When it comes to fellow North Korea focused bloggers, few are as consistently humorous as Manhattan based freelance writer Tom Johansmeyer, who shares Hermit Kingdom observations at Gadling.com as part of a larger purview of commentary for different outlets about travel, cigars and the luxury market.
Johansmeyer first became interested in North Korea in the late 1990’s. After completing his BA at Wisconsin‘s Ripon College, he served out a stint with the U.S. Army‘s 2nd Infantry Division in Tong Du Chon and Uijongbu, South Korea.
“I spent a year road marching-distance from the country yet could not have been farther away,” Johansmeyer recalls during an interview with LiberateLaura. “Given the state of affairs on the peninsula – especially when I was there, with a North Korean commando found dead in the mountains and the small sub getting tangled in South Korean fishing net – I found it hard not to wonder about the North and just what goes on up there.”
“At the same time, I’ve always been interested in closed societies,” he continues “If the public isn’t allowed to know something, I immediately become curious and read as much as I can on the subject. As a closed nation, I found North Korea particularly interesting.”
Johansmeyer has yet to pay a personal visit to North Korea, partly because he has no interest in going under the guise of a tourist. He has read all the obvious books about the country, including the recent Laura Ling-Lisa Ling tome Somewhere Inside, and while he was captivated by the naturally dramatic elements of the Euna Lee-Laura Ling story, he has a healthy degree of skepticism about any book that relies heavily on the testimony of North Korea defectors.
“I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Demick‘s Nothing To Envy,” Johansmeyer shares. “But defectors likely have their own challenges as sources, and taking an unbiased view means necessarily assuming that they have some axe to grind with the regime. Even if it is legitimate.”
“My concern about defector testimony was shaped by some of the other books I’ve read about North Korea, including Eyes of the Tailless Animals, Tears of My Soul and Aquariums of Pyongyang, in which the defectors quickly gravitated toward what seem to be fairly extreme religious groups. This suggests that they can be impressionable, particularly given the society in which they grew up, which means those of us in the media need to show a bit of extra caution.”
This naturally leads to the topic of recent North Korean American detainees Robert Park and Aijalon Mahli Gomes. Yesterday, it was revealed that the State Department, by means of a pair of doctors and a diplomat, tried unsuccessfully last week to secure the release of the reportedly suicidal Gomes.
“I remember Park sought media attention aggressively before crossing into North Korea and was taken into custody rather quickly, the natural side effect of holding a press conference in South Korea to announce your intentions before crossing over,” observes Johansmeyer, a self-professed lifelong atheist. “These are cases of voluntary crossing by non-media, and the religious aspects cloud the story a bit. It’s not like a soldier – or even a reporter – stepping into the proverbial line of fire.”
“The story isn’t about North Korea so much as the religious groups looking to proselytize, which doesn’t have the same impact,” he adds when I ask why the Park and Gomes cases are not attracting anywhere near their logical level of media coverage. “I think the personalities involved also don’t lend themselves as readily to broad public sympathy.”
Given the fact that Johansmeyer writes extensively about cigars, I wondered if he had come across any reliable information regarding the personal stogie habits of either Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un. He says that while he has been unable to confirm the Dear Leader‘s smoking habits, the walking cherub is missing out if he is still taking receipt of personal gift boxes from Fidel Castro. “There have been quality issues in Cuba for a while, and he’d probably find something from Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic far more enjoyable,” he notes.
Like me, Johansmeyer is endlessly fascinated by the awkwardly translated dispatches of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). The disconnect between the source material and translated English reminds him of similar accounts in the book Comrades and Strangers, in which author Michael Harrold recalls a seven-year stint in North Korea as an editor of translated works.
Which begs the question – what is Johansmeyer‘s all-time favorite KCNA dispatch? “How do you choose one particular instance of Kim Jong-il’s on-the-spot guidance?” he jokes “They are all so gloriously supportive of Chollima!“
“I do actually have a favorite; I think it came out about a year ago,” he says. “The story was only around 120 words long. All it said was that a press conference was held by a certain dignitary and that questions were answered. The story didn’t mention anything about the subject of the press conference or the questions that were asked. Priceless.”
As was the state of the Internet when Johansmeyer first began testing the on-the-spot freelance writing waters in 1997. “At the time, if you did a Yahoo! search on “philosophy” – there was no such thing as Google yet – my piece came up on the first page of results,” remembers Johansmeyer, who along with a BA in Philosophy and History has earned an MBA from Suffolk University. “There wasn’t much about philosophy out on the web back then.”