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.