By Olga Krasnyak
On 8 October 2019 a delegation of top Russian media representatives visited Pyongyang where TASS, the largest Russian news agency, and KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, signed a new cooperation agreement. As reported, TASS is the only foreign news agency that operates in Pyongyang on a regular basis.
Considering the fact that foreign correspondents from Western news agencies have difficulties gaining access to North Korea, and when they eventually do are normally supervised by intelligence agents, they do not enjoy freedom of the press in North Korea. An example of such constraints are the foreign reporters who were given access to cover the propaganda-like dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The charade of that dismantling was obvious to the international expert community, while the role of foreign reporters was undermined in their failure to understand that it had not been irreversibly dismantled.
Of course, Russian reporters would not be given absolute freedom in an authoritarian country, yet their permanent presence and access to North Korea will enable Russian journalists to watch the country closer.
The objectives of the collaboration between news agencies can be assessed as follows.
First, news exchanges. This objective looks obvious and might not require extra explanation: what would be easier than to exchange the news in the digital era? Moreover, the circulation of all kinds of news could not be solely dependent on the willingness or otherwise acceptance of political authorities to share the news. One way or another, the news will come out. What is important to note is that when accessing the agreement of news exchanges between Russia and North Korea, it becomes visible that the agreement critically eases North Korea-Russia journalistic exchanges and the exchange of experiences on a regular basis. People-to-people exchanges that aim to build interpersonal trust and grow understanding help to deepen bilateral relations.
Second, deepening bilateral relations. On a more broad scale, collaboration between news agencies helps both countries to maintain inter-state relations. For example, TASS has never missed the opportunity to mention that it is the only foreign agency that interviewed Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un) twice, in 2001 and 2011 (in Russian). This fact might indicate close ties and a certain level of trust between the two countries. Alternatively, this fact might also point out the direction that other countries — who are interested in reaching North Korea — might be willing to take in order to approach North Korea. In any case, pragmatism and calculation explain the intentions to maintain friendship and solidarity between two peoples. If this objective sounds too ambitions and unrealistic, bearing in mind that North Korea is not the main priority of Russia’s foreign policy but Russia is interested in securing its Far East from any potential threat posed by North Korea, then there is no harm in declaring a peoples’ friendship and solidarity.
Third, strategizing and formulating the state narrative. This objective might be the most important to take into consideration. The reputation of KCNA and its tone for news interpretation to voice North Korea’s foreign policy is peculiar and mostly propagandistic. In contrast (even some propaganda experts might argue), Russia’s TASS new agency is more reputable. The Soviet times propaganda unveiled that people have little trust in the state narrative that had been voiced by a state news agency. TASS, however, has acknowledged the Soviet experience and reframed its news coverage in a more balanced and transparent way.
Imagine that KCNA cares about its international reputation and might tend to reframe its image as more reliable at the same time continuing to be the mouthpiece of North Korea’s leadership. If this is the case, then cooperating with TASS might be taken as a small step to learn from Russia’s experience to create a more positive image of a news agency.
One might argue that Russia cannot teach the freedom of the press to anyone, yet inviting Western liberal mainstream media representatives to North Korea for close cooperation is unthinkable and unimaginable at the moment. Gradual changes might be the only harmless option for North Korea.
Going deeper, Russia’s contemporary stance and self-positioning on the international stage includes promoting the idea of national sovereignty. For example, Russia insists that regardless of political regime, any currently existing statehood must not be destroyed but only changed through reforms. Moscow is certain that through gradual evolutionary change and state reform, it would be possible to create new models of progressive development and competitiveness intrinsic to the modern world (i.e. human rights and the freedom of the press). This scheme is well applied to North Korea.
When talking about national sovereignty — that by default must be preserved — North Korea’s sovereignty cannot be removed from the international discourse. The notion of national sovereignty that cannot be compromised, is the cornerstone in inter-state relations and peaceful coexistence. Thinking logically, North Korea might adapt the principle of promoting a certain state narrative and news interpretation close to Russia’s concept of national sovereignty.
In sum, through the collaboration of news agencies, North Korea and Russia are more likely pursue their pragmatic goals. When promoting its foreign policy objectives and deepening bilateral relations with North Korea, Russia makes a contribution to preserving the peace on the Korean peninsula and securing its Far East. North Korea’s pragmatic goal is to enlist the support of its closest neighbor from the North and, perhaps, stabilizing ideological battles with the implicit support of Russia. The long term outcome of the collaboration is yet to be fully evaluated, but a positive dynamic in bilateral relations should not be overlooked by whether Western or Asian powers who have stepped in the Northeast Asian region.
Dr. Olga Krasnyak is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Theory and History of International Relations at RUDN University in Moscow. Her research interests lie within diplomatic studies with a focus on science diplomacy and its implementation into a state’s foreign policy agenda. Dr. Krasnyak is the author of National Styles in Science, Diplomacy, and Science Diplomacy (Leiden, Boston: Brill 2018). She often provides media commentary on diplomacy, foreign policy, and international relations. She tweets @OlgaKrasnyak
Photo from Uri Tour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.