Reflections from a foreign correspondent

We caught up with Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington alumna and Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post Anna Fifield about politics in North Korea, what the media landscape looks like in China and here in Aotearoa New Zealand, and lockdown life in the Hawke’s Bay.

Prior to joining the Beijing bureau, Anna, an English Literature and Language graduate, spent four years as Tokyo bureau chief focused on Japan and the Koreas. Anna’s recent book The Great Successor: The Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un brings together insights from her experience into the life and politics of the reclusive state of North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un.

We asked her, what has happened in the year since the book was published?

“Quite a lot has changed. I ended the book quite optimistic about the process between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump because I thought they were both so unconventional and had the ability to write a new playbook for U.S.-North Korea relations,” says Anna.

“But obviously since then, Donald Trump has been very distracted in terms of being impeached and now coronavirus, and his existential war with China, and that whole process has fallen to pieces.”

Sometimes portrayed in Western media as this irrational cartoonish villain, Anna says that we should not misjudge Kim Jong Un.

“He’s shrewd and savvy and we should not underestimate him. He still has the same incentive; he still wants to talk. That is why I think we’ve seen almost literally fireworks this week [the blowing up of the joint liaison office of North and South Korea]. He is frustrated and he wants to get attention back on him because he is having trouble with the economy and its only gotten worse with coronavirus and having to close the border [with China].”

As the United States gears up for the presidential election in November, she says we could potentially see Donald Trump in a last-ditch effort to prove himself with North Korea.

“Donald Trump has his hands full, but I can also totally see him trying to find a foreign policy win as he goes into the election. Maybe he has to try and pretend to create some success with Kim Jong Un. It’s a pretty bad situation when Kim Jong Un is your best hope.”

With China recently withdrawing the press credentials of several journalists at three U.S. newspapers, Anna is now the only Washington Post correspondent accredited for China. With tensions escalating between Washington and Beijing, how does she think the media landscape is changing?

“I think it’s going to get even harder now. The Communist Party controls on journalists have become so much more stringent and they monitor us non-stop. We’re seeing them really trying to control the narrative and to do everything they can to obstruct independent journalism, so I expect my job to get even more difficult when I go back.”

Initially arriving in New Zealand for a short five-day visit, which turned into a three month stay due to coronavirus, Anna noticed a distinct lack of news and reporting on Asia.

“One thing I’ve noticed in these three months of being home is just how little reporting there is on Asia. We, New Zealand, are part of Asia in terms of our tourism and our trade and economic interests. Our security interests are all in Asia, so the dearth of coverage is really quite shocking,” she says.

“And I think it does New Zealand a disservice because it’s not enough to take BBC stories about Asia, we need them told from a New Zealand perspective. When you look at something like Fonterra or Zespri and the kind of work they do in China and the various issues there have been, we need New Zealand coverage of that.”

During lockdown in Hawke’s Bay, Anna enjoyed seeing friends and family, drinking many flat whites, and reading New Zealand literature.

“I’ve just read a great book by Rose Lu, who is a graduate of Bill Manhire’s programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters, called All Those Who Live on Islands, which I felt was almost the perfect book for me. It’s full of Chinese, but it’s also full of New Zealand. So I loved reading that book.”

With her stint here being the longest period of time she’s spent in New Zealand in 20 years, one thing has stood out to Anna.

“The thing that has surprised me a lot, pleasantly, is the explosion of te reo usage in everyday life which is extremely different from when I left New Zealand in 2000.

“So even coming home and reading the paper, seeing the macrons on words, seeing words like rahui and not knowing what it meant so having to look it up. It’s so common place now and it’s a really great development.”

With China opening up again, Anna returned to Beijing on the first Air New Zealand flight in mid-June.

“As much as I’ve loved being here, I’m a foreign correspondent, so I’m really desperate to get back and stuck into my job,” she says.