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What A North Korean Soldier Had To Say


As of today, American tourists are no longer allowed to visit North Korea. The U.S. State Department issued this ban following the death of American student Otto Warmbier.

JIEUN BAEK: For the most part, I'm very much in favor of this new ban. I went. I will not do it again, and I certainly do not encourage other people to go.


That's Jieun Baek, author of the book "North Korea's Hidden Revolution." Her last visit to North Korea was with a tour group at the DMZ. That's the fortified corridor that separates North Korea from South Korea. There, the Korean Peninsula's tensions are on full display.

BAEK: Military, certainly - they do not like tourists being there. They're barking orders at the tour guides to make sure that the tour guides keep the tourists in line. We were just - we were surrounded by military.

KELLY: She found herself shoulder-to-shoulder with a middle-aged North Korean officer.

MARTIN: Now, the DMZ seems like an unlikely place to set politics aside, but Jieun Baek tried. She cautiously struck up a conversation with the North Korean officer. He wasn't having it, though.

BAEK: He said, you know, stand away from me. You're standing too close.

KELLY: But just then, his military comrades cleared out, and his tone changed. The officer raised a folder to cover his mouth and, speaking low, he asked her questions about her life in the U.S.

BAEK: You know - are you Korean? Do you speak Korean? How do you know how to speak Korean? Why did you go to the U.S.?

Well, I didn't go to the U.S. I was born there.

How old are you? You know, where do I go to school?

I told him - you know, at that time, I was at Harvard. And he said, oh, indeed, the school with red brick walls. And he knew that detail. And so it this very complex combination of curiosity and caution.

He asked me, is my father and mother still alive? Yes. And then he asked me, do I look like your father? And I thought - oh, is this a tricky question? Where is this going? And so I asked him, you know, why do you ask? And he said, you're ethnically Korean. All ethnic Koreans hopefully will live together in peace one day after unification. And I'm just curious if a South Korea-born man who went to the U.S. looks like me 'cause we're still one people.

And the conversation got cut off quite abruptly. There was some commotion, and so he just broke it off really quickly. And I just - I mean, his whole facial expression and tone instantly changed. He was yelling. And so I thought, OK, this is my cue to disappear. And so I sort of headed back to my group. And I tried to wave, but I didn't want to get anyone in trouble or do anything that was unacceptable in that situation, so I just winked. I don't have a good wink. But - and he just - he kind of winked back without a smile. And that was it.

I thought, if a soldier entrusted with the security of the DMZ is curious about the outside world, then how much bigger must that curiosity be in the hearts and minds of, quote, unquote, "more ordinary" citizens? You know, the government certainly can curb the expression of that curiosity, but they cannot control curiosity.


MARTIN: Jieun Baek - she's the author of the book "North Korea's Hidden Revolution."

(SOUNDBITE OF LOSCIL'S "ANGLE OF LOLL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.