A UN Odyssey: In Pursuit of the Confidential Report on North Korea

This article is the first in a series “Essays from the Field,” which documents the professional journeys and accomplishments of YPFP New York members.


By Matthew Edwin Carpenter


My U.N. odyssey began in 2013, working for Japan’s premium media outlet. As a U.N. reporter, I had one mission, the holy grail of U.N. journalism for Japanese media: the yearly confidential report on North Korea.


My introduction to diplomacy and intrigue began with my interview with the staff of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest and most influential newspaper. The interview, initially in English, switched to Japanese at the prompt of the bureau chief. He and Kato-san, my future senior colleague, jolted in surprise when I began speaking Japanese, and the bureau chief commented: “We’re always skeptical when people put on their resume that they’re ‘fluent in Japanese’… most of the time they’re exaggerating,” I was obviously an exception. Kato-san, who had thrown a number of difficult questions at me, asked the hardest yet: “What is the main flaw of the U.S. and Japan?” I purposely delayed answering and contemplated the question, both to give myself time to think and to demonstrate that I can hold my own under pressure. After a pause, I locked eyes with him and responded, “the U.S. is a culture of self-assertion. It is natural for Americans to be expressive and to take personal leadership. Many Americans give off a friendly vibe in public and claim to be on your side, but as you get to know them this perception fades. Their friendliness can turn out to be fake, a mere act. By contrast, Japanese culture is organized around consensus building. Compared to the U.S. there aren’t as many who can exert leadership in times truly calling for it.” Kato-san lit up with an impressed look: “You’re spot on!” Several days later, after submitting my references, I received a call from the council of The Yomiuri Shimbun informing me that I got the job as their U.N. reporter.


Thus began my two-year adventure at the U.N., representing the newspaper with the world’s largest circulation, an estimated readership of 26 million. Nearly a quarter of Japan was now depending on my work. The first year at the U.N. was full of challenges. Day one at U.N. headquarters began with the usual settling-in routine — securing the proper badges and getting oriented to the new environment. I began by introducing myself to diplomats from the U.K., France, the U.S., Lebanon, and U.N. officers, anyone willing to meet me and share some time and knowledge. My first major observation was that there was a hierarchy of media at the United Nations. At the top, The New York Times and Reuters, who were not only treated well but basically spoon-fed information by the most powerful and influential diplomats. Below them, the mid and upper mid-tiers: CNN, Fox, CBS, European media, and so forth. The Japanese media – with nearly a dozen companies represented, the most of any Member State – were lower mid-tier. Kato-san, my boss at The Yomiuri Shimbun, laid out my mission in simple terms:


Your main job is to get your hands on the confidential annual report on North Korea. It’s one of the hardest documents to get at the U.N. Your predecessor failed. Kyodo and The Asahi Shimbun (the paper’s main competitors) have been consistently beating us during the past several years, and this cannot go on. They have entrenched institutional sources at the U.N., and so they have the upper hand; however, I hired you because you’re likeable – since you’ve done well in sales before and speak Japanese, we are confident of your success. I am counting on you.


Kato-san had high expectations based on the prism of his experience in Japan where The Yomiuri Shimbun is accorded tremendous respect and deference given the company’s size and impact on Japanese society. Unfortunately, the same access and opportunities proved much more elusive at the United Nations. Western diplomats lumped us in with our competitors as “the Japanese media,” and were not disposed to provide special access. Doors frequently were shut in my face and phones hung up in mid-conversation.


In Japan, The Yomiuri Shimbun journalists are known to call potential sources every 10 minutes until they relent, or to stroll into people’s offices demanding attention and information. This approach works well in Japan, where the paper has the requisite name and status, but was totally inappropriate at the United Nations. Nevertheless, Kato-san was adamant that I follow in this tradition. My reputation suffered as I called diplomats over and over, and walked into the offices of high-ranking United Nations staff uninvited. Kato-san’s rants grew in length and intensity as his frustration mounted while I, the recent hire, struggled to find sources: “What the hell are you doing? Did you lie on your resume? You really have a Master’s? I don’t care how well you did in school, in the real world smart people are dime a dozen…” In Japan, you never talk back to your superior, even if you’re right. I apologized and took the abuse. Doing otherwise would make things worse, and I knew this attitude was expected of me at The Yomiuri Shimbun.


As a rookie journalist, I was prone to the occasional careless errors and mistakes. These blunders fueled the flames of anger in Kato-san, who was under immense pressure from the executive staff of The Yomiuri Shimbunto produce immediate results. Pressure was on both of us, from multiple directions. One night early 2014, Kato-san called me at 11:00pm. The annual report of the North Korean Sanctions Committee was out, and our competitors had got their hands on it. He was desperate and ordered me to call everyone, with no avail. The Asahi Shimbun and Kyodo had scooped us yet again. It was not fun. After a year and literally hours of being yelled at over the phone, I had failed in my main objective; however, I was not giving up.


After the report was released, the South Korean Mission organized a press conference based on the report’s findings. Kato-san instructed me to read the report – dense and hundreds of pages long – which outlined details of sanctions, lists of companies in and out of compliance, goods on the list of sanctions, and other technical details. I took my time, read it carefully, and absorbed the entire document. The press conference included many high-level government and U.N. representatives, and provided opportunity to engage in a question and answer session. When the speakers finished their presentation, I raised my hand. Kato-san, sitting next to me, was visibly nervous. Asking a question on North Korea at a setting like this was high stakes for Japan’s premium news outlet. Other journalists were picked before me, but I persisted, and was eventually called on:


Hi, my name is Matthew Carpenter, a reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. Earlier you said cooperation from the international community towards your work has been increasing the past 15 months. Now, in the report, it says there is a general lack of awareness among the import/export community regarding the Security Council sanctions against North Korea. My question is, if cooperation from the international community has been increasing during the past 15 months, is the awareness among the import/export community regarding the sanctions increasing? If not, what are you doing about it? Thank you.


The Head of the Sanctions Committee responded and was visibly nervous as his voice had lost its tone of confidence. Kato-san did not tell me what he thought about the question and was quiet; however, I was happily surprised when veteran journalists approached me at the reception and congratulated me for having asked the best question at the press conference. I passed by the by the Council on Foreign Relations Korea Expert, who glared at me exclaiming, “That was a hard question!” This high-profile public event proved to be a turning point that bolstered my confidence in my press skills.


With newfound confidence in the method I took bolder steps. During one memorable day at the U.N., in the stakeout area in front of the Security Council with diplomats representing the most powerful Member States lined up, I asked: “Did the Security Council veto of the International Criminal Court referral resolution impact the climate of impunity in Syria?” The Rapporteur clenched his fist and yelled “No! We are not going to criticize the Security Council!” Other journalists began asking similar follow-up questions. At a similar, follow up press conference featuring the representatives of the Syrian Opposition, I asked, “Between the Assad regime and ISIS, which side does the Syrian Opposition consider to be its main enemy?” to which they responded evasively, “we are going to defeat them both!” Word began getting around among the international community that this Japanese-speaking American journalist asked good and hard questions.


The shift in my position at the United Nations became obvious to me when I received an invitation to a luncheon from the Ambassador of the League of Arab States. I knew this invitation indicated a significant development as I was the sole Japanese representative present. During the reception, the Ambassador quietly walked up to me, looked me in the eye, and without introducing himself asked: “What is the difference between the U.S.’s foreign policy in the Middle East and East Asia since WWII, and what generates the difference?” This powerful diplomat was testing my grasp of geopolitics. Nervously, I answered “well, the United States incorporated East Asia into its alliance structure and industrialized it to protect the sea lanes of communication, while playing a balance of power politics in the Middle East to keep a dominant power from emerging there, and what generates the difference is the presence of the Soviet, or the Russian, threat…” The Ambassador nodded in agreement, and without saying a word, returned to his seat. Without my knowing if I had passed the test or not, the luncheon commenced.


Year two came, and again the critical moment arrived, the annual report on North Korea was out. Reuters had gotten their hands on it and wired about it. I called my best source and they sent me a document that we both knew was not what I was looking for. I called again, and after the second time was able to acquire the report on North Korea, which The Yomiuri Shimbun had failed to get for several years running. Success!


The report on North Korea highlighted the difficulty of organizing an effective multilateral sanctions regime against a Member State not interested in cooperating with the international community. Companies out for profit would break Security Council resolutions to trade with North Korea, and oversight and implementation of the sanctions regime was a challenge even for the top minds at the United Nations. South Korea and the Trump administration, as of the writing this essay, are engaging North Korea with denuclearization negotiations. Though developments are rapidly evolving, North Korea has announced a freeze in nuclear testing.


My two years at the U.N. were not necessarily the best years of my life, but were certainly the most thrilling and professionally challenging. Despite my initial struggles, in the end I was producing notable results surrounded by powerful, stiff competitors, and was scooping stories not only from my Japanese media colleagues, but also, at times, top Western organizations like The New York Times and Reuters.


I ultimately succeeded in the mission Kato-san assigned to me in May 2013. My success was not a result of my ability to manipulate or force outcomes in such an environment, but rather respect. I treated everyone, no matter what country or organization they represented, with the respect they deserved. This respect was many times not only appreciated but returned. I had off-the-record conversations with powerful and up-and-coming representatives from the U.S., Russia, Great Britain, France, China, Japan, Germany, Lithuania, Iraq, Pakistan, and more, who all treated me as their intellectual equal. I was well aware that not all members of the U.N. press corps received that treatment.


The ability to never give up during the bleakest of hours came from maintaining self-confidence and reminding myself of my commitment – I was here to be a contribution, not only for The Yomiuri Shimbun, but also the international community. The work ethic, enthusiasm, and respect towards others I brought to the U.N. won recognition among many members representing diverse and at times conflicting interests. My results were a combination of this respect with awareness that I was in the international arena. Integrity goes a long way even in an environment fraught with realpolitik.


Since my days at the United Nations, I worked as the manager of an import/export firm representing the Japanese military, and also successfully as an interpreter and translator. Taking my reputation, connections, and the experience I gained from my fruitful career in New York over the past six years, I started my own U.S.-Japan relations consulting firm. Support from the international community was key in getting my business off the ground. Careers are built on relationships, and relationships are built on mutual contribution. My life goal to be a contributor to the international community was, and is, the key to my past and present success.


Matthew Edwin Carpenter is a U.S. citizen born to American parents in Nara, Japan, where he spent over half his life. He is a full native bilingual/bicultural professional in Japanese and English. His experience ranges from journalism to finance and NGO work. More details available at www.biculturalconsultant.com.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.