Q&A with Jean H. Lee, former Pyongyang bureau chief for the AP

When American journalist Jean H. Lee moved to Seoul in 2008 to lead the Associated Press (AP) news agency's coverage of the Korean Peninsula, on her first day on the job she was given an impossible-sounding mission: to set up a bureau in Pyongyang. Now the director of the Korea programme at DC-based think tank the Wilson Center, Lee recently visited New Zealand and spoke with the Asia Media Centre about her trailblazing career.

Jean Lee

Jean H. Lee was the first US reporter to be granted extensive access in North Korea.

What drew you to a journalism career specialising in North Korea? Did you always know you would end up there?

My family is originally from South Korea — my grandfather was a journalist — and my internships and early jobs were in South Korea. So I knew I wanted to go back. I just had no idea I’d be going to North Korea. We always assume that it’s off limits, and that we’d have to cover it from the outside. But the AP told me, your mission will be to open an office inside North Korea. So I really had no choice but to try to push the boundaries of what we could do when it came to reporting on North Korea. I will say that it’s always been on my radar — I grew up with close friends who had family in North Korea. It’s just chance as a Korean that you end up on one side of the DMZ or the other. So to try to understand who these people are and what their lives are like is a golden opportunity for a journalist. But it was far harder and more gruelling than I could ever have imagined.

The AP told you on your first day in Seoul that your goal was to open a Pyongyang bureau. Did you immediately have to start strategising?

When I first heard that, I was really puzzled. Like, how in the world is that going to happen? But then I didn’t have time to think about it because less than half an hour later, we learned that Kim Jong-il, then the leader of North Korea, had disappeared. I got to work on that day knowing there was going to be a big military parade — it was the 60th anniversary of the founding of North Korea. When I looked up on the screen and didn’t see Kim Jong-il, we all went into a panic. We found out later that he had suffered a stroke and was in a coma. He hadn’t picked an heir. North Korea was pursuing nuclear weapons at the time. So it was this incredible feeling of uncertainty and anxiety about what would happen if there were a regime collapse or a power struggle or a power vacuum. We had to go into emergency reporting. That really consumed and defined my entire career. My first day started with the transition to the next phase of leadership — it was the tail end of Kim Jong-il’s rule, then the rise of Kim Jong-un. Throughout all of this, of course I had that larger mission, which was to map out a strategy for how the AP could have better access to North Korea. So I was always simultaneously thinking about that as I was doing my reporting on what in the world had happened to Kim Jong-il, and what would happen to North Korea.

Was it at that time you started making trips into North Korea?

I made my first trip to North Korea a couple of months after getting to Seoul. That was literally just taking a bus across the border. At the time, there was a period of about 10 years called the "sunshine period" when North Korea and South Korea had pretty good relations. South Korean tourists could take a bus and go just across the border into North Korea. The tensions between North and South Korea started to devolve when a South Korean tourist went for a walk on one of these trips and went straight into an area that was apparently a military zone. She was shot point-blank in the back by a solider and killed. That triggered a breakdown in the relationship. South Korea had announced they were going to stop these tours, so I got on one of the last trips in. I made my second trip to North Korea in 2009, and that was a visit to Pyongyang with a group of academics who were opening a Korean-American university. From there, it was just a matter of making myself known to the North Koreans, and understanding how to deal with them. The real push came in 2011, which is when I organised a very high-profile trip to North Korea with the president of the AP. I spent most of that year negotiating the office. My goal was to open this office before Kim Jong-il died — we knew that he wasn’t very healthy. I was on my way to Pyongyang in December of 2011 when we got the news that he had died. I had to push back the formal opening of the bureau by a couple of weeks, and I went back in January 2012 to open the bureau.

What were some of the challenges of working in Pyongyang?

It’s incredibly challenging working in such a repressive environment. North Korea has a series of rules that are designed to keep foreigners and locals apart. They don’t want foreigners to influence the local people.  For example, they have restaurants where foreigners can eat, and restaurants for locals. As a journalist, it’s incredibly difficult because you’re not supposed to do any reporting without a minder present. I really had to find space within that, because I did not want to have to answer to critics who would say the government was picking my interview subjects. You have to kind of concoct a situation where you can get access, with permission, but then choose the people within that framework to speak to. It was a real challenge. I ended up spending 90 per cent of my time negotiating — it’s exhausting. And that’s how life is in North Korea. Going through the process of reporting there helps you understand how difficult it is, how bureaucratic, and how complicated it is to do anything inside North Korea. They have such an intricate set of rules, and there’s so much caution built into their society. People don’t want to get into trouble, and it’s very easy to get into trouble. 

What are some of the things you get tired of reading about North Korea in the media?

I actually feel like we have fewer caricatures than we did five years ago. Kim Jong-un was such a mystery to us, but in the past year he’s been stepping out internationally. So even though he’s still somewhat of a cartoonish figure from our western perspective, he’s a lot more real to us now. But I think we have to be very cautious in reading North Korean propaganda and messaging and to understand that it’s a complex country with a very different value system than ours. I sometimes see that it’s in our nature to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, including the North Koreans. I think that’s great — we should be open minded. But we should also be very wary of what their intentions are, and understand that in many cases they are playing a game. At this point now, given how much we’re seeing about North Korea in the news, I would always call it "cautious optimism" or scepticism. It’s important to be both sceptical and open-minded when it comes to North Korea.

Finally, do you have any advice for reporters in New Zealand who may hope to pursue a career as a foreign correspondent?

I think there are so many different ways to write about countries and write about people. My early training was as an immigration reporter. I thought, if I can cover immigrant communities in my own country, it will be great training to be a foreign correspondent. Learning how to access and cover these communities that were so different from mine was an incredibly useful skill for my future reporting — I covered so many countries that I was visiting for the first time, and had to find a way to connect to populations where I was a complete foreigner. I would encourage journalists to think about how they can cover their own communities close to home. Maybe they don’t get overseas, but that alone is a form of reporting that is very similar to being a foreign correspondent. 

Jean H. Lee was visiting New Zealand as a guest of the Embassy of the United States.

Interview and editing by Siobhan Downes.

- Asia Media Centre