VOA’s Herman Tours North Korea

It’s always good to leave on a high point. Steve Herman, an OPC member, recently ended his three-year assignment as Voice of America’s Northeast Asia bureau chief based in Seoul with a nine-day reporting trip inside reclusive North Korea.

Herman and CNN’s Paula Hancocks accompanied two decorated U.S. veterans of the Korean War who were on a mission to recover the remains of a fellow aviator whose aircraft crashed at the Chosin Reservoir during a brutal battle 63 years ago. According to the Department of Defense, more than 7,500 Americans who fought in Korea remain unaccounted for.

Flooding from monsoon rains prevented a visit to the crash site, but Herman got a rare look at rural areas where other reporters and Westerners have not been able to go. He also saw the sights of Pyongyang. Military escorts were always — or almost always — at hand.

As you might expect, a trip to the isolationist dictatorship brings surreal moments. Herman said he was praised for his comments in a mausoleum guest book after viewing the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, and of Kim Jong Il, the founder’s son and successor as leader, in glass coffins. But Herman did not write in the guest book.

“Additionally, I can say that I was not on the typical junket organized by a tour operator or the Foreign Ministry,” Herman told the OPC. “We were under the escort of officers from the Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People’s Army the entire time with a senior colonel (between a full-bird colonel and a one-star general) as our top minder. The only really scary moment I had was in a subway station when I turned around and could find none of my minders or anyone else in the delegation. I didn’t know whether they had gotten back on a train or exited the station. After a few moments of near panic, with my still and video cameras at my side, I headed up the escalator and decided I’d turn myself in to the first person in uniform who looked at me suspiciously (so much for my fantasies of clandestine reporting).

“I knew that I was already under scrutiny from the KPA officers who were convinced I spoke fluent Korean and was hiding it (I do not and was not) and that I was likely the intelligence minder for our group of Americans. Much to my relief when I exited the station I found the KPA officers and our delegation patiently waiting for me to appear and gazing at Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph.” 

The North Korea trip ended Herman’s stint in Seoul and he is now based in Bangkok as VOA’s Southeast Asia bureau chief. Prior to going to Seoul in 2010, he spent more than three years as VOA’s South Asia bureau chief in New Delhi.

Herman was elected for five consecutive years from 1998 to 2002 as chairman of The Foreign Press in Japan after completing a one-year term as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where he remains a life member. In 2012, he served as president of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club in 2012.