My favorite journalist had been a certain white-haired fellow on a cable news station until I met Mr. Sang-Hun Choe of the New York Times and International Herald Tribune at a lecture about North Korean issues in the media at Wellesley College this past spring. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Mr. Choe was too polite and humble for my presumptions of what a New York Times Asia Correspondent with a Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Bridge At No Gun Ri, co-authored with Charles Hanley and Martha Mendoza under his belt would could be like. I had been a fan of his New York Times pieces on North Korea in the past because his articles were comprehensive and clearly revealed that he did his research. Judging from his writing, I assumed that he crafted his English in the United States or another English- speaking country, but much to my surprise, and probably to many Korean parents eager to send children abroad, he had never studied outside South Korea until his recent stay as a Koret Fellow at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. Meeting him in person not only bumped the Silver Fox down my fan list, but also reminded me of the dedication that some journalists put into investigating topics and publishing their work for the world to read. The following interview shows a glimpse of journalism, North Korea issues in the media, and of the man behind the text.
> Q1: What made you want to become a journalist, especially an Asia correspondent? Have you had other careers in the past?
Journalism has been my only career. But I was not one of those who wanted to become a journalist from an early age. I sort of stumbled into it. I followed a friend in my graduate school to take an exam for an English-language newspaper. (In South Korea, newspapers select their reporters through written exams, supplemented by interviews.) Both of us were accepted. My friend quit after a month or so. I stayed, partly because I had no other job lined up. But I grew to like journalism. Observing what’s happening in a society and writing it down as a news story fast, accurately and thoughtfully in competition with other practitioners is a work both challenging and exhilarating.
> Q2: As a South Korean working for an American publication, what pressures do you face or liberties do you have?
Except three years, I worked for an English language newspaper in Seoul. I have spent my career writing for American news media, first The Associated Press and then The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. I cover my home country, Korea, for a foreign newspaper. The meaning of ‘foreign’ in the term ‘foreign correspondent,’ as it’s used in describing what I do, is not the same as it applies to journalists dispatched, say, from the US and Japan to report on Korea. I try to see things I consider important in explaining Korea to foreign readers that are missed by these correspondents. But since I never ‘came to’ Korea, I lack a newcomer’s fresh eye. A typical foreign correspondent arrives in Seoul, spends three or four years and leaves for another posting. To their fresh eyes, certain themes stand out. They eagerly pound out stories, with different ‘angles’ but very often repeating and reconfirming what their previous colleagues had already written. Partly because of that, news in Korea comes in circles and stereotypes. There are honorable exceptions, but every couple or few years, you see certain stories about Korea reappearing in American news media. Though often hung on a different “peg” each time, it’s basically the same dress _ the same theme with the same messages. I try to see news with foreign readers in mind but also with my own native Korean eye and sensitivity. It’s a skill you learn if you spend enough time in the line of work I do. But you get to ask yourself questions like: Who am I? What is news? and What is news in Korea?
> Q3: From your experience, why do you think that human rights issues often get cast aside for North Korea news?
Partly because people think that no matter what they do or say, it would have little impact on the North Korean regime’s policy on human rights. Partly because North Korea is so isolated that it’s hard to get a comprehensive picture of the human right situation in the North. Partly because the stories we do hear about the gruesome North Korean human rights situation are so repetitive — also coming from a small group of (often politically active) defectors repeatedly interviewed by media and activist groups — that the media think that there is no new ‘angle’ any more. Partly because the governments dealing and arguing with the Pyongyang regime have never made human rights a central issue. Partly because some of these governments think that bringing up human rights may derail their focus on dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons programs. It’s a long-running debate: whether you bring up human rights in direct confrontation with the North or work to help North Korea reform itself.
> Q4: Would there be a way for news outlets to feel a bigger incentive to spread awareness about human rights issues in the DPRK?
I don’t see a way, except that more journalists and editors one day realize that they should care and write more about human rights in North Korea. Maybe the challenge is to write what had been already reported many times in a new more compelling way.
> Q5: Mainstream news does not seem to speak much about reunification issues, what needs to happen?
Journalists mostly report what’s happening; they don’t usually try to create an agenda. Right now, they don’t see any major call for or movement toward Korean unification. I don’t think such a movement will come from any country other than South Korea. Currently journalists don’t see such a movement in South Korea. Even if analysts and officials talk about Korean unification, they seem to do so only in the context of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime
For some personal questions:
> Q: What do you like to do when you’re not writing for the NYT?
I have not really thought about it. I will like any work that keeps me busy thinking, working and writing.
> Q: What’s the best part about being a journalist for you? Do you get to correspond with your readers?
You see or hear things and try to find out about them and write an account of them for publication. That’s a swell thing to do.
I do correspond with readers. Although I have been on a leave of absence for seven months, I still get emails from readers asking questions, seeking advice on Korea and other things. I try to be helpful.
> Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
Personally, I would like to travel in central Asia, the Russian Far East and Patagonia. Professionally, I would like to be in North Korea as a resident foreign correspondent.
> Q: If you weren’t a journalist, what career would you have chosen?
I have seldom thought about this question. As a journalist, I have met or watched many people in many different jobs. None of these jobs, I have been envious of. I admire people because of what kind of persons they are, not because of what kind of job they have. Having said that, when I was a small child, I wanted to become a locomotive driver. I held onto that dream for a few years after seeing a train for the first time. As many Koreans of my generation who had grown up in the countryside would say, I also wanted to be rich when I grew up. Another dream unfulfilled.
More from Mr. Choe: