As a correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia, I had been searching for more than a year for a story that could explain how North Korea used repression to keep from falling apart.
Political implosion had become my specialty. For the Post and for the New York Times, I spent nearly three decades covering failed states in Africa, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the slow-motion rot in Burma under the generals. From the outside looking in, North Korea seemed ripe—indeed, overripe—for the kind of collapse I had witnessed elsewhere. In a part of the world where nearly everyone else was getting rich, its people were increasingly isolated, poor, and hungry.
Still, the Kim family dynasty kept the lid on. Totalitarian repression preserved their basket case state.
My problem in showing how the government did it was lack of access. Elsewhere in the world, repressive states were not always successful in sealing their borders. I had been able to work openly in Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Mobutu’s Congo, and Milosevic’s Serbia, and had slipped in as a tourist to write about Burma.
North Korea was much more careful. Foreign reporters, especially Americans, were rarely allowed inside. I visited North Korea only once, saw what my minders wanted me to see, and learned little. If journalists entered illegally, they risked months or years of imprisonment as spies. To win release, they sometimes needed the help of a former American president.
Given these restrictions, most reporting about North Korea was distant and hollow. Written from Seoul or Tokyo or Beijing, stories began with an account of Pyongyang’s latest provocation, such as sinking a ship or shooting a tourist. Then the dreary conventions of journalism kicked in: American and South Korean officials expressed outrage. Chinese officials called for restraint. Think tank experts opined about what it might mean. I wrote more than my share of these pieces.
Shin, though, shattered these conventions. His life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder. A few days after we met, Shin’s appealing picture and appalling story ran prominently on the front page of the Washington Post.
23 October 2014
Political Implosion Journalism
From Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 178-195: