July 1, 1997
Foreign Correspondence is a new, regular feature on The NewsHour which features conversations with correspondents from American news organizations. Elizabeth Farnsworth kicks off the series with Mary Jordan, the North East Asian co-bureau chief for The Washington Post who discusses her experiences in North and South Korea.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
June 11, 1997:
A report on the crisis situation in North Korea.
April 8, 1997:
Two Senators report on the state of the food crisis in North Korea after returning from the region.
February 11, 1997:
The former U.S. ambassador to South Korea discusses the recent labor unrest there and the famine in North Korea.
December 31, 1996
Charles Krause leads a discussion with two experts on recent tensions between North and South Korea.
November 29, 1996
Rep. Bill Richardson (D-NM) brought home an American man who was being held in North Korea.
May 21, 1996
Facing the real possibility of famine, North Korea's government has allowed United Nations relief officials into what are normally closed borders.
April 15, 1996
President Clinton's spring Asia tour included a visit to South Korea.
December 29, 1995
High level Corruption arrests in South Korea's government.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tonight that correspondent is Mary Jordan of The Washington Post. She has served since 1995 with her husband, Kevin Sullivan, as co-bureau chief for Northeast Asia. She travels widely but tonight we focus on her coverage of North and South Korea.
MARY JORDAN, Washington Post: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: North Korea has become a big story and yet, the North Korean leaders won't let many Americans--almost no American correspondents in. How do you cover the story from the South?
MARY JORDAN: It is the most frustrating thing on earth because, as the world knows, there's a famine unfolding inside the secretive place, and the estimates to how many people are dying range from a few hundred to half a million this year. The Defense Department, the White House, Pentagon, they all believe, just like World Food Program and the aid workers, some of whom have gone through and seen certain parts of the country, and everyone agrees that there is a tragedy in there, but nobody knows to what extent it's going on, so for reporters, you know, our job and our moral responsibility really is even beyond kind of just, you know, finding out the facts. It's because kids are dying. It's just incredibly frustrating.
So I went to the Russian border, which is very near on the North side, and tried to listen to all of the North Koreans coming over on the railroad tracks. They were going up there to work in Russia for $2 a day, and the government was taking almost all that money because the government of North Korea was that hard up. People have gone to the Chinese border on the other side to try to hear what they can from that listening post, and then of course we go to Seoul regularly because Seoul is so close to the DMZ that the most heavily guarded border on earth, that they of course have every vested interest to try to find out what's going on there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's it like? Do you get the feeling from talking to people in Seoul--I mean, there have got to be hundreds of people that do nothing but try to figure out what's happening in North Korea. Do you get the feeling people know?
MARY JORDAN: No. It's shocking that, you know, you think the CIA or the FBI or the White House or the--we would know that there's an entire country with, you know, 20 million people, and we really don't know what's going on inside. The CIA can take satellite photos and can find out which factories are working by the smoke that's coming up. They can take photographs from the sky to see how many workers are going outside, and they can basically tell if there have been huge fields of new graves to see how many people have died or been killed.
They look at funeral pictures to see how many of the top leaders have been executed to see if there's been any coup attempts, but they really don't know what the thinking is behind the men who are leading this country. They don't even know really if they have nuclear weapons. I mean, they think not at the moment, but there's--unknowns are just massive.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How does it affect people in South Korea? Are they--do they believe in the reports of the famine, or they--do they want to help? I mean, isn't it true that something like a fourth of South Korean people have family in North Korea or family ties, do they want to help?
MARY JORDAN: Well, there's a cathedral in the heart of Seoul at the Catholic Cathedral called Myongdang. And I was just talking a couple of weeks ago to a woman outside who was selling rosaries and I asked her what she thought about North, and she said that she had a brother who was up there that she hadn't seen since 1953. And I said, well, do you want personally to send food up to him, are you worried he's hungry? And she said, and she started crying, you know, it's just such an emotional issue for so many people, and she said, I don't know if he's hungry; I don't know if he's alive, but I feel if I sent food up there that the military and the leaders would take it. And I feel like there's nothing I can do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that's fairly widespread, that feeling?
MARY JORDAN: I think--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because I know there is some aid going in from South Korea.
MARY JORDAN: This--South Korea is so rich compared to North Korea. I mean, it's really a black and white issue--it's day and night. Everybody's got a cell phone. Everybody's got stylish clothes, Gucci was a top designer there. They don't have enough clothes; they don't have enough to eat; they have no electricity in the South--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the North.
MARY JORDAN: In the North. And the difference between these two countries and to think that the same families have some people trapped in the North and some in the South, the South could afford overnight to airlift enough food up there, you know, to keep everybody from being hungry, but it's so much more complicated than that because the distrust built up between the North Korean and the South Korean government for four decades. It's just massive.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about fear? Is there any fear that the famine and the problems in the North will lead to a lashing out in an attack over the DNZ, the demilitarized zone?
MARY JORDAN: Well, this is the summer of the war rumors. I heard myself from people coming over the border into Vladivostok in Russia that everybody was told by the leaders to dig tunnels and bomb shelters because the South was going to invade.
Now, the Pentagon people think that this is a diversionary tactic by the North Korean leaders to--you know--to channel energy and frustration from people being hungry, tell them there's going to be an invasion, and keep put them trying to work so they don't kind of start refugee, you know, trying to flee the country in mass numbers. Other people wonder is the leader so insane that he would launch a strike, he's got a lot of--a lot of soldiers on the border, he's got a lot of artillery, and perhaps worst of all he has chemical weapons.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you don't get the feeling in the South, or do you get the feeling in the South that there's fear of that?
MARY JORDAN: Every so often there will be a real specific proclamation from the North, you know; there will be a defector who comes out and says he heard that, you know, in July, there's going to be a strike. And then there's kind of a period of great unease; then it passes, and people say, this is the same old thing that we've been hearing for four decades, and life goes on. You know, we have to do the work; we have to pick up our kids from school, and we can't worry that, you know, a missile is going to hit our house tomorrow.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's it like for you to work in South Korea, a woman working in a partnership with your husband, you share the--you sharing the bureau together, how do people respond to that?
MARY JORDAN: Oh, great curiosity. Even the president of South Korea, Kim Young Sam, had heard about us, and asked us to come to the blue house as the white house there is called, because he wanted to talk to us about what it would be like for a husband and wife to work together, and we--and explain to him how we have our computers set up beside each other, and he's--you know--there's just endless curiosity, and most people, of course, think that the man is calling the shots.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And they talk to you about that. Do they ask you if he's calling the shots?
MARY JORDAN: All the time, and frankly if they call the office and someone will say who's in charge, they'll call and say they want to talk to the bureau chief, and our secretary says, we have two bureau chiefs, they share the job, and then she tells them the names, and they automatically say, oh, well, Kevin Sullivan obviously. I want to talk to the man.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Interesting. When you talk to Korean women, have you had a chance to talk fairly intimately with Korean--South Korean women? What kind of concerns--what kind of things came out?
MARY JORDAN: I had wonderful discussions with some of the brightest and best educated people anywhere. I mean, as you know, Korea--the students always come out on top on any international comparison--there's probably more Ph.D.'s in Seoul than Stanford University Campus. It's really a heavy emphasis on education for both men and women.
But it's remarkable. It's almost uniform. The minute you have kids you stay home, and your job is then to educate your child. There's an entire school system that is set up for mothers to refresh trigonometry and algebra and history so they can teach their kid and sit beside them at night, ply them with coffee, and help them with their homework.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Feeding their young children coffee so they can stay awake and do homework?
MARY JORDAN: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Interesting.
MARY JORDAN: And right there beside them--dedicated, you know, helping them out, like a tutor. It's really remarkable, and the dedication to it is uniform and amazing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mary, thanks so much for being with us.
MARY JORDAN: You're welcome.