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Interview with Bradley Martin: North Korea Expert

Whether the country is closing its borders to stop Ebola or being accused of hacking a major film studio, the DPRK can’t seem to stay out of the news. I recently had a digital conversation with Bradley Martin, one of the leading experts on the DPRK, about some of the inner workings of the country and the ethics of taking a tour into North Korea.

Whether the country is closing its borders to stop Ebola or being accused of hacking a major film studio, the DPRK can’t seem to stay out of the news. I recently had a digital conversation with Bradley Martin, one of the leading experts on the DPRK and author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, about some of the inner workings of the country and the ethics of taking a tour into North Korea.

How did you get your start reporting?

I had planned a career in law, diplomacy or politics — not journalism. As an undergraduate history major and then as a first year law school student I felt I had no time to read daily newspapers so I got my news from weekly news magazines, Time and Newsweek. The editors of both were very enthusiastic about the war the U.S. was fighting in Southeast Asia. I got bored with law school in 1965 and thought of volunteering for the Green Berets – Army special forces – to go over and do my part in that war. I was married, though, and my then-wife suggested the Peace Corps instead – so that we could both go to Southeast Asia.

After I arrived in Thailand in October 1965 as a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher, it took me only three weeks of talking to people and observing before I realized that the war next door in the former French Indochina was ill advised. I was extremely angry that I’d been misled, and vowed that I would become a foreign correspondent and do the reporting job right. News jobs were scarce when I returned to the United States in 1967. Finally, in 1969, I landed an entry-level reporting job on the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. The editor who hired me thought a Peace Corps background would be useful for the beat he had in mind for me: covering race relations and poverty-alleviation.

What sparked your interest in Korea?

I worked five years for the Observer, then switched to the Baltimore Sun, because it had a foreign news staff. After three years in Baltimore, I achieved my goal of getting sent back to Asia. My initial posting was to Tokyo, where my territory included both North and South Korea. Very, very few American reporters had been to the North.

When did you first go to North Korea (DPRK) and when was your last visit? Is it true that you are banned from entering the DPRK for some of the things you have written?

I persuaded the North Koreans to let me visit along with the American team competing in the world table tennis championships in Pyongyang in 1979 and stayed for almost three weeks. Subsequent visits were few and far between, and they were shorter. After the second visit, in 1989, I found myself unable to get a journalist’s visa because the regime objected to some of the stories. I got in as a scholar in 1992 but thereafter I had to go in as  tourist, taking the same sort of short tour that your readers would be able to arrange. I could sense some changes from what I saw and heard on such tours, but they were unsatisfactory compared with my earlier visits.

What are the most noticeable changes you have observed in your decades covering the DPRK?

The biggest is the de facto marketization of the economy. That momentous development came in response to the population’s desperation when faced, during the famine of the 1990s, with final proof that the state could not continue playing its accustomed role of provider. People had no choice but to provide for themselves, and their families. By making available to large numbers of North Koreans such communication tools as DVDs and cell phones, the winds of marketization have ripped and tattered the regime’s “mosquito net” barrier to communication with the outside world.

The DPRK recently closed its borders due the threat of Ebola. A genuine response to an emerging medical threat or is there something else afoot? Perhaps the regime is stamping down on dissent or some type of central party shuffle?

I don’t know. I’d guess that there’s genuine concern that the country’s very poor medical establishment would not be able to deal with ebola. But it’s interesting to read a report that wealthy Chinese investors who want to visit have been advised they can come in without being quarantined.

One thing I found interesting about the recent Ebola ban was that the sources for the reports came from travel agencies that lead Western tourists on trips into the DPRK. What do you make of the ethics behind these trips?

I’ve taken such trips, as I said, and I don’t have any ethical problems on that account. After all, I’m a reporter and it’s a reporter’s job to go and find out what’s happening. I do know people who feel very strongly that ordinary tourists should stay away because the fees they pay help an unsavory regime.

For any prospective tourist, what advice would you give?

It’s starting to appear that those tours can be dangerous. Some participants have been arrested. Personally I doubt that I’ll be returning as a tourist any time soon. If you decide to go, bear in mind that the authorities lack a sense of humor about religious proselytizing and about perceived insults such as disrespecting the leader.

As foreigners can only use euro/RMB/USD, what happens to these foreign currencies in NK? Is there a two tiered economy where luxury and western goods can only be acquired using euros? Surely these items cannot be bought using won, essentially splitting society between those with access to foreign currency and those without? I was surprised by stories in your book of Chinese traders traveling the country and some officials and workers having access to luxury imported goods. Surely the average North Korean is able to see this is against the socialist ideal, or is this just seen as the way things work?

Hardly anyone really believes in the socialist ideal these days, really. The state economy is a shadow of its former self. Most people can’t depend on receiving rations. It’s in the privatized portion of the economy that families – usually represented by the women since the men still generally go through the motions of reporting for work in the state sector – must sink or swim. Ironically, the tours I’ve taken did not show us the markets, where most real economic activity takes place. But you may be assured that one needs foreign currency to buy luxury goods and that everyone wants foreign currency.

What did you make of the recent rumors involving the whereabouts of Kim Jong Un? Something to give credence to or is he perhaps genuinely unwell? Is North Korea preparing for another leader, perhaps a female? (I read a rumor that his sister was to assume power.)

In a perhaps understandable reaction to the regime’s extreme secrecy, there were way too many unsupported theories floated by uninformed foreigners about young Kim’s absence. It appears he had a problem with his foot. When he returned to the public eye, he was using a cane. If there was another motivation for not showing him publicly during that time, perhaps it was to test how people at home and enemy foreign governments would react to the uncertainty. Kim seems to have a sister or two working with him but there is no reason to imagine that means he’s being replaced.

It seems the general impression I get is that Kim Il Sung was completely venerated, while there may have been quite a bit more (secret) reservations about Kim Jong Il. How do North Koreans feel about the stewardship of Kim Jong Un? I guess the questions that stood out to me while reading your book was “How did it get to this point and how is this country still surviving?” How did one man basically convince an entire nation that he is the end all and be all of human knowledge? Did he step in at a time when Koreans were reeling from the horrors of the war (as Bruce Cummings might assert) or is it more to do with, as you point out in the book, the Korean mentality of seeking the emotional and the divine?

If pollsters had been gauging the regime’s approval rating, we would see that it most definitely has plunged since 1979, the year I first visited the country. There’s a great deal of hard evidence to go along with anecdotal impressions from that visit that people overwhelmingly bought into the system – the younger people even more so than those old enough to remember what had come before the communists took over in 1945. For the most part, those disinclined on account of their social class to applaud the policies of Kim Il Sung had left for South Korea during the Korean War or had been purged. The people who remained had seen Kim’s regime build a relatively egalitarian society and an economy that, up to a point, had outpaced South Korea’s. Compared with people in many other countries, North Koreans were devoted to the common good, sweet-spirited and uncorrupted. If they didn’t rise to the impossible “New Man” standard set by propagandists, they were trying awfully hard.

It was downhill from then on, as people struggled with food shortages that turned into famine in the mid-1990s. Kim Il Sung had pretty much retired by then and left it to Kim Jong Il to run the country, and the elder Kim died in 1994, so all those bad things are associated with the son. While it appears that physical conditions have trended upward somewhat since the mid-‘90s, people seem to know that this is not on account of the official system but, rather, despite it. The schools and youth organizations still do their work to instill loyalty, focusing now on Kim Il Sung’s grandson. But it seems likely, based on the news we get from within the country, that there remain relatively few adult true believers. Corruption by now has become endemic; the watchword pretty much has to be “every family for itself.”

People do give lip service to loyalty – and human nature still keeps most of them inclined to credit that part of the regime’s propaganda narrative that blames outsiders for their difficulties. But it’s likely that the approval rating they would give the system and the Kim dynasty (which produced and now preserves the system) is way down.

Your book has quite lot of first hand accounts of life in North Korea through the eyes of defectors.  It is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the country and some of the stories are genuinely heartbreaking. Many of these interviews happened over twenty years ago when the Cold War was still fresh. Do you still maintain contact with any of them? If so, what are their emotions seeing that the regime is still in power?

I’m no longer in touch with them, but there are many defectors working against the regime from South Korea, China and the United States.

Is there anything the average person can do to help North Koreans? Do they need our help?

When I have money to contribute I send it to the Eugene Bell Foundation, founded by old friends of mine who are members of a Christian missionary family. It eschews evangelistic activities in favor of dealing practically with such problems as a virtual epidemic of tuberculosis. It sends in equipment and supplies to help the overwhelmed medical system cope.

You’ve had a remarkable career as journalist. What advice would give to a young student or anyone aspiring to a career in journalism?

Master your own language. Study history, politics, economics, foreign languages. If you want a job, keep trying, keep asking. Go in person to the place you’d like to work, to show your availability and enthusiasm.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. After spending many years in Asia as a correspondent for organizations including Bloomberg News, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal, he currently holds the Roger Tatarian lecturership in journalism at California State University, Fresno.

Read Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

Filed under: Interviews, North Korea

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Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. has written 51 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • VagabondJourney January 1, 2015, 10:03 pm

    These are some incredibly good questions here — especially, “Do they need our help?” You really cut to the core of the story here, not often an easy thing to do in the form of a Q and A. Excellent responses by Martin as well. Definitely learned something here.

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