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White House 'Embarrassed' By NBC's Pre-Olympic Coverage from North Korea


FILE - Masikryong Ski Resort is seen near North Korea's east coast port city of Wonsan, Feb. 20, 2017.

An American news outlet that made a rare visit to North Korea to cover the country's Olympic team is being criticized by the Trump administration for coverage that, in the words of one official, depicted "the most totalitarian country on the planet … as a cheerful winter holiday resort."

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt broadcast last week from the Masikryong Ski Resort, where South Korean and North Korean alpine ski teams are slated to train.

FILE - Moderator Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” asks a question during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. Holt says his trip to North Korea was valuable despite restrictions placed upon him by his hosts.
FILE - Moderator Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” asks a question during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. Holt says his trip to North Korea was valuable despite restrictions placed upon him by his hosts.

In some segments of the program, Holt was framed against a backdrop of children sledding, skiers in brightly colored gear, and jumbo screens displaying singers in military uniforms. Holt said that he and his crew had undergone an extensive customs search when entering North Korea, noting that the resort was "certainly" an aspect of North Korea that its leaders "would like us to see."

Criticism of the broadcast erupted online, accusing NBC of misrepresenting a stage-managed piece of North Korean propaganda for American viewers. Holt defended the coverage, saying, "You go to a place like North Korea with your eyes wide open."

A spokesperson for President Donald Trump's National Security Council (NSC) told VOA's Korean Service on Thursday that council members were ashamed of the network's coverage.

FILE - Members of a "ski camp" are seen at the Masikryong Ski Resort, near North Korea's east coast port city of Wonsan, Feb. 19, 2017.
FILE - Members of a "ski camp" are seen at the Masikryong Ski Resort, near North Korea's east coast port city of Wonsan, Feb. 19, 2017.

"We are embarrassed for NBC. A first-year journalism student would know to highlight the severe constraints on their ability to report on North Korea as it truly is," the official said. "It is no small feat of the most totalitarian country on the planet to be depicted as a cheerful winter holiday resort, but somehow NBC has managed to do it."

The controversy over Holt's coverage comes amid a slight easing of tension between Pyongyang and Seoul, a change which could undercut the Trump administration's campaign of international sanctions and "maximum pressure" on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs.

In response to last week's White House comment, an NBC spokesperson told VOA that Holt clearly stated that the North Korean "government escorts determined where they could go, watching and listening to every move." In one report, Holt said, "What you're seeing here certainly flies in the face of a country that's undergoing crippling sanctions, and that may be part of the reason we were invited to see this."

Holt told Adweek on Monday that the Olympic Games will be conducted with a major news story in the background.

FILE - A giant screen is seen on a slope of the Masikryong Ski Resort, near North Korea's east coast port city of Wonsan, Feb. 19, 2017. Work began on Masikryong Ski Resort, the only one in the North and the brainchild of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, after Pyeongchang in the neighboring South was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics.
FILE - A giant screen is seen on a slope of the Masikryong Ski Resort, near North Korea's east coast port city of Wonsan, Feb. 19, 2017. Work began on Masikryong Ski Resort, the only one in the North and the brainchild of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, after Pyeongchang in the neighboring South was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics.

"The world is holding its breath on the issue of: Is this the breakthrough? Is this the moment when they can start having a useful dialogue?" he said. "On a geopolitical level, this may complicate how the White House views the North Korean nuclear threat if this sets a pattern for a stronger relationship between the North and South."

North, South agreement

Earlier this month, the two Koreas held the first high-level talks in two years following Kim's offer to discuss his country's participation in the Olympics.

The discussions produced an inter-Korean agreement, officially announced on Jan. 20, under which the two sides agreed to march together under a single flag at the opening ceremony of the games and field a combined women's ice hockey team. The North also agreed to send 22 athletes and a large delegation, including a cheerleading squad and performers. The athletes will compete in ice hockey, figure skating, short track speed skating, cross-country skiing and alpine skiing, the International Olympic Committee said.

North Korea on Monday canceled a joint cultural event, citing South Korean media coverage of its participation in the games.

The NBC broadcast from Masikryong came several weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang from February 9-25. The games are a prized franchise for NBCUniversal, the Comcast subsidiary that is parent company of NBC, which also broadcast The Apprentice, the show that launched Trump's reality TV career.

Since 1995, NBCUniversal has paid the International Olympic Committee (IOC) $15.63 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2032. The money helps support the Olympic movement, according to the IOC.

VOA's Christy Lee contributed to this report.

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