Behind the Screen: ABC’s Pyongyang Perspective

Jun 20, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The week-long trip into North Korea by ABC News correspondent and Saturday “World News Tonight” anchor Bob Woodruff and Foreign Editor Chuck Lustig was a master class in incremental journalism and trust building in one of the most closed and controlled countries in the world.

The team produced a handful of short pieces that aired on assorted ABC newscasts over the course of the week ended June 12 and were picked up by news organizations around the world. The reports included glimpses of a country in such dire straits that traffic lights in the capital, Pyongyang, were turned off four years ago to save power and millions of city dwellers have been ordered into the countryside to plant rice. Mr. Woodruff also reported that the vice foreign minister of North Korea told him the country is building additional nuclear bombs.

Mr. Woodruff and Mr. Lustig brought home some unused video that may yet make it onto the air, but alas, not enough footage for the “major documentary” ABC News President David Westin said he still yearns to do.

Mr. Westin said he hopes ABC News can return. “We are certainly discussing it with North Korean authorities, and they have not warned us off of that. These situations are fluid, and it depends on what happens, I’m sure, in their dealings with the United States and other issues that we can’t even understand.

“It doesn’t happen until it happens, but we have not been discouraged at all by the North Korean authorities from continuing to discuss with them going back over to do a documentary,” said Mr. Westin, who traveled to North Korea in February with Mr. Lustig.

Mr. Lustig made the first of his several visits to the country in 1995 and had gone back in May to prepare for the trip he would take in June with Mr. Woodruff and cameraman Francois Bisson, sound man Magnus Macedo and producer Clark Bentson.

Visitors to North Korea must hand over their cellphones and BlackBerry-type devices to officials. Members of the ABC News crew were given approved cellphones on which they could call out but not receive calls coming into the country.

“There were no [declared] restrictions [on stories] going in,” Mr. Lustig said. The only ABC request not granted was a visit to a nuclear facility. “They said ‘No’ once we were in there,” Mr. Lustig said. “We kept asking and asking. They kept saying ‘No.’ “

The ABC crew hit a little bump on the first day, when it tried to get video of North Koreans waiting at a bus stop.

One of the three North Korean minders who were with the ABC crew around the clock (even staying in the same hotel at night) failed to see what the shot had to do with anything important. An appeal to a senior minder resulted in ABC’s getting the video it wanted where it wanted.

Indeed, Mr. Woodruff said, the only video that didn’t make it past a government censor at the feed point was “a sort of artsy” shot of a big bronze statue of former leader Kim Il Sung surrounded by leaves that obscured the statue a bit too much for the censor’s taste.

More often, restrictions boiled down to lack of access-though Mr. Lustig remained “surprised at the amount of access we actually got”-and lack of time.

“We were gunning it. They wouldn’t let us get started until around 9 in the morning,” said Mr. Woodruff, whose days were very long because he was filing for “Good Morning America” and for “World News Tonight.”

Mr. Woodruff is no stranger to Asia or the long hours required to report for American TV. He reported from North Korea on then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s trip in 2000; since then the country essentially has remained closed to outside journalists. A lawyer fluent in Chinese, Mr. Woodruff was teaching law in Beijing in 1988 and 1989 and translated for CBS News crews covering the dramatic standoff in Tiananmen Square between government forces and pro-democracy demonstrators.

Access to outside cultures is very restricted in North Korea, where the nation’s only TV network is run by the state. Mr. Westin saw only North Korean documentaries and what he took to be Chinese-made World War II movies dubbed into Korean. Mr. Woodward’s hotel offered a small bundle of imported public broadcasting signals (Britain’s BBC, Japan’s NHK).

“They don’t have CNN and the usual package of news channels,” said Mr. Woodruff, who can, however, attest to the ability of a big American TV hit to pierce even the most ironclad wall around a country.

“They are very interested in ‘Lost’ and ‘Desperate Housewives,'” the correspondent said.

By the time the ABC crew headed for home, their relationship with their minders accommodated “ongoing banter” and ribbing and each ABC crew member had been presented with the pin displaying Kim Il Sung’s face-a pin North Koreans are required to wear at all times.

Mr. Woodruff also brought back with him a copy of the 1989 book, “Kim Jong Il on the Art of the Cinema.” The Korean strongman is said to have a collection of more than 15,000 films, including Hollywood blockbusters such as the James Bond and Rambo movies. He is also a big fan of Daffy Duck and is said to have a large collection of Daffy cartoons.