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North Korean journalists use status and travel freedom to cash-in

A man watches a television screen showing news footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending the 8th congress of the ruling Workers' Party held in Pyongyang, at a railway station in Seoul on Jan. 6, 2021. Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
October 15, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Reporters for North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper are increasingly using their status and freedom to travel for economic gain, obtaining rice and other food in exchange for favorable stories, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.  

Some journalists have even gotten involved in buying and selling gold, letting their newsgathering take a back seat, the sources said.

The Rodong Sinmun is an organ of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party and the most widely-read publication in the country. Its reporters are accorded prestige and freedom that most of their fellow citizens are not, and some exploit that to make money that will offset their low salaries.

“Reporters of the Rodong Sinmun, who enjoy high status as the party’s trumpeters, are now looking for subjects that they can do business with … rather than just writing good articles,” a resident of Pyongyang told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

While travel for ordinary citizens is restricted, reporters can go practically anywhere thanks to a government-issued travel pass.

“If you show this travel pass, the authorities will not be able to control you,” a South Pyongan resident said. “Some reporters buy gold in Hoechang County, a gold mining area, under the pretext of reporting. They then make money illegally by selling the gold to China through the border area of Sinuiju.” 

Supplementing one’s income

In the past, some Rodong Sinmun reporters were able to offer writing a favorable story to factory or farm managers in exchange for food or goods, sources said.

But ever since the North Korean economy collapsed in the mid-1990s, salaries from government-assigned jobs are nowhere near enough to live on. The 3,500 won (42 US cents) reporters receive per month is enough to buy only 600 grams of rice at the marketplace.

It is now a matter of survival for the reporters to think about how they stand to gain money from a story, rather than whether the story actually serves the public. Some reporters even leave the writing out of it, and use their travel privileges to trade commodities, the sources said.

The path to becoming a Rodong Sinmun reporter is very narrow. 

Candidates must be chosen from the best and brightest at top universities, with impeccable academic records, and they must even come from families that have demonstrated unwavering loyalty to the state for several generations.

Two years after they are sent to work at the paper, they must take an exam to become a “level five,” or entry level, reporter. From there they can hope for promotion to level four within a few years. Then for the most skilled reporters, subsequent promotions to levels three, two, and one may follow.

But the life of a reporter at North Korea’s biggest newspaper is anything but glamorous, the resident said. 

“The reporter I know is a level four reporter who has been working at the industry department of the Rodong Sinmun for 7 years. But his family is so poor that they don’t even have enough rice and meat soup on holidays,” she said.  “Rodong Sinmun reporters receive food rations, but food for their families is not normally distributed.”

She explained that the reporter normally supports his family by traveling through the country to visit factories and receive favors or goods from each factory’s management. 

“But these days the factories are not operating properly due to the lack of materials and fuel,” the resident said. “So even if the reporter writes a good article about the factory, like reporting that the factory was self-reliant, it would do nothing to help the reporter’s bottom line.”

The lucrative farming beat

Due to the downturn in the economy, reporters in the factory beat want to switch to the collective farming beat, the resident said.  

“They all hope to become agricultural reporters,” she said. “When a reporter from the agriculture department goes out to cover a cooperative farm, the management committee chairperson and work team leaders usually give the reporter about 20 kilograms (44 lbs.) of rice, red pepper powder, and other ingredients in a backpack.”

Reporters also want to be assigned to cover the moneyed elites, because it has become customary for the rich to bribe journalists with US$100 bills in exchange for reports that can cast them in a good image and help expand their business networks, she said.

Those who get involved in trading gold often get consumed by that endeavor, while journalism becomes less important.

“Until a few years ago, reporters tried to gain honor … raising their status by publishing more good articles to promote the party’s policies.” she said. “These days, some reporters worry more about making money than reporting, saying that as their status increases, they only have to write more propaganda articles.”

Reporters who have been recognized for their outstanding contributions as deemed by the party are given the title of People’s Reporter and Meritorious Reporter, and in the past, this was seen as the highest honor. But sources said that these days the number of reporters who deviate from the party’s ideology is increasing.