Memories of my reporting trip to the world’s most secretive country
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (ANS – June 13, 2017) – After hearing the news today that University of Virginia student, Otto Warmbier, had been medically evacuated from North Korea in a coma after being detained in prison there for 17 months, memories came flooding back to me of the time I was “bugged” in North Korea’s largest hotel, and constantly peppered with questions by “minders.”
So please join me on what turned out to be the strangest assignment I have ever had in my many years as a broadcaster and journalist. It was to North Korea, the world’s most secretive country.
I had not expected to be staying in such a huge hotel when I arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city on the first day of my trip. It was the twin-towered Koryo Hotel, which at 469 feet, is one of the tallest buildings in Pyongyang. In fact, it is a major landmark there.
The year was 1994, and I was staying there with some other Christians. It was just after the death and funeral of Kim Il-sung, the country’s self-styled “Great Leader.” It began after I had received a phone call from a dear friend of mine, Dr. Dale Kietzman, who was then the board chairman of ASSIST Ministries, in which he said, “Dan, I know you have been almost everywhere — except North Korea. I think I can get you in there.”
I was elated, as this strange country was the one place I had always wanted to report from.
Dale, who had actually sponsored my family to move to the USA, and was once the US head of Wycliffe Bible Translators, suggested that I flew to Beijing, China, to meet up with North Korea-born, Dr. David Cho (no relation of David Yungi Cho (formerly known as Paul Yungi Cho, the then Senior Pastor and Founder of the Yoido Full Gospel Church (Assemblies of God), the world’s largest congregation).
David Cho, he said, had formed an unlikely friendship with Kim Il-sung, the country’s despotic leader, having known his Christian mother, and had just been invited to bring in another a delegation, the first to enter the country after the death of the North Korean leader.
“He will take a group of you to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing and, hopefully, you will get your visa there,” he added.
So, I immediately got a visa for China, booked my flight, and when I arrived at the hotel where we were to rendezvous, I discovered that there some 10 people there all wanting visas. So, we all trooped off to the North Korean Embassy but, initially, only three of us – Dr. Cho, Michael Little from CBN and myself — were granted them. (Dr. Charles Wickman, also a board member of ASSIST at the time, was able to join us shortly afterwards.)
When we arrived at Pyongyang Airport on a rather ancient Russian plane, and made our way to the terminal, we were surrounded by North Korean TV cameras and reporters. I immediately had a camera thrust in front of me and the reporter asked in broken English, “Why have you come to North Korea?”
I realized this was the chance of a lifetime for a Christian journalist, so I replied, “I have come to your country to share about the love of Jesus Christ.”
The reporter looked bemused, so I continued, “I am a Christian and would like to see many more Christians in your country.”
Then, after we all enjoyed a cup North Korean tea, with some cookies, we were ushered outside the airport terminal and were each given a Mercedes Benz, a driver, and a “spy” or “minder,” who began immediately peppering me (then, and during the whole trip) with questions about political life in the US and the UK. It was all rather spooky.
We then set off in what seemed to be like a Presidential Convoy and soon we arrived at the huge and impressive Koryo Hotel where, as we checked in, I noticed a crack in a nearby door and saw some men wearing headphones with tape machines whirling, apparently listening to visitors on concealed miniature microphone in (a room or telephone) in order to monitor and/or record people’s conversations.
Immediately, I was alerted that our rooms and the places where we would eat, had bugs planted to pick up our conversation. To add to the surreal atmosphere in the lobby, there was an auto-piano playing hits from the Beatles, and “All you need is love,” was the first song that we heard.
Before I had entered North Korea, I had called Bill Clough, the then UPI Radio Network’s Religion Editor in Washington, DC, and he immediately said, “Dan, if you get into the country, please do a daily story for us.” (I had been doing a weekly commentary for the UPI Radio Network for several years about religious persecution, and that’s how we knew each other.)
Bill, said that each story would be recorded over the phone by a colleague in Beijing who would call my room of my hotel, and then forwarded onto him. When I mentioned the possibility of the North Koreans listening into my stories from the hotel room’s phone, he said, “I’ve got a solution. When he calls you, just say, ‘Say hello to Bill’s mother in Amarillo,” which would alert the UPI man not to ask questions, but just record my piece. Fortunately, he did just that, and my stories got stronger each day, mainly because, hopefully, I would soon be able to safely leave the country.
As soon as I arrived in room, I searched for a microphone, but never found one. I then switched on the TV and, to my amazement, here I was on the screen giving my testimony (with subtitles), so I quickly got out my camera to snapped a screenshot, knowing that not many Christian journalists get to share their faith on North Korean television.
During meal-times, even though there were only about 10 guests in the entire hotel, we were ushered each time to the same table in the massive restaurant. We all noticed that there was a flower pot on it in which, we assumed, was hidden a microphone.
Later, we were taken to a North Korean church in the capital city, and joined in their Sunday morning service. Again, we were surrounded by cameras and afterwards, we all wondered if this was a “real” church, or if those taking part were actors. By the way, if they were actors, they did a good job. (By this time, Dr. Wickman had got his visa and joined us.)
We would travel to our pre-picked locations in the Mercedes, and had the even-present “minders,” firing their never-ending questions at us.
During the trip, I learned that Dr. Cho, who was now living in both South Korea and Southern California, had much earlier known the mother of the “Great Leader,” who he said was taught the Bible on his mother’s knee. After years of trying, Cho was finally able convey this to Kim Il-sung, via a contact, and Kim Il-sung then kept inviting him to visit his secretive country, and also bring in Christian teams and individuals.
This even resulted in visits from Jimmy Carter and the Rev. Billy Graham.
Cho told me that, in his later years, Kim was beginning to again explore Christianity and would have dreams of again sitting on his mother’s knee and being taught Bible stories by her.
During one visit, he even opened up the airwaves to Billy Graham to preach the Gospel to the entire nation via state radio.
Dr. Cho was even invited to Kim’s 82nd birthday party — his last — and he asked Cho to say the grace before the astonished guests. Kim was reported to have said, “This man knew my mother and I wanted him to be here to say the grace before we eat.”
Years later, I asked Mr. Graham if he knew if Kim Il-sung had ever accepted Christ and he said that he didn’t know. He said, however, that he had shared the Gospel openly with the “Great Leader” on several occasions, and had planned one more visit to North Korea for a fishing trip with him, and there, he said, he had planned to finally challenge Kim to received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
“But,” added the evangelist, “he died just before I was due to leave, so I don’t know if he ever made that commitment. All I can say is that we may be surprised by the people we meet when we get to heaven.”
Our little group went all over North Korea, and even went to the DMZ, where Michael Little and myself were “treated” to a visit to a museum there with theme of “How the United States had started the Korean War.”
We then were then photographed from the South Korea side by people standing on the Peace Pavilion, a rather eerie experience. We guessed they were wondering who we were, and what we were doing on the other side.
It certainly was a trip to remember and, years later, during a visit to a mountaintop camp in South Korea, I met up with a group of North Korean Christians who had escaped, and were in training to re-enter North Korea, once it opened up for the Gospel.
One of them told me, “I am willing to lay down my life so that they can hear the Good News.” They are sadly still waiting for the day when they can go in. That is why I pray every day that soon, North Korea will open up to the Gospel and the nation be transformed through the Love of Christ.
Will you join me in that prayer?
Photo captions: 1) Posing with Dr. David Cho by the huge statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. 2) Dan sharing his faith on North Korean Television. (Picture captured off the screen in his hotel room). 3) The delegation attending a North Korea church service in Pyongyang. 4) Billy Graham being greeted by Kim Il-sung during one of his visits. 5) Dan and Michael Little at the North Korean side of the DMZ. 6) Dan Wooding reporting from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, shortly after leaving North Korea. (Photo: Dr. Charles Wickman).
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 76, is an award-winning journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding from Liverpool, now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He has a radio show and TV shows all based in Southern California, and has also authored some 45 books, the latest of which is “Mary: My Story from Bethlehem to Calvary,” which you can read about (and order) at: http://marythebook.com/.
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