WASHINGTON — The Associated Press was ready to formally dedicate a new bureau in North Korea's capital this week, giving AP the first permanent bureau operated by a Western news organization in the reclusive country.
When Kathleen Carroll, AP's executive editor, and Tom Curley, AP's president and chief executive, were en route to Pyongyang from Beijing early Monday, big news broke. A wailing state television anchor announced to the world that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was dead of a heart attack.
Upon arriving in the capital, Carroll and Curley were told by their hosts that it wouldn't be a good time to celebrate the new bureau. They had to turn around.
"Obviously, the big news in their country got in the way," Carroll said.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
With the party canceled, the bureau staff got right to work covering the story.
"The only thing we postponed was the hanging of the sign and the sipping of the champagne," Carroll said.
AP already has had video journalists working in the country for five years, but a fully staffed bureau fills a hole in the map. AP, which operates in more than 100 countries, had been working for most of the year to set up the bureau, at the invitation of the Korea Central News Agency, the official news agency of North Korea. It took several visits by Korea Bureau Chief Jean Lee and Asia photographer David Guttenfelder to work out the details. By Monday, the furniture was in place, the art was on the walls, and two reporters and a photographer already were working, supervised from Seoul by Lee and Guttenfelder.
One reason the world knows so little about North Korea is that the regime tightly controls information. Kim died Saturday morning, and no one knew about it for more than 48 hours. Carroll said that AP made clear that it would not submit its content to censors.
"AP operates in 300 locations, and we have always been up front in all the places we operate," she said. "We don't distort ourselves from one location to another."
Carroll said the biggest immediate task is covering the transition. How will the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, form a government? Will the younger Kim have someone looking over his shoulder? What's the military's role? Will the country seek foreign aid?
"The death is a historic event, and it triggers more events to follow," she said. "The passing of any nation's leader is a big story, and to understand what the transition means is pretty fascinating. We're glad to be there."
Carroll said she also wants to show what daily life is like for North Korea's 24 million people. AP's photographer has been documenting routine matters such as meals in restaurants, what police officers wear, what streets look like and what goes on inside classrooms.
"North Korea is a fascinating place and not one people have had much exposure to," Carroll said. "We were never worried about not having a story."
Carroll expects that over time, AP will build a positive relationship with North Koreans.
"It is a place that is caricatured by political points of view," she said. "The longer you are there, and if you conduct yourself in a fair and impartial way, people begin to trust you the longer they get to know you."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY