Daily Archives: 27 October 2020

Reporter Meets Minder in North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 23-26:

On the Philharmonic trip, Mr. Ri and I had chatted so effortlessly that at times it was confusing to make sense of our relationship, since his job was to report on me, and my job as a magazine correspondent, reporting on the event, was not all that different. It is remarkable how quickly camaraderie develops when tensions are high.

The thirty-six hours in Pyongyang on that trip were a whirlwind. It turned out that that was the whole point. It was a PR event carefully orchestrated by the DPRK regime, with the American orchestra providing the incidental music. There was nothing any of us could write about except what we were allowed to see, which was a concert like any other, a few staged welcome performances, and the usual tourist sites. It was a lesson in control and manipulation. The real audience was not those in the concert hall but the journalists whose role was to deliver a sanitized version of North Korea to the outside world, and what shocked me was how easily seduced they were. Both CNN and the New York Times reported that the performance drew tears from the audience, and soon the major newspapers around the world followed with stories about this successful experiment in cultural diplomacy. Lorin Maazel, then the conductor of the Philharmonic, declared that seventy million Koreans would thank him forever. I witnessed no crying in the audience—all handpicked members of the Party elite—nor did any of the correspondents I spoke to after the performance. The tears I recall from that trip were a different kind.

Although it was my second time visiting North Korea, I burst into tears while saying goodbye to my minder. I was not a journalist on assignment in that moment. Instead I was thinking of my grandmother and my uncle, and my great-aunt and her daughters, and of the millions of Korean lives erased and forgotten. Right there, on the tarmac, before boarding the chartered flight with everyone in our mission, I told Mr. Ri that I was sick of this division, and that I would probably never see him again because the people of his country were not allowed to leave or even have contact with the rest of the world, that his country was so isolated that even I, a fellow Korean, could only visit it as part of the American delegation, shadowing the American orchestra, and that it broke my heart to see how bad things really were there. I said all this standing on that tarmac, my face covered with tears, the floodgates open after thirty-six hours of enforced silence. This, in hindsight, was thoughtless of me. I was about to climb onto that flight and return to the free world, but he was stuck there, and the other minders saw this encounter. But, surprisingly, tears ran down his face too, along with the faces of two other minders nearby. They said nothing, just cried and cried.

My first reaction to seeing Mr. Ri here, three years later, was that of relief. He had not been punished for crying with me at the airport. He was okay! Then I felt afraid. He had met me as a journalist, so what would he make of the fact that I stood before him as a missionary teacher? It was a mystery to me why I had been allowed in. Joan and President Kim knew that I was a writer, although they thought of me as a novelist, which they must not have considered a threat. But they had only to Google me to find out that I had in fact published a fair number of articles and op-eds about North Korea. The most recent piece had been a feature essay on defection, a taboo topic. But President Kim had also been very interested in the Fulbright organization—which had given me a fellowship—and asked me to arrange a meeting between him and the Seoul division’s director, which I did. And I had been referred to him by the powerful Mrs. Gund. Whatever the reason, I had passed their vetting.

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