On the eve of August 12, 2001, I received a phone call in the middle of the night. It was from a South Korean government official, who told me my application for a reporting trip to North Korea—which had previously been denied by the South Korean government—had been accepted. I was to pack and leave for North Korea the next day. For the first time in my life, I was going to Pyongyang as a South Korean journalist.
After hanging up, I stayed up all night in the prepare-for-North-Korea drill I would come to perfect over the next eight years. First, I updated my laptop’s North Korea database (no Web searches there!). Second, I went out to stock up on nylon stockings and women’s cosmetics, the gifts de rigueur for North Koreans at the time. As I gathered my work attire, I would leave out my usual pair of blue jeans, which, as a blatant sign of American culture, could offend the North Koreans. Also missing as I left for Pyongyang the next morning were two items I would otherwise have had with me at all times: passport and cell phone.
The passport was useless, because according to the South Korean Constitution, North Korea is not a foreign country. North Korea, conversely, considers South Korea part of its own territory under illegal occupation. Yes, the two Koreas have been technically at war since 1950. This means for any physical trip across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, journalists must get approval from three parties: South Korea, North Korea, and the United Nations Command, which is effectively the United States Army.
If I’d had the magical powers to secure permits from all the powers that be, the trip from Seoul to Pyongyang would have been a breezy two-hour car ride. But Pyongyang rarely gives out road permits, as it doesn’t like to show the shabby roads and overall poverty on the way to Pyongyang—a great contrast from Seoul. Given the political sensitivities, the usual route was to fly first into Beijing and wait a couple of days to secure a seat on the thrice-weekly Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang. It’s like flying from Miami to Havana via Toronto.
The year before I went, when heads of the two Korean states met for the first time in half a century (on June 13, 2000), even South Korean president Kim Dae-jung did not get to use the land route; instead, he flew directly into Pyongyang from Seoul—the first such flight in decades. As it happened, my trip in August 2001 marked one of the few other times this direct flight was granted. I was going to North Korea as a pool reporter to cover the joint Liberation Day festivities, commemorating August 15, 1945, when then-colonizer Japan conceded defeat to the Allies. I traveled with 337 South Korean civilians, an eclectic group of scholars, farmers, union organizers, and religious clergy. The South Korean group was all over the place ideologically, from right-wing war veterans to surly, radical college kids who looked like they’d launch mini-nuclear wars against each other if they could.
The mood of our delegation was full of hope, even among the usually cynical South Korean journalists. After all, Chairman Kim Jong-il was courting the press for the first time in history. An iconic recluse, Kim rarely uttered more than a sentence in public. Yet the year before my visit, he had invited 46 media executives from major South Korean newspapers, broadcasting stations, and magazines to Pyongyang and allowed them to openly ask questions and file stories. Kim showed that he could charm the hawkish South Koreans; he even threw a birthday party for one of them. Around the same time, he also granted two rare interviews to foreign media. Clearly, Chairman Kim was waking up to the influence of the press in capitalistic countries.