Turmoil at U.S. Agency for Global Media Undermines Information Policy for North Korea

Michael Pack was sworn in as the new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) a few days after he was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 4, 2020.  The vote on his confirmation was split along party lines.  The agency operates Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks (including Al Hurra and Radio Sawa), and Radio and TV Marti (which broadcast to Cuba), as well as other U.S. international information efforts.

President Donald Trump announced that he was nominating Pack to serve as CEO of the Global Media agency in June 2018.  He is a documentary film producer who has been involved in public broadcasting.  In 1993, he was Co-Chair of the International TV Council at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).  He served on the National Council on the Humanities, which oversees the National Endowment for the Humanities (2002-2005), and he was Senior Vice President for Television Programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2003-2006).

It appears that the President was less interested in his media background than in his political views, however.  Pack was president of the very conservative Claremont Institute (2015-2017), at the time the organization became an early defender of candidate Donald Trump.  The Daily Beast said that the Claremont Institute has “arguably done more than any other group to build a philosophical case for Trump’s brand of conservatism.”  Pack has also been closely aligned with Stephen Bannon, head of the Trump campaign effort in 2016 and a former White House advisor to the president.

Even the Republican-controlled Senate seemed cautious.  It took an unusual nine month wait after Pack’s confirmation hearing was held for the Senate leadership to bring the nomination to a vote.  The Senate leadership could have pushed through the confirmation vote, as it finally did, despite Democratic concerns.  This suggests that even some Republicans had doubts about Pack’s suitability and the President’s intentions.

President Trump personally raised the nomination in a phone call with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  At a news conference in April 2020 the President threatened to employ a never-previously-used authority to adjourn the Congress if the Senate continued to delay confirmation of Mr. Pack and other nominees.  At the same time, he also viciously attacked Voice of America: “If you hear what's coming out of the Voice of America, it's disgusting.  The things they say are disgusting to our country.”

Reflecting the Oval Office attitude toward Voice of America and other US Global Media operations, Vice President Mike Pence threatened to ban a VOA journalist for reporting that the Vice President failed to wear a face mask when he visited the Mayo Clinic.  Not wearing a face mask was a violation of the policies of the medical facility.  The irony is that Voice of America and other U.S. Global Media entities do not broadcast inside the United States.  The focus and the broadcast capabilities are aimed at foreign audiences only. 

A few days after Senate confirmation, Pack assumed leadership of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.  His initial actions were stunning.  The heads of each one of the major components of the agency were fired.  The senior leadership of Voice of America were gone within two days.    Amanda Bennett, director of VOA and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, previous executive editor at Bloomberg News, and a journalist at The Wall Street Journal was out.  Deputy Director of VOA Sandy Sugawara was also gone.  She is a former journalist at The Washington Post and UPI before coming to VOA.  Also fired was Libby Liu, former head of Radio Free Asia, who headed USAGM’s Open Technology Fund, which promotes international internet freedom.  The firings have created turmoil, upheaval, and chaos and the consequences are not likely to promote American values of free speech and integrity of a free media.

Not only did Pack fire the heads of divisions at the USAGM, he also dissolved the advisory boards whose members included a number of prominent foreign policy.  These advisory boards were set up by Congress to advise and monitor the activities of the various media components of the organization.  Four of the members of the dissolved boards have filed a lawsuit contending that Pack violated federal regulation when he summarily dissolved the boards.

The Critical Role of Outside Information in North Korea

Access to international information has been one of the principles of U.S. efforts to encourage peaceful transition and progress around the world, but it has a particular importance for North Korea.  Reporters without Borders (RSF or Rapporteurs sans Frontiers), a respected private international organization that promotes freedom of information, ranked North Korea dead last in 2020 out of 180 countries around the world in terms of freedom of information.  The extremes to which Pyongyang will go to prevent its people from accessing external information has been well documented by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) into North Korea human rights.  Listening to foreign radio or watching foreign television broadcasts is a crime that is severely punished in North Korea.  It is even illegal to own or possess a radio or television set capable of being tuned to any station other than to official North Korean media. 

In spite of vigorous regime efforts to block access to foreign media, one of the principal sources of external information that reaches the North are broadcasts in the Korean language from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.  In addition South Korea’s KBS broadcasts reach into the North.  Broadcasts in the Korean language broadcasts for ethnic Koreans living in northeast China also reach across North Korea’s borders.  Although radio has declined in importance as a source of information as online media has become available in most parts of the world, in North Korea international radio broadcasts are still key to accessing foreign information.

Foreign radio plays a very important role in North Korea.  U.S.-funded Korean language broadcasts (VOA and Radio Free Asia) reach as many as 10 percent of Koreans who regularly listen to news and information programs.  Another 10 percent listen to programs originating in South Korea, and roughly another 10 percent listen to Chinese-origin Korean language broadcasting.

Ideological Purity not Thoughtful Independent Journalism

One of the more disturbing indications of the intentions of the new CEO of the US Agency for Global Media is that the future will not continue to bring diverse news and analysis programming on VOA and RFA broadcasts in Korean.  Mr. Pack recently announced that he is implementing policies “to ensure that editorials that reflect the view of Donald Trump’s administration are given greater prominence and placement.”  Furthermore, he said that treatment of VOA opinion editorials will be carefully monitored to assure compliance with his directives.

It appears that the new chief of US Global Media has taken a page from Kim Jong-un’s media control playbook.  Rather than encouraging diversity of opinion and a variety of views, the new CEO will enforce the party line.  The exemplary free media of the United States continues to flourish, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to manipulate, manage, and muzzle the American media.  But the richness and diversity of voices in the United States will not be reflected in broadcasting to foreign audiences.

The title of an Anne Applebaum article in The Atlantic aptly sums up the changes taking place under CEO Pack at the USAGM—“The voice of America Will Sound Like Trump:  Under the president’s control, U.S.-funded broadcasters could turn into a presidential propaganda machine.”

It is clear by the senior appointments already being made that journalistic and media competence is not required.  Mr. Pack named James M. Miles to head the Open Technology Fund, which is focused on promoting international internet freedom.  This requires understanding of the closed media available in places like North Korea, as well as some understanding of online technologies in the effort to reach such places.  Mr. Miles is the former Secretary of State of South Carolina (1991-2003)—the first Republican elected to that position since Reconstruction.  Since completing his tenure as Secretary of State, he has practiced law with a firm that is known for its labor law practice.  He appears to be the kind of person who does not have a deep substantive knowledge of international internet freedom technology and content that might get in the way of following orders.

Denying Visas for Foreign Journalists with Essential Skills

Contributing to the chaos and confusion, USAGM’s new leadership said that non-U.S. international journalists who work for VOA and other media organizations at the USAGM will not have their visas renewed.  Michael Pack has already said he will not approve visa renewals for existing journalists, and ten journalists whose visas are expiring have already been informed that their work visas will not be renewed.  Most others are in fear that they too will not be allowed to continue working on U.S. international broadcasts when their visas expire.

There has been no clear indication why such visas are being denied.  Certainly the President has sought to cut the number of non-Americans allowed to work and reside in the United States and the COVID-19 economic crisis has emphasized the need to increase job opportunities for American citizens, but the jobs at USAGM are few in number (76 according to VOA).  Furthermore, these are positions for individuals with niche skills which the average American does not have—for example, translating English language news reports into Korean, Swahili, or Mandarin with a sensitivity for the nuances of the languages and cultures.  Another important skill these foreign journalists bring is speaking the native language without a foreign accent.  Having information delivered in such familiar voices is critical for successful international media.

Another humanitarian concern is that this small number of non-American journalists working at USAGM in many cases risk death or imprisonment if they are forced to return to their authoritarian native countries after working for United States government.  Their commitment and effort to get international news into their homelands makes them a prime target of authoritarian regimes.  From the practical and humanitarian point of view, this sweeping and poorly-considered policy on visas is a disaster.  It is harmful for U.S. national interests, because it will reduce the effectiveness of our international information policies, bit it is also a humanitarian disaster for these individuals and their families.

The ultimate concern is that by politicizing the news that is broadcast from VOA and other U.S. information programs to people living under dictatorships around the world, we establish the view that United States media is a mirror of their own tightly controlled and manipulated media.  VOA should never be the American equivalent of North Korea’s state media. 

A multiplicity of voices and views, particularly in broadcasts to other countries, echoes and demonstrates the diversity of what we hear and read and see in the United States.  This is what gives United States international media credibility and interest.  If North Koreans see broadcasts from Voice of America or Radio Free Asia as the U.S. equivalent of an official pronouncement from Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), our efforts will be in vain.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.