that the government allows them for greater freedom of the press, greater access,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in a recent press briefing in Washington. “More information is, in our view, a good thing. And we hope that’s the case.”

When asked whether the U.S. regards it as a good sign, Toner said, “We’ll see.”

Amid the cautious views and lingering skepticism, North Korea is also expected to bring in Coca Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken from the U.S. in a rare move to open doors to Western products.

YTN, a 24-hour-news channel in Seoul, reported earlier this month that the communist state is expected to sign an official contract with the U.S. firms by this fall, quoting sources who said some 10 officials were spotted in Pyongyang recently.

Also, the French government reportedly plans to launch a cultural liaison office in Pyongyang around September and the KCNA also agreed to hold a joint photo exhibition with AP in New York next year.

Despite the move, Pyongyang is unlikely to open up to Seoul media, officials here say.

“North Korea is unlikely to act in favor of us, especially as we maintain hostile policies after its attacks last year,” an official here said on the condition of anonymity.

North Korea also often accuses the South Korean media of “distorting facts,” he said.

“With Western media coming in, North Korea will feel even less need to open up to South Korean media.”

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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