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Home > International Journalism > SPJ-Korea Exchange > Joe and Kevin’s Travel Diary

The Journalists Association of Korea, in conjunction with the International Federation of Journalists, is hosting a 2007 Special Conference from March 11-16 aimed at “Peace and Reconciliation of the Korean Peninsula.” The IFJ-JAK event has brought together about 200 journalists, celebrities and dignitaries. Meetings are taking place in Seoul, South Korea and Mt. Keumgang, North Korea. It is the first time Korean journalists have met in the spirit of reconciliation since the IFJ was founded in 1926.

Representing SPJ at the special conference are Region 4 Director Kevin Smith and Quill editor Joe Skeel. You can read about the conference in Skeel’s travel diary, and see what he sees with an interactive slide show.

Joe and Kevin’s Travel Diary
March 12 | March 13 | March 16

March 12, 2007

Before arriving in Seoul on Sunday, I really had no idea how I would feel about attending a conference that is dedicated to promoting peace.

I, like most of humanity, would love to see North and South Korea unite, putting an end to the nuclear threat from the North. But since my first day of Journalism school, I learned that as a journalist, my job isn’t to promote anything.

I could write about peace meetings.

I could write about the outcome of peace talks.

But being involved? Even advocating for peace? No way.

Then I heard delegates from Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa. A man from Sudan spoke on the travesties in Darfur.

Journalist after journalist took the podium discussing the troubles their countries face (and not surprisingly, many mentioned the U.S. and their policies). They talked about how the media is working to make their countries better.

Paik Nak-Chung
Paik Nak-Chung, emeritus professor of Seoul National University, delivers a speech about the unification process between North and South Korea on Monday, the first day of the 2007 IFJ-JAK Special Conference in Seoul.

Khairul Bashar, executive director of the Asia Institute of Development Communications, even laid out the four ways media has input on the peace process:

1. The media can help define the political atmosphere.
2. The media has active influences on the strategy and behavior of the stakeholders to the conflict.
3. The media has an important influence on the nature of debate about a peace process.
4. The media can strengthen public legitimacy of the stakeholders involved in the process.

Then Rebecca Alice Henschke from the Indonesian Radio News Agency 68H brought it all home. During a conference in Bali last year, Muslim journalists and their Western peers gathered to discuss the media’s role in promoting tolerance and peace.

Henschke discovered that journalists from countries where they had to fight for freedom of speech passionately believed the media has a role in promoting peace. However, those from the West were very suspicious and resistant to promoting anything.

They argued that journalists are merely information gatherers and storytellers. The moment they give themselves too much importance, they move into a dangerous territory and they lose their independence.

Just as it says in SPJ’s Code of Ethics: Act Independently.

In an ideal world, journalists around the globe wouldn’t have to worry about promoting peace. We would all be guaranteed press freedoms. But that’s not reality.

What’s real is that most journalists around the world don’t have it as good as we do. And who are we to say they shouldn’t do their part as humans to promote peace?

— Joe Skeel

March 13, 2007

Moving into the second day of the 2007 IFJ-JAK Special Conference “Peace and Reconciliation of the Korean Penisula” a lot of conversation has centered around the involvement of the United States in the peace process.

One thing is certain, the United States is expected to take the lead role in seeing that peace comes to this region.

Former South Korean president Dr. Kim Dae-jung spoke to the delegates, telling us that it’s vital for the United States to help in reaching a peace accord.

Taking questions from the audience, SPJ Board Member Kevin Z. Smith asked for the right to pose a question to the former president on behalf of the United States.

The question was this:
There has been a lot of talk here at this conference about the involvement of the United States in the reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. I think a lot of politician and diplomats understand the importance of the reconciliation and the reasons why the United States should be involved. But, I’m not sure that a lot of Americans do. As the former president of South Korea, if you had an opportunity to speak to an average American and explain to them the importance of a unified North and South Korea, what would you say to them?

“Asia is very important in the world. Asia has an ever-growing and powerful economy. China is the number one trade partner with the United States and as we start into the 21st century we will see Asia playing a growing importance in the world market. Asia is key in the international community.

“South Korea and Japan are already partners in the economy of the world and the United States has a lot of interest in keeping us strong and viable partners in the economy and in peace.

“There needs to be stability in the Korean peninsula in order for peace to exist. As far the efforts of the United States, they are helping. It is important for the people of the United States and for the United States to see peace and stability in the region because with peace and stability the economy grows and that helps the United States.

“North Korea can do well in the world market. The U.S. can have trade policies with North Korea. I think this is important because right now North Korea imports about 80 percent of its products from China and the more that relationship exists, the more North Korea becomes dependent on China. The more that happens, the more influence China can influence the actions in North Korea.

“The US should work toward peace and stability in Korea because the result is a strong economy and that can be in the best interest of the United States and the world.”

— Kevin Smith

March 16, 2007

I had hoped to write more often, but our schedule has been packed since the moment I arrived.

We start each day at about 8 a.m. and don’t stop until 11 p.m. or even later. So, I’ll take this moment to summarize what most of the 120 journalists on our trip were excited about: a trip into North Korea.

When we arrived in Seoul, it was apparent we were part of something bigger than my comprehension. We constantly heard talk about the importance of us going to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea, but I just didn’t get it. During the welcoming dinner, we had an unexpected pleasure: South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun spoke to the crowd. Imagine if you were scheduled to attend an opening dinner and president Bush arrived unannounced to speak.

Korea Exchange Photo
This is the restaurant where we ate at Mt. Kumgang in North Korea.

The following day, former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung spoke to the group about the importance of our role in the unification process. And he answered some tough questions, as you can read in Kevin Smith’s blog entry just before this one.

As if I didn’t now have a sense of the importance South Korea placed on our presence, I got another taste when we left for the North on Wednesday morning: Our bus caravan was led by police escort for the entire four-hour trip.

Before we left Seoul, it was made very clear that we weren’t allowed to take cameras with zoom lenses bigger than 160mm. We also weren’t allowed to bring laptops or voice recorders. These restrictions are in place because the North Korean government doesn’t want any photos or audio taken of North Korean people. Believe it or not, the restrictions actually excited me a bit because I thought this meant we would get the opportunity to talk to some North Korean residents/workers; something I wasn’t expecting.

After the bus ride to the northeast corner of South Korea, we entered the South’s CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine), near the border. Our luggage was x-rayed and officials checked our equipment to make sure it was allowed into the country.

After crossing through the South’s CIQ, we drove through the demilitarized zone, which is about 2.5 miles wide. Then we arrived at the North Korea CIQ. In the South, the process and atmosphere was much like you get at the airport, with trained workers. The North was a stark contrast: The entire process was controlled by soldiers. They stood in the hills that surrounded the checkpoint and guards watched over the group to make sure we weren’t taking photos or violating any rules.

Korea Exchange Photo
This building sits high atop a hill overlookig Samilpo Lake, near the Mt. Kumgang complex. North Koreans aren't allowed in this area.

We all made it through the checkpoint and loaded back on the buses for the trip to Mt. Kumgang, which by my estimation is about 10 miles inside of North Korea. As we drove toward our hotel, we saw guards standing in the middle of the fields and rivers, guarding access to the road. I couldn’t figure out what they are protecting. Later, I realized they weren’t just there to keep people out. They were also there to keep people in.

Along the route, we got our first glimpse of the North Korean people. They lived in tiny, dirty buildings and walked or used bicycles to get everywhere. At nearly all the dirt roads, there were guards to make sure they stayed put. Also on the drive, we saw tanks and anti-aircraft missile trucks parked in the hills. As Dorothy said, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Korea Exchange Photo
Here is the view from the front doors of our hotel in North Korea.

Another thing that jumped out at me was the terrain. In a span of 10 miles, the scenery went from tree covered mountain tops to barren rock mountains. I later learned from a retired American soldier that I met at a later stop that the North Koreans likely strip the hills for wood to stay warm. Their weather is much like that of any Midwestern state in the U.S.

We arrived at our destination and I was surprised to find a setting that resembled Six Flags: Souvenir shops, a performance hall, hotels and a fine restaurant. All that was missing was the carnival rides. It became instantly clear that while in North Korea, we would see exactly what the North Koreans wanted outsiders to see. I was disappointed.

However, considering the importance the South Koreans placed on our trip, it was hard to be mad. We were given the opportunity to see a place where millions in South Korea would love to go. They are allowed to travel here, but it isn’t cheap. As it turns out, Mt. Kumgang’s recreation area was designed for South Koreans. After years of talks, the North Korean government gave the Hyundai Asan corporation the OK to build the complex. So, this area represents the first small step in bringing the South closer to the North. Of course, the North government gets huge kickbacks and determines all the rules. Nonetheless, it gives South Koreans an opportunity to see a place they have been banned from for nearly 50 years.

Each road surrounding the complex is watched by guards. They control who comes and goes. Although the North Korean people, carrying their wood and rice, can walk along the road that’s less than 1,000 feet from the multi-million-dollar complex, they can’t come in. And they are kept at a distance from the tourists.

The following day, we toured the area outside the Mt. Kumgang complex. We were taken to a golf course on the hills that over look the mountains. The Hyundai Asan corporation is constructing a four-star hotel and golf course in the hills where just 2,000 feet below there are people making $50 a month. The contrast is startling. While it’s easy for something like this to be frowned upon, it should also be noted that because the area is being developed, that means more jobs for North Koreans, even though the wage is small. And it’s the North Korean government that sets the wages for Hyundai Asan.

Korea Exchange Photo
This is a photo of the developing golf course near Mt. Kumgang. Again, North Koreans aren't allowed in this area and can't see the view we all enjoyed.

During our tour we got a little closer to the North Korean villages that surround the complex. We saw kids playing in school and men and women working in the fields. Just a few hours away in Seoul, there are people working in skyscrapers and watching video billboards ala Times Square in New York.

The whole point of the trip to North Korea was to sign a resolution developed by the IFJ and JAK. However, the ceremony never took place because an Italian journalist had a run in with some North Korean officials after he video taped some North Korean workers. Because conference officials were tied up with his incident, there was no time to sign the resolution while in North Korea. However, it was distributed when we arrived back in Seoul.

In part, it reads:

“The Special Conference insists that the professional and ethical excellence of journalists and media professionals are vital in creating conditions for mutual understanding and peace in all regions of conflicts and division and particularly in the Middle East, namely in Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur, the nuclear crisis in Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. In this region, people yearn for settlement of conflicts based upon respect for international law, UN resolutions and peaceful dialogue.

“These conflicts provide a challenge to journalism and the world’s press, which must seek to report fairly and ethically to combat ignorance, fear and hatred.

“Journalists must be free to do their work without the threat of violence or intimidation. At the same time all obstacles to the exercise of free journalism must be removed. Restrictive laws hinder the press from telling the truth.”

Korea Exchange Photo
A photo of a North Korean village just outside the Mt. Kugang complex.

We returned back to South Korea on Thursday night. Aside from the small gifts I bought, I brought back a new sense of appreciation, empathy and hope. It would be a great day in the world when journalists are allowed to practice their craft freely. It will be an even greater day when people around the world — like those in North Korea — can walk down any road they choose.

— Joe Skeel

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