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Opinion: The strange story of how I became a character in a North Korean novel

Opinion by Mike Chinoy

(CNN) — The novel, published in 2018 by a member of the North Korean Writers’ Union named Kim Ryong Yon, is called “Thunderclap.” The heroine is a fictional Korean American CNN correspondent, Byun Sa-hwang. She is preparing to make a reporting trip to North Korea in 2009 and is wrestling with conflicting emotions.

On the one hand, she is desperate to make the trip, as it was “the dying wish left by my father for me to visit the homeland where my ancestors were buried.”

And yet, she worries, “Why would [North] Korea, the most formidable enemy of the US, let in someone like me, an American citizen and reporter?”

For encouragement, she turns to a fellow CNN correspondent. But the character from whom she draws inspiration is not made up. In fact, this character named “Michael Chinoy” is me — making me one of a very small number of real-life Americans who appear with a speaking part in any North Korean novels.

But the fictional me — and the fictional CNN I work for – are depicted in “Thunderclap” in a way designed to show that the network was sympathetic to the North Korean regime — something that was never the case.

I discovered this when I recently received an email from Korea scholar Meredith Shaw, an associate professor affiliated with the University of Tokyo Institute of Social Science, who is writing a book on the treatment of foreigners in North Korean literature.

The novel Shaw pointed me to, for which she did the translation, quotes me as saying, “The greatest strength of Korea is its unique political system, in which the leader and people act as one.”

To the fictional Byun Sa-hyang, CNN was “a little different” from other Western media, not least because, “Michael Chinoy had been on the reporting team [to cover celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK in 1998] and said that the reality of the country had left a good impression.”

For Sa-hyang, “Michael Chinoy’s impression added fuel to my already burning fire, so much so that my heart felt intolerably heavy. I have to go. I must go!”

As a CNN correspondent, I did indeed make 14 trips to North Korea, and three more after I left the network. I also met the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current dictator Kim Jong Un, three times. Moreover, my CNN camera crew and I were the only Western journalists allowed to visit North Korea to cover the 1998 celebrations.

But the language attributed to me in “Thunderclap is entirely made up.

In my live report, which can be seen here, I described North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as being “worshipped like a virtual God” in “a nation where unquestioning loyalty to the supreme leader is drummed in almost literally from birth, where the individual pales into insignificance against the all-pervasive influence of the state.” Moreover, although 1998 was the height of the famine that devastated North Korea, I noted that “we were not able to visit the areas of the country worst hit by the food shortages.”

So what explains this remarkably positive depiction of me and CNN, which stands in sharp contrast to the way other authoritarian systems, such as those of Russia and China, have often demonized the international media? Shaw observes that, somewhat surprisingly, Western media are treated with “something akin to reverence, and foreign journalists are depicted as indefatigable servants of truth.”

This is especially true in relation to CNN, which has had a long and complicated relationship with North Korea. I first visited Pyongyang in 1989. Three years later, cameraman Mitch Farkas and I were the only foreign journalists allowed to accompany the Rev. Billy Graham, who had long been lobbying to visit and whose wife Ruth had attended a missionary-run school in Pyongyang in the 1930s. Graham, who had asked the North Koreans to give CNN visas, was granted a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, and as the reporter with him, I met the Great Leader as well.

In the spring of 1994, with tensions over the North’s nuclear program rising, I was able to visit again, accompanied by a camera crew and CNN International Editor Eason Jordan. This time it was representatives of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (the “Moonies”) who got us in. Moon himself had visited Pyongyang in 1991, and, in yet another example of Kim Il Sung’s apparent soft spot for religious leaders, had established a cordial understanding with Kim.

In April 1994, the North Koreans asked the Moonies to organize a goodwill delegation of “international VIPs” to Pyongyang to mark Kim’s 82nd birthday. After considerable lobbying, my colleagues and I were given permission to cover the delegation. We were told the decision had been taken personally by the Great Leader’s son, Kim Jong Il.

That visit included a memorable lunch with Kim Il Sung, in which Eason and I, along with about a dozen other guests, were able to ask him about the nuclear program and other issues, as well as my doing the first ever live TV shot from Pyongyang.

Two months later, Jordan and I, along with a camera crew, were the only foreign journalists allowed to cover former President Jimmy Carter’s historic trip. During the trip, Carter used a CNN interview conducted at his Pyongyang guest house to successfully pressure the Clinton administration to resume negotiations and abandon consideration of a military strike on the North’s nuclear facilities.

This kept the door open to talks that produced the October 1994 Agreed Framework deal, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze production of its plutonium-based nuclear program, in return for an American promise of better relations and agreement to supply the North with proliferation-resistant light water nuclear reactors.

Interestingly, a 1997 North Korean novel called “Eternal Life,” written by North Korean Writers’ Union members Song Sang Won and Baek Bo Heum, recounts the heroic achievements of Kim Il Sung and has a chapter on the Carter visit, which mentions my colleague Eason Jordan by name. Like me, Jordan is depicted sympathetically, including this highly embroidered account of a chat with Kim while waiting for Carter to arrive:

“How are you, Mr. Jordan?” At the sound of his name called by such a booming, hearty voice, Jordan looked up from his equipment and froze, his eyes instantly bulging out.

“Ah, Premier!”

“Bingo!” Comrade Kim Il Sung stuck out his hand. Jordan rushed over to shake it.

“I’ve been looking forward to this,” Comrade Kim Il Sung added cheerfully. “Have you been well, old friend?”

“Fine. And you?”

“As you can see, I am the picture of health.” Laughing heartily, he continued, “Mr. Jordan, you can’t keep coming here only for formal events. You must come again as my personal guest. Bring your wife and kids this fall.”

Jordan noted in an email that this account “appears based on official records and eavesdropping, while other bits are enlightened speculation and wishful thinking.”

In fact, less than a month later, Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack. But when we saw him, he certainly looked healthy, and we did have several cordial exchanges.

To Korea scholar Shaw, “the repeated mention of Eason Jordan by name and his warm personal interactions with the Leader indicate that he, like Mike Chinoy, is someone whose reporting did not offend the regime enough to override their gratification at the prestige afforded by CNN’s presence.”

One of the most fascinating points in analysing these books is that it appears the authors were given access to some official records — perhaps even transcripts of monitored phone calls — on which to base at least part of their narrative. Indeed, in “Eternal Life,” there is a purported verbatim transcript, presumably from a tapped phone line, of a call from Carter to Clinton administration officials. The former president did in fact make several calls on an open line from the presidential guest house in Pyongyang, although whether Carter actually used the language attributed to him or whether the North Koreans made it up remains unknown.

There is little information about the writers or how these two novels were vetted or written. Although published more than a quarter century ago, “Eternal Life” only became available on North Korea websites in the past decade. And a digital version of “Thunderclap” only appeared last year. “Thunderclap” author Kim Ryong Yon is credited for other novels featuring North Korea’s leaders, and is believed to be a member of an elite organization called the 4.15 Writer’s Group (the date refers to Kim Il Sung’s birthday). Paek Bo Hum and Song Sang Won are now both in their 80s and have a long literary history, including stories featuring Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Within North Korea, according to Shaw, “Eternal Life” is considered one of the country’s most important novels.

However they were assembled, the references to me, Jordan, and CNN indicate how eager the North Korean regime has been to show its own people that it is respected and admired around the world. Moreover — and somewhat surprisingly — at least the scenes dealing with us do so in a way that is unusually non-polemical in a system known for its extreme, often comically overblown rhetoric.

Since everything North Koreans are allowed to read is tightly controlled, people there, apart from a few officials, would almost certainly be unaware of the more critical reports which I also filed on my various trips. This is equally true for reports that other CNN correspondents who have visited the country in more recent years, like Will Ripley, also did.

Moreover, having portrayed the network sympathetically and as having some kind of special relationship with Kim Il Sung, CNN would be in what one former US North Korea intelligence analyst described as a “sacred spot.” That may help explain CNN’s unusual access over the years, and the more recent positive literary portrayal.

As Shaw notes, what is fascinating is how the North Korean regime, in literature created for domestic readers, “intentionally maintains the fiction that CNN, a major international news organization, is impressed with North Korea,” presumably to boost its own public image.

Thus, as soon as the character Byun Sa-hyang arrives in Pyongyang, she rushes to file, worrying that otherwise, “American media might start spreading ridiculous slander like a CNN reporter had been detained in North Korea.” Her first report shows “the streets of Pyongyang with kindergarten children laughing and playing happily.” She also includes an almost poetic description: “The sky in Pyongyang is exceptionally clear and blue. In this sky are flying not fierce hawks, but peaceful doves.”

The novel then describes me, having watched her report, sending her a message: “Sa-hyang, do not waver, do not give in. Pyongyang is an impressive city. Let’s meet in Beijing when you return. Michael Chinoy.”

But while “Thunderclap” describes Sa-hyang walking around Pyongyang on her own, without a government guide, as she decides to “see and feel with her own eyes and skin, and tell the reality of North Korea,” the actual reality for correspondents, is, of course, almost precisely the opposite.

Indeed, on my many trips to North Korea, I was regularly prevented by government minders from leaving my hotel, even for a jog, and there were more than a few occasions when our requests to stop and film were denied.

So, as Meredith Shaw observed, “Thunderclap” “takes every single thing people have said about covering North Korea and basically says — it’s not true. The scenes of Byun Sa-hyang exploring Pyongyang read like a masterclass in gaslighting against real journalists’ recurrent complaints.”

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