We have been following Steve Herman of Voice of America’s sojourn into North Korea over the last week, and so far things have been pretty eventful. It appears that Herman was one of a gaggle of foreign journalists let into the country to witness the celebration of the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s victory in the Great Fatherland War; The PBS News Hour carried an interesting report from John Sparks of Britain’s Channel Four News, complete with a surprise visit to a new cemetery by Kim Jong Un himself. The 60th anniversary also coincides with a staging of the Arirang Mass Games, a point of national pride that tends to inspire more bemusement than awe from foreigners (in case you haven’t seen a clip).
But Herman had an additional mission: he was part of delegation of Americans led by 88-year old U.S. Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Hudner which was in search of the wartime remains of Ensign Jessie Brown. Brown was Hudner’s wingman during the Korean War, and the first Black Navy aviator in American history. Both flew together during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950, where Brown was shot down and went MIA. Jean H. Lee over at the Huffington Post ran an excellent account of this harrowing story which does not need summary here beyond noting that Medals of Honor are rare for a reason.
Of course, the North Koreans could simply be seeking the PR win of getting an American Medal of Honor recipient to bow to the caskets of Kim Il Sung at the Palace of the Sun. But this is too cynical; allowing the delegation to enter areas of the country that are typically closed to outsiders could be some low-level signal.
As the trip unfolded, however, it was overtaken by a story that Steph Haggard reported on during the week: the recurrence of flooding (Relief Web has updates on the issue). Not only have the floods made the Chosin Reservoir area totally inaccessible and dashed any hopes of recovering Brown’s remains, it has also, as reported by Herman on his VOA Twitter feed, destroyed thousands of homes and left tens of thousands displaced.
Another interesting feature of the Herman visit is that we’ve been hearing about it in real-time. North Korea made the decision to allow cellphones and turn on its 3G network for foreign visitors only months ago, and since then we have gotten a slow stream of real-time updates and Tweets from the journalists and travelers; David Guttenfelder, who is currently covering the 2013 Mass Games for AP (you can find some of his work here ), has also been posting in a less official capacity via Instagram. As the PBS clip makes clear, North Korean minders are incredibly careful about what is filmed; the Channel Four team is blocked from taking some relatively innocuous shots. However, Guttenfelder’s video snippets of deserted roads, darkened cityscapes, and propaganda aplenty is both alienating and unflattering. Herman, too, had been Tweeting all day on the 22nd on somewhat sensitive topics, including Hudner’s meeting with KPA officials and the extent of damage brought by the floods…until the feed abruptly stopped. We will likely get a fuller report on his return.