Journalists covering North Korea’s rocket launch were stymied

By DAVID PIERSON | Los Angeles Times | Published: April 13, 2012

BEIJING — It seemed like a reasonable assumption to journalists: Score a rare invitation to North Korea this week, and in all likelihood, you’ll get to break the news when the cloistered state eventually launches its Unha-3 missile.

But that’s not how it worked out for the dozens of foreign journalists still rubbing the sleep from their eyes in a Pyongyang hotel when the rocket’s launch and flameout took place before 8 a.m. Friday morning in North Korea.

“We learned about the rocket failure from our foreign news desk who called us in our hotel rooms,” Ed Flanagan, a producer for NBC, said in an email interview. “As news broke it was just pandemonium in the hotel with journalists running … between the newsroom and the live-shot positions.”

During the scramble, Flanagan said, one of his North Korean government minders grabbed him and told him to get ready — not for any news conference on the launch, but for a music festival scheduled for that day.

“He had no idea that the rocket had failed and when I told him what had happened, he looked astonished and walked away,” said Flanagan, who was furiously relaying the peculiar developments on Twitter.

The deflating scene appeared to be repeating itself across the closely guarded Yanggakdo International Hotel, located on an island and therefore nicknamed Alcatraz.

BBC reporter Damian Grammaticas, who’d been up most of the night working, was awakened by his Beijing bureau chief, Jo Floto, to learn of the news.

“The rest of the world knew but nobody in North Korea knew that the rocket had launched,” Floto said.

Grammaticas later tweeted: “Now in bizarre situation our #NKorea minders asking ME to tell THEM if rocket has launched. Went up 4 hours ago but they have no information.”

By then, it was clear that the only people the reporters would be breaking the news to were the very individuals they had counted on for the latest information.

“Covering this rocket launch from Pyongyang seems to me like covering the Super Bowl from the Superdome equipment storage locker,” tweeted Chico Harlan, a correspondent for The Washington Post in Seoul.

At the very least, the journalists thought they’d get to watch a feed of the launch on television, Flanagan said.

On Thursday, North Korean officials had seemingly been preparing the hotel’s media center, a circular room with tiered seating and Internet access. Large screens were set up and speakers checked. Broadcast crews staked out positions for prime viewing.

Though they ultimately had no scoop, the massive media attention may have been a factor in the country’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, issuing the stunning admission of failure later on Friday.

“The way North Korea quickly admitted the failure of the launch may have reflected the reigning style of Kim Jong Un,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in South Korea. “Unlike Kim Jong Il, who in the past hid his failures, Kim Jong Un called the foreign press and showed them what happened.”

Press invitations to North Korea are scarce, and news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, ordinarily leap at the opportunity to look at life inside the reclusive nation — even if it means absorbing a lot of propaganda along the way.

For days before the rocket launch, the press corps were led through carefully choreographed tours and events. They watched the unveiling of a massive mosaic of Kim Jong Il, who died in December, and visited a fruit processing plant adorned with a giant mural of the deceased leader. A trip to Kim Il Sung University provided interviews with students.

Each stop was supposed to highlight the regime’s enduring strength. But like the surprised reaction of minders Friday, the country’s brittle condition remained in full view.

On Thursday, a bus carrying foreign press to a music center took a wrong turn through a crumbling Pyongyang neighborhood that ordinarily would have been shielded from view, wrote Tim Sullivan, a reporter for The Associated Press.

“A cloud of brown dust swirled down deeply potholed streets, past concrete apartment buildings crumbling at the edges,” Sullivan wrote. “Old people trudged along the sidewalk, some with handmade backpacks crafted from canvas bags. Two men in wheelchairs waited at a bus stop. There were stores with no lights, and side roads so battered they were more dirt than pavement.”

A minder on the bus could do little but say, “Perhaps this is an incorrect road?”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing and special correspondent Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.