Last month, a journalist was detained, interrogated and expelled from North Korea after he was accused of calling Korean people ugly and saying they bark like dogs.
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, a reporter with the BBC, was about to board his flight to Beijing after spending a week in North Korea when he was detained at the airport. Hayes was visiting Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, to cover the visit by a delegation of three Nobel laureates.
His colleagues from the BBC, Maria Byrne and Matthew Goddard, were also accompanying him on the trip. Hayes described his feelings of confinement while staying in North Korea:
“I couldn’t move anywhere in Pyongyang without a team of five minders following my every step. At night the BBC team was confined to an overheated villa in a guarded compound. We’d fallen out with pretty much everyone.”
His trip to North Korea was exhaustive and stressful and the team was ready to fly out to Beijing. While at the airport, Hayes noticed that the female immigration officer at Pyongyang was taking a longer time than usual with his passport. Everyone else had cleared security and headed towards the gate.
Hayes was called over by the North Korean border guard who had his digital recorder. The guards informed Hayes that he wouldn’t be boarding the flight to Beijing. Instead, he was to be escorted to a waiting car and ushered into the back seat. Hayes thought:
“My God. This is real. My flight is leaving and I am being left behind in North Korea!”
The car arrived at an old grey hotel where Hayes was taken into a conference room with large portraits of Kim II-sung and Kim Jong-il hanging on the wall. A group of officials entered and sat opposite to him. They said:
“Mr. Rupert this meeting can be over quickly and simply, it will depend on your attitude.”
Hayes was informed that several of his articles published on the BBC website covering the visit of the Nobel laureates had insulted the Korean people. He recalled the conversation:
“‘Do you think Korean people are ugly?’ the older man asked.
“’No,’ I answered.
“’Do you think Korean people have voices like dogs?’
“’No,’ I answered again.
“’Then why do you write these things?!’ he shouted.”
Hayes was then presented with the following transcript from his article with words marked in bold.
“The grim-faced customs officer is wearing one of those slightly ridiculous oversized military caps that they were so fond of in the Soviet Union. It makes the slightly built North Korean in his baggy uniform comically top heavy. “Open,” he grunts, pointing at my mobile phone. I dutifully punch in the passcode. He grabs it back and goes immediately to photos. He scrolls through pictures of my children skiing, Japanese cherry blossom, the Hong Kong skyline. Apparently satisfied he turns to my suitcase. “Books?” he barks. No, no books. “Movies?” No, no movies. I am sent off to another desk where a much less gruff lady is already looking through my laptop.”
It appeared that a few of the English words had been lost in translation. The North Korean officials had misconstrued “grim-faced” to mean ugly and “barks” to literally mean dog noises. One of the men interrogating Hayes claimed to have studied English literature. Another attempted to intimidate Hayes with his authority. He said:
“I am from the judicial authorities. I am the one who investigated the case of Kenneth Bae, and now I am going to investigate you.”
In hours of interrogation, Hayes was pressured to confess to the “serious crime” crime of “defamation of the Korean people and nation.”
Hayes refused and the interrogators eventually agreed that Hayes would write a short letter apologizing for the offense his articles had caused. After 10 hours of interrogation, he was finally released and taken to meet his colleagues Byrne and Goddard at a guesthouse in the hills outside the capital.
On May 8, as Hayes and his team were preparing to drive to the airport, the government announced that he was being expelled. Hayes believed that his reporting was perceived by someone high up as a threat to the Nobel laureates’ visit. He wrote:
“I spent only 10 hours in detention. But in that time I got to see just how easy it is for someone in North Korea to disappear. I got to feel the terror of being isolated and accused of crimes I had not committed, and to be threatened with a trial in which the evidence would have been irrelevant, and my guilt assured.”