When I tell people I am the Los Angeles Times’s Korea correspondent, they invariably pose that most embarrassing question: “How much time do you spend in North Korea?”
It is not easy to explain the rather ludicrous predicament of writing about Korea when I am more or less banned from the half of the Korean peninsula that is North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is properly known, admits journalists only with official delegations and, on those rare occasions, they are as closely chaperoned as many a girl at her first school dance. The coverage opportunities are even worse for those of us holding U.S. citizenship, especially since February 2002, when President George W. Bush famously lumped North Korea into his “axis of evil.”
The antipathy between North Korea and journalists is mutual. There’s not much that is positive to say about North Korea, and the country gets absolutely awful press. The British journalist Christopher Hitchens described it in a 2001 article for Newsweek as the worst country in the world. The same magazine later ran a cover story headlined “Dr. Evil” about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. A BBC documentary crew who talked their way into North Korea last year used a hidden camera to catch embarrassing shots of their minders. It will be a long time before another Western television crew gets visas.
North Koreans invariably appear in the media as automatons, conspicuously displaying adulation of their leaders in the mass gymnastic spectacles of which the North Korea regime is so proud. Of course, to a foreigner, such spectacles evoke images of the Third Reich (Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Triumph of the Will” immediately comes to mind) and contribute to North Korea’s dismal image in the West.
In many other ways, North Korea does itself a disservice. Extreme secrecy breeds rumor. The very lack of consistent press coverage fuels all sorts of speculation and urban legend about what happens inside North Korea—cannibalism, infanticide, human biological experimentation. Nothing is too horrific to be ascribed to North Korea, much of it probably true, but exaggerated.
What might be written from inside North Korea could hardly be worse than what’s now written from the outside. In some cases, journalists might actually be helpful. Iraq, which I covered in the late 1990’s as Middle East correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer, used to selectively admit journalists with the hope that they would publicize the impact of U.S.-imposed economic sanctions. Indeed, the sanctions had contributed to rising deaths of young children, and journalists dutifully reported this, which led to the easing of sanctions. Similarily, the dire lack of electricity in North Korea could make for a moving feature story that might lend credence to Pyongyang’s pleas for foreign energy assistance. But North Korea seems to have little interest in generating such coverage and, for now, we and the rest of the world—like the North Koreans themselves—are left in the dark.
Covering the North Korea Story
So how is a journalist supposed to responsibly cover North Korea? This has been my challenge since opening a bureau in Seoul for the Los Angeles Times in November 2001. We are one of the few American news organizations with a bureau devoted exclusively to coverage of Korea. Although we are located in the South Korean capital—there are predictably no foreign news bureaus in Pyongyang—we consider it our mission to cover both Koreas. There are a couple of ways we’ve found to cope with North Korea’s news blackout, all of them admittedly imperfect.
Defectors: Journalists covering North Korea rely heavily on defectors. More than 4,000 defectors now live in South Korea and many more live in China. They are a gold mine of information about what life is really like outside the showcase city of Pyongyang. Away from North Korean minders and informants, they tell of eating bark and bugs to survive during the years of famine and of faking tears at the funeral of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung to feign loyalty to a despised regime. A retired chemist told me recently about watching political prisoners gassed to death with a cyanide compound as part of an experiment with chemical weapons. Others have told us about youth leagues enlisted to grow opium poppies for North Korea’s illicit drug trade. In these interviews, which often last for hours and involve considerable shedding of tears, one gets a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood people behind the caricatures.
The difficulty is that it is often hard to substantiate the claims of defectors. Desperate to win asylum, they have a powerful incentive to embellish. The unfortunate custom among some South Korean and Japanese journalists of paying for interviews adds another incentive for them to make up stories. Another problem is that defectors are not really representative of the North Korean population. As with any other refugee population, they tend to be the people who were most disenchanted with life in their home country. A disproportionate number come from a single province, North Hamgyong, at the Chinese border. Often, by the time they’ve arrived in South Korea they’ve been out of North Korea for several years, so their information can be out of date. We get around this by trying to interview defectors in China, where they usually come first, but this can be difficult because they are fearful of attracting the attention of the Chinese government and getting deported home.
Even in South Korea, North Korean defectors do not feel completely free to speak out. Many worry about the impact on their family members back home if their names appear in a U.S. newspaper. The South Korean government also discourages some high-level defectors from talking to the press. During a recent interview with Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect south, agents of the South Korean National Intelligence Service squeezed into a tiny conference room with us, a hovering presence that had a decidedly chilling effect on the interview.
Exploring Around the Edges: Even if a journalist can’t get a visa to visit Pyongyang, there are ways of exploring around the edges of North Korea. One place journalists can go is to an enclave in the far southeast coast of the country, where for the past couple of years a South Korean company, Hyundai Asan, has been running hiking tours for tourists to scenic Mount Kumgang. To be sure, tourists have absolutely no freedom of movement to get off of their tour buses or heavily patrolled trails. But you can still peer from your bus window into the dismal villages and chat with the North Korean security guards on the trails.
On one trip, I was able to talk to the staff of a North Korean restaurant about capitalist-style reforms and the tourism business. Another time, I went with an energy expert affiliated with the Nautilus Institute, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit, who was able to point out what I might otherwise have missed—the extensive damage to the electrical grid. This damage made it impossible for many North Koreans to switch on the lights, even if they had the energy resources. He also observed the primitive tools being used by a highway crew to build a new road. One couldn’t help but notice how the villages seemed to magically disappear from the landscape once night fell because of no electricity or even oil lamps to alleviate the darkness. On the basis of that trip, I was able to write a fairly detailed front-page story about North Korea’s energy crisis.
Journalists can also sneak a glimpse of North Korea from the Chinese border. On a trip last summer, I traveled with three South Koreans along much of the 800-mile-long border between North Korea and China. We took a boat ride on the Yalu River where we could see up close the idled factories and the rusting hulk of a Ferris wheel that hadn’t revolved in years. We went to an island in the river where we were so close to North Korea that we could talk to military border guards. They were mostly obsessed with begging for cigarettes, beer and sunglasses. One flirtatiously let a South Korean colleague of mine, an attractive young woman, hold his rifle. I used that scene later for a story about plummeting morale in the North Korean Army.
Experts: There are a wealth of North Korean pundits in South Korea. They have an amazing variety of information at their disposal that they analyze with the discerning eye of Kremlinologists. Some of it is gleaned from North Korean media, other comes from defectors or sources inside North Korea. These experts can tell you everything from who’s up and who’s down in the North Korean workers’ party to the price of rice. Most of them haven’t spent any more time inside North Korea than I have, but they’ve devoted a lifetime of scholarship to this hermit kingdom. They are an excellent resource, although many tend to have a strong political bias—either harsh critics of North Korea from the old school of anti-Communism or supporters of South Korea’s current “sunshine policy” of dialogue who tend to be forgiving to a fault about North Korea’s shortcomings. Still, they know a lot.
A resource less frequently tapped by journalists is the tiny expatriate community living in Pyongyang. These are mostly aid workers, U.N. employees, and diplomats. Although their movements are restricted in North Korea, they do actually live in the country and interact daily with North Korean colleagues. I try to interview as many of the aid officials coming through Seoul as possible. They tend to present a more positive and less caricatured portrait of North Korea than outsiders. If I were to generalize, I would say they describe not an “axis of evil,” but a flawed country trying to cope with a failed ideology and economy, desperately seeking a place for itself in the world. The Pyongyang-based aid community was especially helpful after April’s big train accident in Ryogchon, supplying journalists who were unable to get to the site detailed descriptions of the devastation and photographs.
Admittedly, all of the above are merely coping mechanisms for those of us who have to cover what is probably the most closed country in the world. There is no substitute for being there, as any good journalist knows. But at the moment, there is no sign that North Korea is about to open its doors. This is a country, after all, with virtually no Internet access or even international telephone service. In an era in which gigabytes of information can be moved across continents with barely a click, North Korea is, in effect, a black hole in the global village.
A colleague once compared North Korea to a jigsaw puzzle with a million pieces. Each time one gathers a nugget of news, it is tantamount to finding another piece of the puzzle. For now, a lot of pieces are still missing. As journalists, we use the tools we have to try to find them.
Barbara Demick is the Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. A foreign correspondent for more than 10 years, she previously covered the Middle East and Eastern Europe for The Philadelphia Inquirer.