In a small honors college classroom, students’ chairs and tables were arranged in couplets, but every individual turned themselves to see and hear Jean Lee, the first American journalist given extensive access to North Korea. Lee was the center of everyone’s attention as she spoke on behalf of North Korea’s history, belief system, culture and political climate on Jan. 30.
After participating in the discussion, students, such as Angela Aninon, a sophomore political science major with a emphasis in international relations, recognized how little they knew of North Korea and its people.
“We’ve talked about North Korea a couple times in some of my political science classes and mostly in the context that it’s this nondemocratic country and how they do things there, but never in the context of their history or their culture,” Aninon said. “So this added another layer to everything I do know about North Korea.”
According to Lee, Americans often view North Korean people as emotionless, brainwashed individuals; however, Lee said her experience greatly contradicted this image.
“We often think of North Koreans as robotic or brainwashed when in fact, they are opinionated, full of life and lovers of song and dance,” Lee wrote in an email. “They have their spontaneous moments; it’s just that we in the outside world rarely get to see them. I’m lucky to have witnessed this side of the North Korean people. It helped me see them as human beings, even as they lived and survived in a difficult political and economic climate.”
Lee said her most memorable experience serves as an example of how lively North Koreans can be. During a Mother’s Day performance in Pyongyang, Lee witnessed the North Korean tradition of revering and encouraging motherhood–despite couples wanting smaller families. The performance was filled with song and dance from all ages.
“This day was all about honoring mothers and motherhood with songs and dance,” Lee wrote. “They included a performance by a set of identical triplets, which is considered a magical occurrence. But the best moment was when a grandmother up in the nosebleed section got up and started dancing. She danced out of her seat, shimmied her way down the row and danced her way down the aisle to rounds of applause. Soon she was on stage, dancing her heart out, and it wasn’t long before a bunch of grannies went up on stage to join her.”
A second generation Korean, Lee visited the hometown of her great aunt in North Korea. The reality of life today versus her great aunt’s memory was devastating for Lee. However, Lee was heartened by the friendly citizens who occupy the town now.
“I looked at that city as I was going through it through her eyes, and I was heartbroken by how much has changed,” Lee said. “I knew she would not recognize anything. In some ways, South Koreans who were born in North Korea and left their homes need to reconcile their memories with reality. It’s so terrible that they can never go back home, and so it’s a longing that they live with. But the place that they’re thinking of is a place in their memory. It no longer looks like that today. To be honest, most of those border cities were completely destroyed by U.S. bombs during the war, so they rebuilt them in communist fashion. So probably nothing of her hometown was left. But besides that, the people were absolutely lovely, and that was something that I was very happy to share with her.”
According to Aninon, the biggest takeaway she had was that North Korea’s actions were affected by its sense of war between itself and the United States. Because of this sense of war, it made opening an Associated Press (AP) office in North Korea even more difficult.
Although it was not Lee’s plan to open an AP office in North Korea, she fulfilled the assignment given to her by the president of AP at the time. Through a long, grueling process, Lee finally made a deal to act as bureau chief of the North Korean office.
“When you think about it, North Korea and the United States are enemies,” Lee said. “We are officially enemies on opposite sides of the Korean War and for them to accept a journalist from an enemy state that they assumed or suspected was a spy for the United States was a big deal. But I felt that I needed to pave that path for future American journalists.”
Lee spent most of her undergraduate education working on the student newspaper–as much as 40 hours a week, according to Lee. However, Lee also studied East Asian studies and English literature. Despite missing her morning classes due to all-nighters in the newsroom, Lee said she read all the readings, which aided in providing her context to report on Asia.
“The readings came in handy actually,” Lee said. “To cover Asia, you really need to have a solid understanding of the history. So my background in East Asian studies really gave me the context on my reporting in Asia.”