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.