Earlier this month, a Reuters Special Report revealed that North Korea leader Kim Jong Un uses a prime seaside resort for military tests. The story, featured on a new dedicated section on Reuters.com called “North Korea Revealed,” reported that he is rebuilding the city of 360,000 people and wants to turn it into a billion-dollar tourist hotspot. At the same time, he has launched nearly 40 missiles from the area, as part of his accelerated tests of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, correspondent Ju-min Park offers a behind-the-scenes look at how she and fellow correspondent James Pearson reported the story.
Q. How did you get started on this story?
A. It started with a look into the North Korean city of Wonsan, also known as “Pearl of the East Sea”. It is not only a special place for young leader Kim Jong Un and his family that have had fun in their private palace there but he has launched dozens of missiles from the coastal resort since he came to power in late 2011. He also wants to turn the city into a tourist hotspot. James Pearson, my long-time partner in crime, and I teamed up and began to dig more into the city.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. Our focus was to outline Kim’s progress so far in developing the region and his official strategy, known as byongjin, which sees military and economic advances progressing in tandem. We reported on some of the planned projects and the promises they make, and described the military exercises he conducts on the beaches and in the area. We managed to get hold of original North Korean brochures with stylized illustrations of proposed projects to develop the Wonsan area as a tourism zone to lure foreign cash despite global sanctions.
We also spoke to sources including former diplomats, people who know Kim Jong Un and defectors from Wonsan and compiled military activities in the past few years from Wonsan. During the course of our reporting, we located some really interesting places showing how Kim Jong Un keeps his elites sweet. In Wonsan, North Korea’s Stasi-like agency has their seaside retreat there, as do a couple of government organizations blacklisted by the UN for roles in the weapons program. Massive resources from Reuters text, graphics to visuals were put in to describe Wonsan in a comprehensive way to show why Kim Jong Un has wanted to promote the area as an international tourism hotspot with high-rise buildings and golf courses or with North Koreans having beers and ice creams in the summer breeze. The story of Wonsan shows how both tanks and tourism – or the wealth it promises – play a key role in building the personality cult around the young leader. They form a delicate balancing act between reforming the economy enough to make cash, but not so much that he loses control.
Q. Why did you think this was an important story to tell our global readers and clients?
A. It may be easy to talk about North Korean bombs. North Korea has tested missiles and nuclear weapons at an unprecedented pace in the past couple of years. Such events have been the main matters making global headlines. But using a combination of sources from original materials to satellite imagery, and local voices, the Wonsan special report shed new light on how the country is run. The story, including a 3D city model, became part of Reuters dedicated online section that pulls together our news and in-depth multimedia coverage on North Korea.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. Finding news and features pushes me as a reporter to keep digging on any story subject. I cover tensions on the Korean peninsula and politics, government and human affairs in two Koreas, and human interest stories on Koreans with their history of war and division are always intriguing. I am constantly eager to find a fresh perspective on North Korea that cuts deep behind the headlines and looks at how ordinary people get on with their daily lives in the world’s most isolated country. And writing stories about South Korea from politics to culture that are hidden from public knowledge never bores me.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. Instead of following the herd on both North and South Korea, I have tried to carve out a series of more interesting story themes, for example looking at Samsung’s troubled sponsorship of the equestrian-athlete daughter of a long-time friend of the impeached South Korean president Park Geun-hye, profiling rocket scientists behind North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or how North Korean defectors secretly fund entrepreneurs inside the country to foment change within. For me, as a witness to history, sharing what I have seen and heard has been rewarding, working on big stories such as the death of Kim Jong Il, the current North Korean leader’s father; the fledgling market economy inside Pyongyang; the recent downfall of South Korean’s leader Park Geun-hye and the arrest of Samsung scion Jay Y. Lee. It has been also great to work with so many talented colleagues, including being part of a team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer, for a series on the corrupted system of U.S. college admissions testing. It has been equally and emotionally difficult in cases where I have to report on some of the terrible things like the sinking of a South Korean ferry that killed more than 300 people, mostly children.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. It is tough to think of a better job for me.