Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been rising in recent months, and North Korea has quickly emerged as one of the top foreign policy challenges for the nascent Trump administration. With North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and one of the largest militaries in the world, the stakes are high as the new American administration attempts to confront the country that has vexed United States policymakers for years. What are the prospects for regime change in North Korea? What steps should the United States and South Korea take to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia?
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Discussion and Q&A
Mic Check with Jean Lee
What are the best books you’ve read over the past year and why?
Most of my reading centers around North Korea, so I always have a stack of Korea-related books on my bedside table. A few I can recommend from the past year: “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot” by Blaine Harden, which tells the fascinating true tale of a North Korean pilot who defected to South Korea by flying a military plane across the DMZ. I also loved the intense yet lyrical novel “How I Became a North Korean” by my good friend Krys Lee. I’m also reading a novel from North Korea called “Woman Reporter” and a new book on politics that I picked up in Pyongyang last month. It’s important to see what the North Koreans are writing.
Also, “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a journalism classic called “The Russians” by Hedrick Smith and the luscious “Queen of the Night” by the gloriously talented novelist Alexander Chee.
Who would you most want to debate on stage/over dinner/on a panel/via Twitter?
Kim Jong Un. OK, maybe I wouldn’t propose sitting down to have a burger with him, as President Trump did during his campaign, but the journalist in me still craves the opportunity to speak with him in order to better understand who he is, what drives him and what he envisions for the Korean Peninsula. Maybe we’d do it over a glass of whiskey or soju, and not with cameras rolling, to get away from the propaganda.
What is one thing our audience might find surprising about you?
I’m not particularly fond of kimchi. I know it’s practically Korea’s national dish, and trust me, North Koreans are as proud of their mothers’ kimchi as South Koreans are. But I was born in Minnesota, and my sister and I grew up washing our kimchi in water before eating it because we couldn’t tolerate the raw garlic and red pepper. That said, I do love kimchi when it’s cooked or grilled, and I’ve taken some of my mother’s homemade kimchi to North Korea for the locals to try.
What one piece of advice would you offer to those interested in a career in international journalism?
Learn as many foreign languages as you can when you’re young. And if you want to cover North Korea, learn Korean if you want to get past the propaganda and have a real chat with the locals. When reporters rely on interpreters, they’re only getting the official message, and none of the subtlety (and jokes) that help us understand who they are as human beings. Better yet, learn the North Korean dialect. North Korea is one country where the language is absolutely essential. But we have too few, if any, American foreign correspondents today who speak Korean, and that has affected U.S. coverage and understanding of North Korea.