The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This journalist didn’t just interview North Korean defectors, he followed them on their escape

Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, sheds new light on the ordinary lives of North Koreans with his extraordinary book "Crossing Heaven’s Border." (YouTube)

North Korea is not the “Hermit Kingdom” it once was. After two decades of defections and the more recent arrival of cellphone technology, we now know much more about North Korea than we did in years past. Which is not to say that we know a lot. North Korea remains the world’s most isolated state, and the inner workings of Kim Jong Un’s regime remain a mystery, with reports about the goings on in Pyongyang difficult, if not impossible, to verify.

But much of the information we get about North Korea comes from people who've escaped the regime and sought refuge in South Korea, or from the people who do business along the river border that separates China and North Korea.

It’s the defectors with the most sensational stories who've been in the spotlight, partly because of an increasing public desire to hear stories of unimaginable evil from the Kim regime. Stories about Kim Jong Un having his uncle stripped naked and fed to a pack of hungry dogs (untrue) or having his ex-girlfriend executed for appearing in a porn film (also untrue) ricochet around the world because people are willing to believe the most preposterous tales if they're said to come from North Korea.

Because of this expectation, tales of gnawing hunger pale next to reports of people eating tree bark and boiling leather belts to make soup, and everyday repression doesn’t seem like a big deal when others are claiming to have had family members executed for watching South Korean soap operas.

Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, sheds new light on the ordinary lives of North Koreans with his extraordinary book  "Crossing Heaven’s Border." It grew out of a documentary he made with the same name, which was broadcast on PBS in 2009 and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010.

The book, published in Korean in 2011, was released in English this year by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, part of Stanford University.

It is not a book of sensational stories. Sure, there are plenty of awful things that happen to North Koreans, like the women sold into slavery in China and stateless children. But in much the same way as Barbara Demick did in her book, "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," Lee focuses on everyday people, telling stories of “common hardships,” as he puts it.

He writes about the tenderness he sees between a middle-aged couple from different social backgrounds who fled so they could be together; Soo-ryun, who had a difficult escape but found love and had a baby, only to be struck down by stomach cancer; pretty Young-mi, who dreamed of going to the United States but then found she couldn’t even understand the English that South Koreans use.

Lee chronicles the difficulties that North Koreans face when they make it to the promised land of South Korea – only to find themselves struggling to make ends meet and treated like country bumpkins.

To get these stories, Lee does something unprecedented – he “embeds” with North Korean defectors. Between 2007 to 2011, Lee lived among North Korean defectors in China, enduring some of the same hardships that these terrified escapees endured.

He takes incredible risks to tell these stories; the book at times reads like a thriller as Lee makes a perilous, 12,000-mile journey through China, across into Laos and then Thailand.

He escapes – most of the time – from Chinese police chasing him along the border with North Korea, from North Koreans running a lumber camp in Siberia. He avoids Laotian police as he illegally crosses into the country with a group of North Korean defectors. Then there are the drug-addled local contacts, the equipment malfunctions, the boredom of waiting – sometimes for weeks – for someone to show up.

Lee’s book is compelling because it offers a fresh perspective on the puzzle that is North Korea. He writes about the challenges he faced in reporting on this story and the ethical questions he encountered, and the toll it took on him as a person.

Bradley Martin, who wrote a huge tome on North Korea under “eternal president” Kim Il Sung, "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader," calls the book a “riveting true life adventure story.”

Lee, who’s now in England working on another project, answered some questions from The Washington Post about his work and his book. His responses have been lightly edited for brevity.

WP: First up, kudos to you. Reporters like me go to the border for a week or so at a time, but you lived among North Koreans on and off for years, taking many of the same risks they did. What you motivated you to go above and beyond the call of duty like this?

LHJ: It all began with a coincidence.  In 2006, I pitched an investigative reporting plan to my paper to be launched in various platforms including print, TV and online to fit with the changing media environment. As I was planning my second feature in 2007, my boss suggested that I do a piece about the human rights situation of North Korean defectors. At that time, reporting related to North Korean defectors was mostly done by international media, but my boss pointed out it was an issue about our nation so South Korean media needed to take charge of the issue.

It made perfect sense to me but I had no knowledge of North Korean defector issues nor was I much interested. The fact that it was going to be risky was one of the reasons holding me back.

Despite all these discouraging factors, the idea piqued my curiosity. I was curious about what life was like for North Korean defectors living in hiding in China and Russia, but it was hard to find a documentary director who would take on this project because it was a controversial issue and the work was very dangerous. That is how I came to do everything from writing to directing the documentary. I made my debut as a director with this documentary.

However, I didn't imagine myself working on this for such a long time. It has a special meaning to me. It's an issue about real people. I was thrilled to cross borders with defectors and see them finally find freedom. I often wonder if the purpose of my education and becoming a journalist was to feel this joy.

I wasn't able to help the defectors but they helped me. When we were crossing the border between China and Laos, our group included a woman in her 60s and a boy. We embarked on a journey walking 18 hours in the mountains. I was so worried that someone in the group may not be able to make it but I was sure of myself as I had completed my military service.

Surprisingly, I was the one who began to fall behind. The North Koreans’ passion for life and freedom helped them overcome their age and physical disadvantages. I was holding the group back so I asked them to leave me and go on. For them, being captured could lead to their repatriation to North Korea, but for me, my punishment would just be spending some time in Chinese prison.

But they didn't leave me. They said they couldn't abandon a journalist, a Korean like them. They carried my bags and pulled me by my hand and we finally crossed the border together. Maybe this kind of experience, relying on each other and meeting people who care for others, kept me going and working on this issue for such a long time.

WP: In the course of your reporting, you took incredible risks. You’re chased by police in Siberia, you cross illegally from China into Laos with a group of defectors and walk 18 hours through the jungle, you’re there for a harrowing leap from a Chinese smuggler’s boat adrift at sea. In my career, I’ve always been told that no story is worth my life, but you tell your reporters that they should “always be ready to give up their lives.” Was it necessary, and was it worth, it to take such risks?

LHJ: I was not a good journalist in the past and it still remains the case today. When I first became a journalist, I was told by my seniors that I'd better look for another job because I don't have knack for this work. One colleague who's been in the industry longer than I had been gave me a valuable piece of advice. "Stay close to the facts and observe things fully and report. Then you can be a mediocre journalist." I held onto his words when I worked and I’ve been following that advice for 16 years.

I followed his advice when I reported about defectors. I crossed the borders when they did and I went to Siberia when I heard they were going, too. I tagged along for drug deals and in human trafficking situations without any particular strategy. I think it's impossible to set up strategies for these situations.

We see a lot of stories about North Korean defectors based only on interviews with them, and because of that, the credibility of the facts has sometimes become an issue. I'm well aware of that. I know I'm not a talented journalist and North Korean defector-related issues can bring controversy. That is why my team took a high risk of being part of the story.

I agree strongly that no story is more valuable than someone's life. Now I look back, I've come across many dangerous moments. Honestly, I'm not sure if I could do it again if I went back in time and the same chance was given to me. But at that time, I was too curious to miss out on the chance. Logging in Russia, human trafficking on the Chinese and North Korean border, and escape routes that require two illegal entries to countries. ... I think I was able to endure risks not because I was ambitious about great stories but I was curious as a journalist.

WP: As you mentioned, there have been numerous issues with defector testimony turning out to be flawed or, in some cases, fabricated – and often not for nefarious reasons. Sometimes they're protecting people and sometimes they feel pressure to exaggerate their story, and most of the time these defectors have been through great trauma. The most high-profile case was when Shin Dong-hyuk admitted that he had changed some of the times and places in the harrowing story he recounted to journalists and to the U.N. commission. It’s something that we as journalists have to be on heightened alert for. How did you deal with this issue in the course of your reporting?

LHJ: I'd like to share an interesting anecdote. In 2008, I completed the first series on North Korean defectors and I was very proud of myself. Most of my risky reporting trips succeeded and my debut documentary had been screened and received many awards in countries including the U.S., U.K. and Japan.

I'm embarrassed about this time because I expected to be highly regarded by others, thinking that I had achieved something huge. Fortunately, the feeling didn't last long. One day I realized how shameful it was to seek fame. I came to my senses that I was unnecessarily proud of myself for writing stories. But it wasn't about me, but about the refugees.

In the past in South Korea, when defection was rare, we used the term "returned hero" to refer to a North Korean defector. The South Korean government offered a lot of money and support for their resettlement. That kind of support doesn't exist anymore.

When they're in China or in Russia, North Korean defectors tend to think they would be fully satisfied if they just had freedom. But they find it hard to accept the reality when they arrive in South Korea and find that they're no longer treated as returned heroes but instead have to settle down to life as second-class citizens. In this situation, some people exaggerate their stories.

I will tell you why they exaggerate. When a defector talks about their unrealistic brutal story, journalists interview them and an exposure to media leads to opportunities for speeches at churches in South Korea and the U.S. A defector gets paid. As the world started to pay more attention to North Korean defector issues, more defectors seek fame. Some end up believing in their exaggerated stories and media play an important role in this process.

I think we'll see recurring incidences like Shin's case. North Korean defectors have serious trauma and they tend to maximize their damages. Media outlets look for more sensational stories. In other words, they want North Korean defectors who are selling attractive stories. NGOs, the South Korean and American governments want sensational stories as they believe they can put more pressure on North Korea about its human rights issue with a symbolic figure.

It is sad because the North Korean defector situation deserves international attention by itself.

I had a lot of my interviews at border areas between China and North Korea and I talked to people when they were crossing borders. People don't tend to lie about themselves when they're in imminent danger. I believe they were pure and honest at that moment. I talked to people when I could trust them after long observation. Maybe that is why defectors I've interviewed tend not to exaggerate.

WP: What do you think of Western reporting on North Korean defectors? Be honest!

LHJ: I once talked to a journalist working for a Western media outlet. That person said that stories about North Korea or North Korean defectors were one of their editors’ favorite stories. There are only three kinds of Korea stories that are accepted: North Korea, Samsung and K-pop. And then the journalist asked me if I knew any North Korean defectors with sensational stories.

I understand journalists need to report and write within a limited time, so they would want to meet defectors who have human rights issues as part of their life story. But because of this desire, defectors distort and exaggerate their past. It's a simple matter of demand and supply.

However, I'd like to say this. It is natural for us to pay attention to North Korea and human rights issues of North Korean defectors but I wish people would not try to create stars. The reality is different from Hollywood movies.

WP: You're very honest about the physical and emotional toll that this reporting took on you – a toll that you never acknowledged to anyone at the time. Yet you seem to have retained your objectivity throughout – indeed, one North Korean defector comments that if you were pricked with a pin, you wouldn’t bleed. How did you maintain your distance at the same time as being so close to these people and gaining their trust?

LHJ: It is very hard to maintain enough distance between myself and defectors but at the same time gain their trust. I don't think I have an answer to this question. As I said earlier, I’ve tried my best to live up to the words I heard from my superiors. Maybe that is why some defectors said that I wouldn't bleed if I were pricked with a pin.

I was terrified while living in hiding in China and Russia and that is one of the reasons I didn't want to show my emotions.

I think by getting too close to defectors my objectivity could be blurred. There were times I cried in my place alone after interviewing women who had been sold through traffickers. I felt for them and I missed my mother.

When a date was set for smuggling operations, I couldn't eat well and suffered from nightmares. I still get sweaty palms just thinking about that time. Often I missed South Korea and my family so much because I was scared and anxious but I couldn't show my emotions to my subjects for reporting. I maintained my objectiveness by not showing fear or sympathy.

I didn't do something special to earn their trust. I lived with them and I spent time with them at the most dangerous moments, so I was able to build up a kind of camaraderie. We became very close from being life threatening situations together.

WP: In the book, you express your frustrations with how little attention North Korean defectors get from the outside world. In the time since you finished the book, though, a lot has changed. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry gave defectors a stage to talk about what they had been through, and the commission’s report was damning and widely read. Do you think the world is now sufficiently aware of the problem?

LHJ: I consider North Korean defectors as “the Jews of Asia." It's been a long time since the Holocaust but the world remembers it. It should be the same for North Korean defectors. Recently, more attention is given to them but the situation for defectors hiding in China and Russia hasn't changed. That is why we and the world should continuously pay attention to this issue and demand improvements. I hope more attention will be given to them until their misery is over.

WP: From your perspective, what could the world – and South Korea in particular – be doing to better help people who have escaped from North Korea?

LHJ: I think South Korea is helping North Korean defectors a lot to settle down in the South, even though the level of support is significantly lower than when they were respected as “returned heroes.” They receive housing and education benefits, as well as other benefits to help them begin a new life as ordinary citizens.

Let me give you an example. A North Korean defector I interviewed had a son with cerebral palsy and that's why she decided to defect through China. Her story is known in many countries. She came from an artistic group in North Korea and was good at playing musical instruments. She had the so-called “star quality” that outsiders want from a defector.

Many human rights groups, churches and TV networks wanted her to appear for lectures or shows. In short, she was offered money to sell her horrible personal stories. She asked my opinions about selling stories for living.

My advice was this. "It's your decision in the end, but I don't think that kind of life is an ideal way to settle down. What if another defector emerges with more horrible or stronger stories? The attention given to you would move to the other person and you might try to make up a story to win the attention back. It's a vicious circle. How about looking for a way to earn decent money and live with your family?"

With help of her local church and charity groups, she learned to be a hairdresser and got a job. A hospital sponsored her son's medical treatment. She once lived in the middle of media spotlight, but she now happily lives as an ordinary citizen in Seoul with her family.

I consider this as a model case of a North Korean defector settling down in South Korea. An ordinary citizen is valued in a democratic society.

To do more of this, regular people in South Korea need to pay more attention to North Korean defectors so they can live normal lives without being tempted by human rights groups or the media to sell their stories. North Korean defectors need to get jobs without discrimination and local community need to try harder to embrace them.

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