By JOHN DANISZEWSKI, The Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — The Associated Press opened its newest bureau here Monday, becoming the first international news organization with a full-time presence to cover news from North Korea in words, pictures and video.
In a ceremony that came less than a month after the death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il and capped nearly a year of discussions, AP President and CEO Tom Curley and a delegation of top AP editors inaugurated the office, situated inside the headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency in downtown Pyongyang.
The bureau expands the AP's presence in North Korea, building on the breakthrough in 2006 when AP opened a video bureau in Pyongyang for the first time by an international news organization. Exclusive video from AP video staffers in Pyongyang was used by media outlets around the world following Kim's death.
Now, AP writers and photojournalists will also be allowed to work in North Korea on a regular basis.
For North Korea, which for decades has remained largely off-limits to international journalists, the opening marked an important gesture, particularly because North Korea and the United States have never had formal diplomatic relations. The AP, an independent 165-year-old news cooperative founded in New York and owned by its U.S. newspaper membership, has operations in more than 100 countries and employs nearly 2,500 journalists across the world in 300 locations.
The bureau puts AP in a position to document the people, places and politics of North Korea across all media platforms at a critical moment in its history, with Kim's death and the ascension of his young son as the country's new leader, Curley said in remarks prepared for the opening.
"Beyond this door lies a path to vastly larger understanding and cultural enrichment for millions around the world," Curley said. "Regardless of whether you were born in Pyongyang or Pennsylvania, you are aware of the bridge being created today."
Curley said the Pyongyang bureau will operate under the same standards and practices as AP bureaus worldwide.
"Everyone at The Associated Press takes his or her responsibilities of a free and fair press with utmost seriousness," he said. "We pledge to do our best to reflect accurately the people of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as well as what they do and say."
KCNA President Kim Pyong Ho called the occasion "a significant meeting."
"I believe that the reason we are able to conduct all these projects in less than a year is that President and CEO Thomas Curley and the other members of the AP have promised to report on the DPRK with fairness, balance and accuracy, and have tried to follow through in collaboration with KCNA," he said in remarks prepared to mark the occasion.
"Even though our two countries do not have normalized relations, we have been able to find a way to understand one another and to cooperate closely enough to open an AP bureau here in Pyongyang as we have today," Kim said.
The North Korean capital, dappled in snow, remains in an outwardly subdued mood two weeks after the official mourning period concluded for Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack last month. His son, Kim Jong Un, has since become the third generation of his family to lead North Korea, following his father and grandfather, the nation's founder.
Kim's death came amid increased diplomatic activity surrounding the Korean peninsula, including recent bilateral meetings between North Korea and South Korea, and between North Korea and the United States. While his death put all that on hold, there are hints that North Korea remains willing to engage on a deal to restart six-party talks addressing the country's nuclear program.
The AP bureau will be staffed by reporter Pak Won Il and photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, both natives of North Korea who have done some reporting for AP in recent weeks on Kim's funeral and the mass public mourning on the streets of Pyongyang.
The bureau will be supervised by Korea Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee and Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder, who will make frequent trips to Pyongyang to manage the office, train the local journalists and conduct their own reporting. Lee and Guttenfelder, both Americans, are longtime AP journalists with broad international experience.
As with other Asian news stories produced by AP, news from North Korea will be sent initially to AP's Asia-Pacific regional editing desk in Bangkok, where AP editors review and edit the stories for distribution to AP member newspapers and customers. Similarly, photos from North Korea will be edited at the Asia-Pacific photo editing desk, located in Tokyo.
Over the past two years, AP has been in contact with North Korean officials about how to set up broader access for AP print and photo journalists to Pyongyang. This led Lee and Guttenfelder to make several extensive reporting trips to North Korea. A team of AP photojournalists conducted a three-day workshop for KCNA photographers in Pyongyang in October.
KCNA hosted Curley and other AP executives in Pyongyang in March, and a five-member KCNA delegation, led by Kim, attended talks at the AP's world headquarters in New York City in June.