A Bizarre Story of a South Korean Journalist Lee Sang-yong
By John Cha
The last thing Lee Sang-yong wanted to do in his life was to spend 114 days in jail. A Chinese jail, no less. He was ready head home to Seoul following a three-year stint as a correspondent for an internet newspaper DailyNK, when the Chinese intelligence agents nabbed him in Dalian, a port city at the tip of Tsingtao peninsula about two hundred miles west of Dandong.
“I’d just gotten off the bus from Dandong on my way to see my colleagues there. Four plain clothes men came up to me and handcuffed me, my hands behind my back. The handcuffs were so tight. It hurt so bad, I couldn’t think of anything else.”
He had no idea what the gruff Chinese intelligence agents wanted, wondering if they made a mistake in identity. He would later find out that they knew exactly who he was and that he was a journalist from South Korea. They drove him back to Dandong and put him in a small cell with twenty or so people in it. It was so crowded, he had to sleep sitting up. For meals he had a Chinese bun (mantou) and a bowl of clear broth three times a day.
The first day in jail they told him nothing. Second day, when was called into the interrogation room, the agents started by saying, “You should be thankful that we saved you from the North Korean agents. We found out that they were following you around. We got seven of you guys yesterday.”
Lee was grimly amused. They had a strange way of showing their concern for him—handcuffing him and throwing him into a crowded cell. Yet he was not worried at this point, because the usual MO for the Chinese authorities had been to deport journalists like him after a day or two.
Two days went by, and by the third day, they did an unusual thing. They took him out of the holding tank and transferred him to a regular prison. They hadn’t charged him yet, and he didn’t know what was going on until he got a glimpse of his data sheet on the computer screen during the registration process. His sheet said, “Crimes against national security,” confusing him to no end.
One week, and then two weeks went by, and the agents didn’t show any signs of letting him go. The prison was an improvement over the holding cell. He didn’t have to sleep sitting up anymore and there were two toilettes in the barracks with twenty inmates. He wanted so badly to brush his teeth and take a shower, but no such luck, although he was allowed to wash his hair after twenty days. He could have bought chicken and pastries, but that was out of question since he didn’t have any money.
He went over and over in his mind what he had done during the past three years that they could have construed as “crimes against national security.” The Chinese agents knew what he did in the greatest of detail, especially after they confiscated his NICON camera with three lenses and his computer containing the stories he had filed to the DailyNK head office in Seoul. They should have known that he had done nothing to compromise the national security of China, but there he was, locked up in a cell that reeked like a chicken coop.
About a month into his incarceration, an interrogator told him, “Normally, we’d notify your family after one day, but in your case, no dice. Instead, we’re going to send you to North Korea, so they can tie you up to the rocket they’re going to blast off.” They seemed to enjoy threatening him like this, Lee thought.
These threats got to him. He became tense and nervous as time went on and developed a hyper stress syndrome, breaking out all over his body. His mission as the correspondent had been to collect and report news stories from North Korea for the DailyNK, considered the top news organization among the North Korea experts. Its founders had mortgaged their homes in 2005 to start the non-profit news organization that went on to break major stories such as public executions, botched currency reform in North Korea , famine, purges, and other stories that described what went on inside North Korea. It is a news source for New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, ABC, BBC, Asahi, Sankei, NHK, TBS, German ARD, French 12channel, CNN, and on. Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il’s first son, was quoted, saying that “The Daily NK is accurate about North Korean markets” although he had reservations about the party elites.
During the process, the DailyNK became a thorn in the eyes of the North Korean authorities. In fact, the hardliners in Pyongyang threatened to bomb its Seoul office to smithereens, calling it the enemy of the republic and imperial dogs, the usual epithets reserved for those they consider hostile.
Lee was aware of these threats, and the presence of North Korean agents who roam the border region in search of the “betrayers of the republic,” which include North Korean defectors, missionaries, and journalists. Thus Lee carefully planned his movements to avoid surveillance, alternating buses and cabs wherever he went. Upon reaching his destination he’d find a high point to scan the area to make sure that he was not followed. If he wasn’t sure, he’d break off the meeting and make a new arrangement for another day.
“I never knew if my contact was going to show up or not. Sometimes it would take three or more attempts before we finally meet up, and sometimes, we would never get to meet. I interviewed hundreds of defectors this way. The hardest part about my job was arranging and meeting informants and verifying stories. I had to interview multiple sources to double check stories about what’s going on in market places around North Korea, or the streets of Pyongyang. ”
Real news about North Korean people are hard to come by—other than what the party’s propaganda department prints or broadcasts. Nevertheless, Lee had become accustomed to the world where surreptitious news gathering is the norm, constantly mindful of the NKorean agents who watch informants and journalists alike.
Lee attributes this condition to Kim Jong-il’s “fog veil” strategy with respect to the outflow of information, any information. Kim Jong-il once had fallen off a horse, which required hospitalization. He was not seen for months, and no one, other than an immediate few, knew about his fall. Not even the party cadre of the central committee.
Despite these trying circumstances, Lee finds it very gratifying to tell stories about North Korea. “I feel the happiest when I run into readers who say that they are learning about the North Korean society. I also met some North Korean officials, they didn’t know who I was, and they told me that the Daily NK was really a terrible site. I laughed inside and felt proud that we’re doing a good job.”
His sense of gratification does not come cheap. An electronics engineering major graduating with honors, he could be working at a major hi tech company and making a lot of money, rather than working at a news organization that is hard-pressed to make payroll every month for twenty-five reporters, translators, and administrative staff.
Asked about his choice for a life of poverty, he smiles and says, “I am the youngest of the eight children in my family, and my sisters and brothers are concerned about that. But where else am I going to find this kind of camaraderie? I am very happy working here.”
Funding was a huge problem during his tour in Manchuria, and it still is for other correspondents. Lee laments, “I lost many contacts and stories because I didn’t have the money to pay for their meals and cab fare. I skimped on meals and lived in cheap rooms to save what little money I had for my informants. My life was definitely below poverty level. We do need financial help.”
Nevertheless, his life as a pauper and his time in jail hasn’t discouraged him from wanting to go back there. He hopes to return someday and write stories about the life in North Korea, provided that the Chinese government lifts its ban on his return. He would like to get his camera back, too, but he is not counting on it.
I told him about writer Jack London’s confiscated camera in 1904, when he went to Korea as a correspondent for San Francisco Examiner to cover the Russo-Japanese War. London finally recovered his camera from a Japanese army commander with the help of the US State Department. Lee replied, “My camera is gone, my computer, and my note pads. They told me they would burn all my belongings because they were used for an illegal purpose.”
Lee Sang-yong regrets having spent almost four months in prison, but he is very philosophical about his experience. It took him three months to fully recover from his stress syndrome, and he is back at his desk, as committed and feisty as ever. He says he feels energized by all the friends he made back in Manchuria over the past three years. “I have no regrets, only that I feel like I’ve let down my fellow journalists [by getting caught]. I have to redeem myself now.”
Writer’s note: This story appeared on the February issue of KoreAm Journal, a monthly magazine published in Los Angeles, California. I am grateful to Lee Sang-yong for agreeing to do this interview. He is doing this because he wants to help his colleagues and all those The Daily NK serves. These brave men and women who provide a voice for the voiceless need your help. To make financial contributions to help the starving reporters, please contact email@example.com.