Which way is up? The travails of travel writing on North Korea

It’s easy to be attracted to news about North Korea- for travel writers and every other type of journalist. So little comes out that even the appearance of information makes it noteworthy. This is why those of us interested in covering the most unusual place on Earth will run with press releases or other announcements that would make us groan if they came from anywhere else (I hope this answers an earlier commenter’s question). But, we have to be careful. So much of what is reported on North Korea comes with a clear bias that it’s impossible to get at the truth – even if you go there.

The issue of blogger and journalistic ethics regarding North Korea has been on my mind for a while, but a recent story I wrote for Gadling – which included a U.S State Department-supplied laundry list of human rights abuses – made me stop and think: can any of this be verified? I then thought back to a remark made in Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader – the author explained that he was unable to publish some of the fruits of his labor because he couldn’t get corroboration.Now, State Department reports are probably tops for reliability, but an interview that U.S. defector Charles Robert Jenkins gave after he escaped from North Korea indicates that he supplied the feds with “immeasurable” intelligence. Yet, Jenkins doesn’t have unassailable credibility. A defector from the U.S. Army, he’d been a deserter for close to 40 years and was facing prison time (ultimately serving 25 days of a 30-day sentence). Was it clemency for an old and sick man who had been punished enough already? Or, did the sentence reflect a reward for the information he provided?

In the documentary Crossing the Line, James Joseph Dresnock, the last known U.S. defector still living in North Korea, notes Jenkins’ tendency to abuse alcohol, which existed prior to his defection. And, he admits to having hit Jenkins (though not to the extent that Jenkins claimed). Yet, Dresnock doesn’t come across as a genius either, and he’s still in North Korea. Yet again, there’s a credibility problem.

Finally, we have the claims of defectors. Chol-hwan Kang wrote The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Soon Ok Lee wrote Eyes of the Tailless Animals, and Hyun Hee Kim, a former spy involved in the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, wrote Tears of My Soul. All three adopted forms of extreme religious worship upon defecting (or, in Hyun Hee Kim’s case, being apprehended). The wild swing can leave room for questions of credibility without assuming a bigoted stance on more intensive faiths.

Other defectors have voiced their views in a variety of settings, the most famous of which, perhaps, is Ahn Myong Chol (not his real name). He used to be a prison guard at Hoeryong Prison No. 22 and defected after he had become a truck driver for the prison and had better access to the means of escape. Now a freelance journalist, he dashes secretly across the border and shoots footage that would be impossible to secure otherwise. His most prominent clip is of an open market in North Korea in which human flesh was alleged to have been sold.

Yet, do you believe a guy who has been a part of the system? Maybe he’s legitimate … or he’s trying to justify any of his actions in the camp. It’s impossible to say without the sort of close look that simply will not happen. I have no reason to doubt Ahn Chol and the other guards who have defected, but there are too many ways their views may have been influenced, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, that leaves the government … the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Have you visited the Korea Central News Agency‘s website? Wow. Clearly, it’s neither unbiased nor, frankly, informative. Among yesterday’s headlines were “Kim Jong Il Sends Spread to Centenarian,” “Important Day of DPRK Marked” and “Korean People’s Just Cause Supported by Brazilian Figure.” Head over to the Korea Friendship Association‘s message boards for a more extreme version, if you can believe it. And, all of the contributors, it seems, are both non-North Korean and have opted in.

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect I’m not alone: we do what we can. North Korea provides interesting subject matter for bloggers and journalists, but there are limits to what he can do. I, for one, encourage a bit more skepticism – in general – regardless of the sources used. It’s the historians, not the journalists, who will sort out the details of live and struggle above the 38 Parallel.

[Photo by Yeowatzup via Flickr]