BBC: Detained and Interrogated for 10 Hours in North Korea
The US State Department this week sent a security warning to all US citizens abroad to avoid visiting North Korea for their own safety. Reading between the lines, the message was more like “You are a fucking idiot to visit North Korea, and if you get in trouble there, don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
The North Korean government acts swiftly in dealing harshly with any action that outsiders would consider relatively harmless. They arrested a American college student who had the dumbass idea that stealing a propaganda poster would be totes OK. He was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.
Recently, a team of BBC correspondents accompanied a group of Nobel laureates and a European crown prince on a tour of the Hermit Kingdom. As they were leaving Pyongyang for Beijing last week, one of the correspondents, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, was prevented from boarding the plane, and taken away to be interrogated for 10 hours about articles he had written for BBC News.
His crime? Using words.
“Do you think Korean people are ugly?” the older man asked.
“No,” I answered.
“Do you think Korean people have voices like dogs?”
“No,” I answered again.
“Then why do you write these things?!” he shouted.
I was confused. What could they mean? One of the articles was presented to me, the offending passage circled in black marker pen:
“The grim-faced customs officer is wearing one of those slightly ridiculous oversized military caps that they were so fond of in the Soviet Union. It makes the slightly built North Korean in his baggy uniform comically top heavy. “Open,” he grunts, pointing at my mobile phone. I dutifully punch in the passcode. He grabs it back and goes immediately to photos. He scrolls through pictures of my children skiing, Japanese cherry blossom, the Hong Kong skyline. Apparently satisfied he turns to my suitcase. “Books?” he barks. No, no books. “Movies?” No, no movies. I am sent off to another desk where a much less gruff lady is already looking through my laptop.”
“Are they serious?” I thought. They had taken “grim-faced” to mean “ugly”, and the use of the word “barks” as an indication that I thought they sounded like dogs.
Finally, his boss, the Asia bureau chief, appeared. Together, they persuaded the interrogators to allow them to write and sign letters of apology to the North Korean people. Wingfield-Hayes and his boss were then escorted to a hotel.
For another two days, they were refused permission to leave the country. On the third day, they were told Wingfield-Hayes and his colleagues were being expelled for North Korea.
Why did they choose to detain and expel me? My best guess is that someone high up decided my reporting had endangered the success of the Nobel laureate’s visit. Pyongyang yearns for recognition. Their trip was of great importance to the government. The three Nobel laureates were shown the very best of the country. They met its brightest students. Our coverage was a threat to that plan, and an example needed to be made.
Ironically, by doing so they gave me a rare glimpse inside the dark heart of the North Korean state. I spent only 10 hours in detention. But in that time I got to see just how easy it is for someone in North Korea to disappear. I got to feel the terror of being isolated and accused of crimes I had not committed, and to be threatened with a trial in which the evidence would have been irrelevant, and my guilt assured.
Yeah, so, everyday Americans, stay the fuck out of North Korea, OK?