What’s it like to be banned from both halves of the Korean peninsula?
Although most will never find out, Washington’s recent ban on U.S. tourism to North Korea – combined with South Korea’s 1948-dated National Security Act – mean that as of September 1, one Korean-American is to be banned from both.
Born in South Korea but now living in California as a U.S. citizen, Shin Eun-mi, who has been visiting North Korea since 2011, was controversially deported from the South in 2015 for being too positive about her trips North during presentations she made throughout the country at the time.
South Korean prosecutors didn’t ultimately indict Shin, but she was nevertheless told she’d be unwelcome in the South for a period of five years, despite it being where her cancer-surviving 82-year-old mother and 86-year-old mother-in-law currently reside.
But while Shin kept on visiting North Korea following that ban – where she says she has three “god-daughters” – emerging travel restrictions implemented by the Trump administration following the recent death of U.S. tourist Otto Warmbier mean she’ll no longer be able to visit the DPRK after August.
Shin, who has attracted criticism for her sustained engagement and, some have argued, sympathy with the North Korean system, took emailed questions from NK News about the recent tourism ban, thoughts on her 2015 deportation from South Korea, and what she’s been taking in from all her visits North.
NK News: You are now technically banned from both Koreas. How do you feel about that?
Shin Eun-mi: This is something that I never imagined happening in my life.
Until I visited North Korea for the first time, I did not like the country at all because of the anti-communist education I had received in South Korea and the bizarre images of North Korea released by the Western media. However, the actual North Korea that I experienced was very different what I had heard about the country.
I wrote books (about the trips) and gave speeches in South Korea about what I saw and experienced in North Korea. And then, I was deported from South Korea with a reentry ban for five years.
Now, this time, I cannot visit North Korea either as the U.S. travel ban to North Korea goes into effect very soon. I feel very sad that I cannot visit either Korea. South Korea is where I was born and my relatives including my mother and my sister live there. And North Korea is where my three goddaughters live.
NK News: What impact has your ban from South Korea had so far on your life and work?
Shin Eun-mi: I have an 82-year-old mother who had cancer surgery and an 86 year-old mother-in-law both living in Seoul, South Korea. I am very worried that I cannot visit South Korea even if something happens to their health.
My mother comes to the U.S. once or twice a year to visit me in spite of the long flight, (something) her doctor does not recommend. I also worry about the long travel distance to the U.S. which may do harm to her health.
“The U.S. travel ban to North Korea will not have a serious effect on the hard currency reserves of North Korea”
But there is one good thing (resulting from my ban from the South).
After I was deported from South Korea in January 2015 my husband decided to retire earlier than was planned, and moved to a quiet resort city in southern California. We are really enjoying our retirement life right now.
NK News: What do you think about the recent U.S. travel ban to North Korea?
Shin Eun-mi: I think that the U.S. travel ban to North Korea will not have a serious effect on the hard currency reserves of North Korea. It is known that one to two thousand U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year, and they spend on average about $1,500 per person. The total amount is $1.5M to 3M U.S. dollars per year, which is not a significant figure at all. Most of the visitors to North Korea are actually from China.
I know that some American tourists have been detained in North Korea. To my experience, nevertheless, North Korea was the safest country to travel in. I have never had any trouble during my stays in the country. No theft, robbery, over-charged prices, etc. that we sometimes encounter while traveling in a foreign country.
Some press media claim that, for example, you will be arrested if you sit on a North Korean newspaper because the newspaper has the picture of their leader. I think it is hyperbole. Actually North Korea is somewhat generous to the foreigners. Most of the unwitting legal violations by foreign visitors in North Korea are commonly tolerated and usually end with mild warnings unless the violation is such a serious one as contempt to their leader.
Most importantly, the ordinary North Korean people will lose chances to have contacts with the Americans because of the U.S. travel ban to North Korea. Some North Koreans change their ideas about American people after a conversation with American visitors. Civilian diplomacy is important as well.
American visitors to North Korea have also brought some information which is very useful to understand the people and the country, including its economic condition. We will lose the opportunity, too.
I believe, in short, we lose more than we gain from the travel ban.
“Some North Koreans change their ideas about American people after a conversation with American visitors”
NK News: What impact do you think your ban from North Korea will have moving ahead?
Shin Eun-mi: As I am very interested in the culture, society and lives of North Korea’s people, I have been planning to write more books about the topic. Currently I am working on my fourth book on North Korea, based on my two trips to the country in 2015, and I expect it to be published by the end of this year. But because of the travel ban, my future activities and publications will certainly be delayed. I understand that the ban is only for one year, and I hope it is not extended any longer.
NK News: Why do you think your ideas and presentations about North Korea were viewed as being so dangerous by the former government in South Korea?
Shin Eun-mi: The former South Korean government did not view my books and speeches as dangerous. My first book on North Korea was published in 2012, and it was chosen as one of the excellent publications in 2013 by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of South Korea.
The Ministry purchased 1,500 copies of my book and distributed them to public libraries throughout the country.
In 2014, when I was traveling through South Korea for my speech tour, I was invited by the Ministry of Unification of South Korea for the filming of a documentary video about me and my trips to North Korea. An official in the Ministry told me that my book is apolitical and sends a great message to readers for the unification of Korea. The Ministry posted the film on its homepage.
In winter of the same year, I was on the tour in South Korea, giving the same speeches I used to do. And all of a sudden McCarthyism against me from the media began, lasting about 2 months. Even the most shocking news on any topic does not often last that long.
I was so flabbergasted and perplexed about what was going on about me. Later I found the McCarthyism was a scheme by the former government to escape from the massive political scandal former President Park was involved in. The intention, in my view, was to distract people from the scandal. By the time people’s attention to the President’s scandal was fading away, the McCarthyism against me ended, and I was deported.
Two days before I was deported, the prosecutor told me, “Dr. Shin, the Attorney General is above me, and above the Attorney General there’s another one. This kind of thing sometimes happens in life. Please forget about what happened here and go back to your country with not much grievance.”
“McCarthyism against me from the media began, lasting about 2 months”
The ‘other one’ the prosecutor mentioned was the Blue House – where the South Korean president is based. Some of the evidence about this scheme came out during the past months while the President was in the process of impeachment. It was a political scheme orchestrated by the Blue House, press media, and legal authorities in an effort to escape from the scandal.
NK News: What do you say to your critics, who say you’re just a regime apologist/shill for Pyongyang?
Shin Eun-mi: Section 1 of article 7 of the National Security Act of South Korea says that one who praises North Korea will be sentenced with up to seven years in prison.
The charge against me was that I violated section 1 of article 7 of the Act by saying in my speech: “Daedonggang maekju, a North Korean beer, tastes good. The water of the North Korean rivers is clean. The number of cell phone subscribers in North Korea is over 2.5 million.”
“I am very unfamiliar with and have not had much interest in politics”
If these statements mean that I am a North Korea regime apologist, I do not have any further comments on it except, “Yes, I am.”
NK News: What do you think of the Conservative movement in South Korea? Why are they so quick to call you ‘jongbuk’ i.e. pro North Korea?
Shin Eun-mi: I was a college instructor in music, and I am very unfamiliar with and have not had much interest in politics whether it is U.S. politics or Korean.
To my shallow knowledge there are not many true conservatives in South Korea. In South Korea you are simply regarded as a conservative if you are against North Korea. To them ‘anti-North Korea’ seems a religion. To them anyone who says something positive about North Korea, even though it is a mere fact, is ‘jongbuk’ or pro-North Korean.
NK News: And what do you think of the left? Why can’t the left in South Korea be critical of North Korea, what are they afraid of?
Shin Eun-mi: There seem to be two different groups in the left in South Korea; one that favors unification and the other, that does not. Those favoring unification seem reluctant to be critical of North Korea because North Korea is a country to be united. For them, to be critical of North Korea does not do any good for the reconciliation and the unification of Korea.
NK News: What’s your interaction with defectors in South Korea been like? What do you think of them in general? What do you think they think of you?
Shin Eun-mi: Since I started writing my travelogues on an internet news site in South Korea and had my first book published in 2012, I have received some feedback from North Korean defectors living in South Korea and in some European countries.
About 80% of the defectors send positive feedback, and say that what I write on North Korea are true and facts.
Even though they defected from the North, they are not pleased with the South Korean media that produce demonized images of North Korea far from reality. They especially like my description of the North Korean people and the unique culture they miss in some way.
I told this to the prosecutor while being interrogated (in South Korea). He asked me if I could turn in the messages they sent me to prove the veracity of my statements about the defectors. My attorneys, who were the volunteers for my case, turned in screen shots of the messages in my cell phone to the prosecutor, hiding their identities.
“About 80% of the defectors send positive feedback, and say that what I write on North Korea are true and facts”
One time a well-known journalist, who is a North Korean defector at a major conservative newspaper in South Korea, sent me a message saying, “Someone should write some positive aspects of North Korea, and you are doing it.” It was very ironic that the journalist who writes many propagandistic articles against North Korea sent such an encouraging message to me. I got a similar response from a famous North Korea defector who often appears on TV channels.
The other 20% of the defectors say that I did not see the bad parts of North Korea. Well, my travelogues on the internet news site and my book contain many photos of poor housings, decades old vehicles some of which are fueled by charcoal, rattling carts pulled by oxen, and people in serious destitution, taken in the various rural areas in North Korea. Perhaps there are scenes worse than I saw and experienced.
No matter if they are for or against me and my books, I, as a Korean-American and a Christian, sincerely hope and pray for the wellbeing and peaceful life of North Korea’s defectors.
NK News: What’s been the best / most impressive thing you’ve ever seen on a trip to North Korea and why?
Shin Eun-mi: As North Korea is a socialist country which is quite different from South Korea or the U.S., everything I saw in North Korea was interesting enough to pay attention to. But the most impressive thing that I found was that the North Korean people are as normal and ordinary as we are.
One may laugh if I say that I thought the North Korean people are like robots with no humanity. When I was little, I thought that North Koreans have horns on their heads, and that their faces are red – a result of the preposterous anti-communism education in South Korea.
Of course, as I grew up I learned that would be biologically impossible for North Koreans to have horns on their heads. The absurd images of North Koreans formed during my childhood was so tenacious that it lasted long and contributed greatly to my ‘creating’ negative ideas about the North Korean people. Therefore, when my husband chose North Korea as our vacation destination through a travel agency in Chicago via the internet, I refused to accompany him at first.
“When I was little, I thought that North Koreans have horns on their heads”
After I stepped on the North Korean soil for the first time, it did not take too a long time to find that actually the North Korean people are such a nice people – innocent, sincere, assiduous, considerate, often humorous, and unexpectedly sentimental with full of emotion. My impression about the North Korean people has not been changed through my nine trips to the country since my first trip in October 2011.
NK News: And correspondingly, what’s the worst thing you’ve seen during your visits to North Korea and why?
Shin Eun-mi: Both Koreas have been heavily influenced by Confucianism. While some Confucian traditions that are inapplicable to today’s society are obsolete or have gone out of fashion in South Korea, they still prevail in North Korea to a certain degree.
For instance, the Confucian tradition emphasizes the distinctive roles of men and women. And this Confucian principle makes men free of household chores and childcare.
As a result, in North Korea you can often find a woman carrying a child on her back, holding one or two bags in one hand and the child’s toy in the other hand. Meanwhile, her husband is walking leisurely smoking a cigarette free of his hands. It was like this in South Korea before.
That said, I can feel that this is getting better now in North Korea, especially among young people in urban areas.
NK News: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in North Korea over all your visits there?
Shin Eun-mi: The most prominent changes relate to the country’s economy.
First, the number of cars, including taxi cabs, have been drastically increased since I first visited North Korea in 2011. Accordingly, the air quality of Pyongyang in 2017 was not as good as in 2011. Since there are many taxi cabs available in the city, you can go around city here and there with a guide even at night.
Second, there has been a construction boom in North Korea. Most buildings are for residential purpose with markets or small scale department stores in the first or second floor.
“I suggest that the U.S. makes North Korea its ally instead of keeping it as our enemy”
Third, many nice restaurants have been added to the city. This fact probably indicates that the living standard of North Korean people is improving. I guess the majority of the customers are the people who are engaging in commerce. It seems the North Korean economy is now a mixture of planned economy and market economy.
Witnessing the economic growth of North Korea, I have been wondering about the efficacy of economic sanctions on the country for decades. North Korea seems to have found its own way of surviving in the midst of the sanctions for many years.
It may be a quixotic idea, but I suggest that the U.S. makes North Korea its ally instead of keeping it as our enemy.
I am certain that North Korea will not oppose the idea in spite of present belligerent rhetoric against the U.S.
The new South Korean government, which is seeking a peaceful relationship with North Korea through dialogue, will not oppose it, either. If the U.S. can make North Korea its ally, then the U.S. will enjoy the maximum interest it can have in Northeast Asia. This may be a situation with which China never wants to face.
NK News: What do you think of the North Korean people you regularly interact with? What do they think of your regular trips and interest in their country?
Shin Eun-mi: They know that I visit North Korea to travel around the country in order to learn about the people and the culture and to meet my goddaughters in Pyongyang. They also know that I am publishing books based on my experiences from the trips, but the majority of them do not know what is written in the books since the books were not published in North Korea. I did however give the books to my goddaughters and the guides so that they can read the parts they are involved.
Nevertheless, it seems that some North Korean officials read my publications.
Once an official complained to me about some parts of my first book, saying “you do not understand North Korea.” I told him, “That’s what I saw, experienced, and felt.”
All pictures: E. Shin
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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