TOPICS > Nation

South Korea Update with Mary Jordan

September 8, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a foreign correspondence, our occasional conversations with reporters based overseas for American news organizations. Phil Ponce has this one.

PHIL PONCE: And tonight our foreign correspondent is Mary Jordan, Northeast Asia co-bureau chief of the Washington Post. She and her husband and co-bureau chief Kevin Sullivan are based in Tokyo. Welcome, Mary.

MARY JORDAN: Thank you.

PHIL PONCE: You were here a year ago and you gave a picture of a very prosperous Korea, where people were buying things and were well dressed. What’s Korea like now?

MARY JORDAN: Well, it’s just been a stunning reversal of fortune for a country. This time last year it was still a powerhouse. You know, there was great pride in every American home. There was a Korean-made air conditioner or computer or some electronics goods. And this year so many people that were working in those factories are out of work that the city had almost no homeless people last year, but every city park now has become almost like a virtual tent city, with homeless people, families, people that were even owners of companies that are now sleeping under the stars, because they have lost everything, lost their jobs, lost all their savings.

PHIL PONCE: What has that done to their national self-image, how they view themselves?

MARY JORDAN: Boy, it hurts. You know, there was – the initial reaction was a kind of humiliation and embarrassment that the house of cards that they thought was, you know, built well turned out to be a house of cards that had blown down so easily. But now it’s – there’s a little bit of anger about America. America is seen as the lead behind the International Monetary Fund, which is really forcing tough things on Korea. In exchange for $58 billion to bail it out, they said, all right, you got to shape up, you got to have real accounting books. You know, you’ve got to lay off people. It’s ridiculous to have ten people doing the job that five people shouldn’t be doing.

PHIL PONCE: How about middle class families, those families that still have, where somebody is still employed and still earning some income, how have their lives been changed?

MARY JORDAN: Well, there’s 44 million people in South Korea, and most of them are middle class people. And that’s been the strength of this country. And I guess I think it’s fair to say that there’s no life that hasn’t really been changed there. There’s – Korea is famous for being kind of an education powerhouse. They tend to staff the Harvard – Stanford in greater numbers than any other country in the world, and many of those Korean students have had to return home because when the value of the currency crashed, Harvard, instead of costing 30 grand, cost 50 grand a year. So the middle class, the kids are hurt, they’re coming back from school. Some are joining the army to help out. People have turned in gold necklaces that meant a lot, gold baseballs, souvenirs, trying to melt them down for money, trying to help the country. You know, even middle class people who were just kind of clawing their way up and have kind of finally made it, you know, good working conditions, a nice house, are now, you know, living on the floor of their relatives because they can’t pay the rent.

PHIL PONCE: There’s been a push, hasn’t there, to encourage people to buy Korean? What has that been about?

MARY JORDAN: Well, it’s kind of been a way to pick the country up and also foreign goods are so expensive now because the currency, the Korean currency was devalued enormously against the dollar. So there were actually kind of songs and TV commercials and mottoes and signs that said, you know, no more Irish whiskey, you know, and definitely no Japanese goods, and, you know, buy Korean. So there – a lot of designer goods like certain back packs that were made in America that every Korean had to have last year disappeared, couldn’t be seen dead with them now, because it would kind of be bad form; it wouldn’t be good for Korea.

PHIL PONCE: You mentioned Japan. Resentment towards Japan as well?

MARY JORDAN: Well, the two countries have never kind of gotten along. You know, Japan can kind of just look at Korea funny and they can – it’ll cause an international incident. Japan brutally – I think it’s fair to say – was not a kind and gentle occupation of Korea earlier this century – and they haven’t forgotten it. And right now Japan is seen as adding to Asia’s problems and not helping.

PHIL PONCE: In other words, the problems in Japan are making things tough in Korea, and therefore, that adds to the negative feelings that people in Korea might have towards Japan.


PHIL PONCE: How about attitude towards North Korea these days?

MARY JORDAN: Well, this missile test – while it doesn’t surprise people there, they have been living with -

PHIL PONCE: The fact that North Korea has tested a missile – part of it landed in the Sea of Japan, part of it actually went over Japan.

MARY JORDAN: I mean, just imagine, you know, St. Paul and Minneapolis. It’s that close or even closer between North and South Korea. And they have so many missiles there that they can basically obliterate all of Asia. There’s a carpet of landmines, and again, it’s just so close, it’s one peninsula, and they – all of a sudden they just lobbed this missile over the ocean and across Japan, and, yes, people are upset. There is — no American is believed to have ever stood in the same room with the leader of North Korea. He’s a mystery, so we have a mystery man with missiles, and it makes America nervous, but it certainly makes the people that are less than a mile away more nervous.

PHIL PONCE: Weren’t things supposed to be getting better with this new “sunshine” policy by the new South Korean president? I thought things were sort of improving on that line.

MARY JORDAN: There was great hope – in fact, the brightest hope that certainly the administration, Washington, and people in Asia felt. And then along came the old tricks, North Korean agents and submarines against sort of showing up on the shore. There’s more belligerent talk, and now this missile test, and even talk of apparently the CIA is picking up some satellite pictures, and the estimates in Washington now are that maybe 15,000 North Koreans are digging some kind of a hole in the ground that could be work towards nuclear factory, or something that would help them make nuclear weapons.

PHIL PONCE: I understand you talked with some South Korean fishermen during one of the submarine episodes. What happened?

MARY JORDAN: I went, you know, — I went to this little town, Soptyo, which is just on the border where the latest submarine was found – when they opened the hatch, there were nine dead agents, apparently suicide or some kind of murder-suicide, when they realized that they were going to be captured by the South Koreans. We were talking to the fishermen, saying, what do you think – you’re sitting here, you’re fishing, and you know, right over there on the water is kind of a black submarine, and they – it was interesting because they said, well, you know, it’s no big deal, we see these black things all the time, and we figure it’s them. You know, we’ve been doing this since 1953. And it’s no surprise to us. We don’t trust them; we think they could – you know – throw a bomb over the DMZ at any moment, and it’s just our life.

PHIL PONCE: What’s the latest information coming out of North Korea regarding the famine?

MARY JORDAN: Boy, that’s such a mystery. It is hard to believe that with the CIA satellite pictures, with, you know, all that we know in this computer information network, that we don’t know if it’s thousands or millions of people that are hungry or starving. There are some aid workers who have gotten in, but they are still isolated in certain pockets. And they have not seen the full scale of the country, an so they don’t know. What they do say is that definitely people are hungry but we don’t know how many and how severe the malnutrition is.

PHIL PONCE: You’ve been in South Korea now covering South Korea for about three years or so. What is it like as a journalist?

MARY JORDAN: Well, it’s – I must say that it’s fun, because they call South Korea the Ireland of Asia, because there’s great love of songs and kind of good times and I can say this because I’m Irish. You know, they like to have a good time and drinking beer, and it’s just a fun place to work. And it’s also so emotionally interesting – when you go up to the DMZ, for instance, the line that divides North and South Korea – and you’re talking to 20-year-old American GI’s, who are posted up there, what has often been called the most dangerous place on earth, because it’s – you’ve got the North Korean men facing off with South Korean American soldiers just eyeball to eyeball along this line, with – you know, again, enormous fire power. And you’re talking to these American guys, and they’re like, wow, you know, I just – I go back at night and I get on my computer and I type back to my wife in New Jersey, you know, this is – this is wild, as one guy said to me the last time we were up there. This is not something that I would have thought that I would ever see.