Through the looking glass

When a South Korean reporter headed north across the DMZ, she entered a parallel universe that was, and remains, curiouser and curiouser

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.

Upon arrival in Pyongyang, an oddly beautiful city rebuilt by the Soviets, Chinese, and East Germans in the 1950s, I was teamed up with my guide/minder, who would stick with me for the duration of the visit. Any journalist working in North Korea has at least one minder, usually an elite party member who grew up in the relative privilege of Pyongyang. Typically men in their thirties or forties, the minders tend to be chatty individuals who like to boast their knowledge about the outside world (and get us talking so they can obtain as much information as possible from us). One minder told me that he had checked out my newspaper’s website (I get to use the Internet, he was hinting) and he also felt compelled to note that my Web profile photo had been taken when I was 20 pounds lighter. I found such crazy-uncle remarks actually endearing (ah, North Korean men are just as rude as middle-aged relatives in South Korea!). In August 2001, however, I was assigned a slightly senior female minder, perhaps because I was the only female in the press corps.

Once journalists arrive in Pyongyang, it is a ritual for the North Koreans to herd the visitors to landmarks like the giant Juche Tower and the Grand People’s Study House, a surprisingly pleasant library where one can find the complete works of Kim Il-sung in Swahili or Portuguese and check out a handful of Western novels like Gone With the Wind—the novel is beloved in North Korea for exposing racial and class discrimination in the US. Although I didn’t get to go, a typical Pyongyang tour package also includes a visit to USS Pueblo, the ill-fated Navy intelligence ship North Korea captured in 1968. The ship has long since been turned into a museum by North Koreans, but technically it still is a commissioned vessel of the US Navy under enemy captivity.

Throughout the dozen trips I made to North Korea from 2001 to 2008, I rarely got to mingle with regular folks on the streets. It was not just because the minder was with me at all times, or that I was busy meeting multiple deadlines as a pool reporter: I took my South Korean colleagues’ advice that it was not worth the risk to talk to North Koreans, even with the minder out of sight, since we had no way of knowing how such an encounter might affect people’s lives. Although I guessed they wouldn’t exactly be taken to the gulag for uttering a sentence or two, I didn’t want to complicate things.

Instead, my colleagues and I used our observational skills to the maximum, reflecting on what we could see. Why were all the mountains barren? Because wood is the primary fuel, and people use any greens they can find to help fill their bellies. Why did I see two ridiculously fat cows grazing on the road from Sunan International Airport to downtown Pyongyang? It’s a matter of macho pride: North Korea wants to show visitors that its people aren’t as famished as the rest of the world thinks they are.

As we now know, Kim Jong-il’s version of glasnost didn’t quite work out as planned. In October 2000, when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang, it was seen as a prelude to a summit between President Bill Clinton and Chairman Kim, to be followed by normalization of Washington-Pyongyang ties and eventually, an end to the Korean War; this was going to be Clinton’s Nobel-Peace-Prize moment. (Albright at the time thought Kim Jong-il to be “a man with whom one can do business.”) But the chance for normalization of relations pretty much evaporated, due to the Bush-Gore election fiasco in Florida. In retrospect, the US Supreme Court decision in favor of President Bush may have had as much impact on the lives of North Koreans as it did on Americans. Disgruntled, Pyongyang proceeded with its nuclear build-up.

In this strange land, I enjoyed the freedom to write in peace, without constant phone calls, emails or instant messages from my editor. At the time, there was no domestic cellphone service in North Korea, and foreign satellite phones were confiscated upon entry; of course there was no high-speed Internet. I had to file my stories over the unreliable international phone lines, usually routed via China. Sometimes we South Korean journalists were given access to the government hotlines between Seoul and Pyongyang—but there was no guarantee that the articles and photos would be sent on time. When the North Korean government was displeased with coverage, it would simply cut the phone lines, and since Pyongyang did suffer frequent power shortages, we could not always tell if the communication blackouts were human or mechanical in origin.

At the end of the day, it was not so much the physical constraints as the emotional toll that wore us out. Many South Korean journalists, like me, had aunts, uncles, and grandparents in North Korea. For more than half a century, the families have not been able to meet, write letters, or even find out if they are alive or not. Every time I was packing for North Korea, I had to endure desperate phone calls from my grandmother, who had escaped from North Korea in the frigid winter of 1950 with my two-week-old mother in tow, leaving everything behind. She would ask if I could look up her family, even though she knew my answer would be a flat no. This was for work.

Although South Korean journalists tried to remain “objective,” it was hard not to react at the sight of obviously malnourished North Korean kids who looked just like ours, except that they were way too short for their ages. I once mistook a group of giggling college girls for middle-school students. I could not take a morning walk alone, and at times, I found the surreal situation suffocating. On a particularly rough night, I bolted to an empty conference room next to the press room in Koryo Hotel, watching the North Koreans in the streets outside the window while crying in the dark. My only witnesses were the portraits on the wall of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. And possibly the bug we assumed had been planted in every corner.

More than a decade later, in April 2012, I was staring at the same portraits of the Kims at a photo exhibition at the Flatiron District of Manhattan, a joint photo exhibition of The Associated Press and Korea Central News Agency. The event was commemorating the newly created bilateral partnership in which AP became the first Western news organization to have a full-fledged bureau in Pyongyang. It also coincided with the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. I looked around at what must have been a strenuously negotiated lineup of photographs, of children playing in an amusement park and dusk settling on ghoulish buildings that have not seen paint for decades.

On April 13, 2012, North Korea tried and failed to launch a satellite into orbit. Two days later, the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un addressed the public for the first time, speaking for whopping 20 minutes. For a twentysomething with less than three years of training as heir apparent, Kim Jong-un sounded surprisingly confident. Did this confidence contribute to Pyongyang’s superfast admission of the satellite launch failure? In the past, that would have taken days.

Then again, there wasn’t much point to delaying, given the presence of the foreign press corps, which had been invited by Pyongyang to cover the launch, only to learn (via now-prevalent mobile phones) that they’d been scooped by their peers abroad. Yes, most foreign reporters who were in North Korea to cover the launch actually got word of the failure from their editors back home. As one Western journalist in Pyongyang (@dngbbc) fumed on Twitter: “Now in bizarre situation our NKorea minders asking ME to tell THEM if rocket has launched.”

Still, if North Korea extends an invitation again, I bet these grumpy reporters will jump at the opportunity to return to the country, which is full of startling contrasts and idiosyncrasies: a country with nuclear warheads whose Foreign Ministry spokesperson calls American diplomat John Bolton a “bloodsucker”; a country where millions perished in a controlled famine as recently as the 1990s; a country until recently ruled by a film-loving dictator who counted Schindler’s List and Braveheart among his favorites.

Few people outside East Asia remember that the two Koreas were one country before 1945, with no history of ethnic, linguistic, or religious differences. Even now, as many as one-fifth of South Koreans have a family member or a distant relative in North Korea, and that puts South Korean journalists in a different position from other foreign journalists. I still have not have come to terms with the emotions—fear, sadness, and empathy at the same time—that I felt for the North Koreans while working there. I still wonder whether it was right for me to have denied the last remaining shred of hope for my grandmother, who passed away three years ago without ever again seeing her family who live less than 200 miles away.

As of now, the rest of the world does not know enough to predict where North Korea will head under new leader Kim Jong-un, although there are signs that he is interested in doing things his own way. He likes to attract global attention, or at least that’s one way to read the successful rocket launch in December (officially, it sent up a weather satellite, but arguably it was a test of long-range missile capability). The opening of the AP bureau in Pyongyang was a big policy shift. And in July, Kim began making public appearances with his wife, an attractive woman with short hair (his father and grandfather always hid their spouses from the limelight). Will such openness lead to more fundamental changes? We simply do not know. What we do know is that Kim Jong-un isn’t exactly Daily Show material the way his dad was. It does seem safe to say that for reporters heading to North Korea these days, at least, it no longer amounts to going down a rabbit hole.

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Soomin Seo is a doctoral student at Columbia Journalism School. From 2000 to 2008, she was a staff reporter for the Hankyoreh and the Korea Times in South Korea.