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Spotting solar power in North Korea with James Pearson

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In late April, Reuters offered insight into North Korea’s increasingly vibrant economy, revealing a boom in households setting up solar power systems to get around the isolated country’s chronic electricity shortage. The soaring sales of cheap and easily-installed solar panels reflect a jump in demand for electricity as incomes rise and people buy electronic goods like mobile phones and the “notel” media player that need regular charging.

In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, correspondent James Pearson offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he landed the story.

How did you get started on this solar power story?

James Pearson: In October last year, we broke the news that Pyongyang was planning to shut its borders to foreigners over Ebola concerns. In the months that followed, restricted access to outsiders meant I had far less sources to talk to. When we broke the news that the borders had been reopened, and people started visiting the country again, many who returned remarked that they had seen a notable increase in private solar panel use in their five-month absence. North Korea suffers from chronic electricity shortages, so a rise in cheap solar panels made sense – especially when one takes into account how prevalent and far-reaching the black market is in North Korea now.

In this North Korea story, what types of reporting/sourcing were involved?

James: I would love to talk more about North Korean sourcing but I am simply not in a position to do so. North Korea is very much a ‘live’ issue. The people inside who are willing to talk do so at great personal and professional risk. That said, just as one might when reporting on any other country, I try hard to cross-corroborate what I hear with as much physical evidence as possible. I am somewhat crippled by working in effective exile of the country I strive to cover, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. North Korea has traditionally been portrayed as an “information black hole” but, with a bit of creativity, it’s possible to use photography, satellite images, radio broadcasts and a whole host of other slightly more involved sourcing techniques to build up a better picture of what’s going on inside. Like any other story, it’s about putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together.

Solar panels face the sun from balconies of an apartment building as residents use solar energy to power their homes in Mangyongdae District, Pyongyang August 27, 2014.
Solar panels face the sun from balconies of an apartment building in Mangyongdae District, Pyongyang August 27, 2014. REUTERS/Staff

There are people, for example, who have tracked the growth and subsequent crackdown on private markets — the real foundation of today’s North Korean economy — using satellite imagery. Private solar panels don’t show up very well on Google Earth, but looking at recent visitor photos and video footage of North Korean cities and countryside revealed a clear trend – one that had not existed five months ago. With this story, it was simply a case of corroborating reports from in-country sources by comparing imagery from before and after the Ebola ban.

What makes you passionate about journalism?

James: With journalism, you can change people’s perceptions, contribute to a collective understanding, and pique people’s interest in remote corners of the world that would otherwise be totally inaccessible to them. North Korea is very much a live issue yet is sadly too often a source of tabloid amusement. There are moments of light relief but it is fundamentally one of the most unknown civilisations in the 21st Century.

What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?

James: I cover politics and general news in both Koreas for Reuters from Seoul, but usually focus more on developments in the North – somewhere that for so long has been viewed as impossible for journalists to cover. I joined Reuters in 2013 and have spent the last 18 months trying to break down that image of an impenetrable country where journalists can’t work, and break real news using real sources or innovative sourcing methods. The solar panel story, I hope, is a good example.

What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist reporting on North Korea?

James: North Korea is a real country with real people in it, many of whom who do not live very easy lives. By focusing on how the people live there, and not just how the State operates, I hope I have contributed in at least some small way to broadening people’s understanding of this little pocket of the 20th Century and the Cold War holding out in north east Asia. That said, my job would be a lot easier if I could live in and report freely from Pyongyang. I would love to be able to ask people what they ate for breakfast, and how much the food cost them, but I can’t.

On a more personal level, it’s enormously rewarding to see one’s work scattered across the front pages of newspapers across the world – Reuters really is great for that!

Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?

James: I toyed with a few career ideas before finally becoming a journalist, including diplomacy, politics and academia. I had a place to do further research on North Korea at Cambridge, and at one point had a door open with the Royal Navy, but I ultimately chose to embark on something where I felt I would have the proper resources, time and support to pursue my interests in current affairs, politics and, of course, North Korea. In this regard, journalism is the perfect job for me, and I honestly couldn’t imagine a better place to be doing it than Reuters.

Anything else you’d like to share?

James: I have just released a book on North Korea called North Korea Confidential with my co-author Daniel Tudor, a former Korea correspondent for the Economist. The book strives to show how North Koreans live on a daily basis, and delves into how the famine of the 1990s became the tragic but essential catalyst which sowed the seeds of North Korea’s market economy and new capitalism. You can read an extract on Reuters.com.

This post originally ran on Reuters Best.


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