Diaries from a misspent youth continued…..
When North Korea tried to recruit me as a spy: A visitor’s guide to the Worker’s Paradise
Excerpts from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
By Nate Thayer
July 30, 2017
Recently, I wrote a story on how the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China tried to recruit me as a spy to steal U.S. national security secrets in exchange for cash money. They wanted me to be a Chinese “agent of influence” under the sub category of a “useful idiot”.
An agent of influence is used to change decision-making beneficial to a foreign country. Agents of influence are among the most effective means of forwarding foreign interests as they hold credibility among the target audience. Often they are difficult to detect, because they don’t even know they are agents of influence because they, in fact, are “useful idiots”, completely unaware they are being manipulated to further the interests of a foreign power.
This category seems to include my current president Donald Trump and his “useful idiot”–and when they aren’t unwittingly serving the interests of America’s enemies– not very useful idiot sons, in-laws, and other apparatchiks.
When the Chinese tried to recruit me as a spy, I wasn’t sure which upset me more:
1/ asking me to be a traitor to my country
2/ the insulting amount of chump change they offered me for my services, or
3/ that they thought I was an idiot.
But to be fair, the Chinese are among several government’s–eight that come to mind–who have tried to make me an agent of their intelligence services over the years: China, Russia, the United States, North Korea, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Singapore.
Those are the one’s who went the extra mile.
We won’t count Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and a few others whose spooks didn’t have the common decency to offer me tangible compensation in exchange for secrets they wanted.
I count among my good friends many spies from many countries—not all friendly to the country that issues my passport—the United States.
I don’t care–friends are friends and good sources are good sources. Plus, it is kind of fun.
Spies and journalists tiptoe around each other for a living, both thinking they are too smart by half for the other one to know what they are up to.
Both have essentially the same job—snooping around asking questions about things we have no business knowing trying to get people to spill dirt they are not supposed to spill.
The main difference is spies and journalists have different consumers of our product.
I snoop around trying to get secrets for readers of a Free Press to provide information of import to the common good for Free People. Spies try to do the same thing, sometimes to do that, and sometimes to do all kinds of naughty stuff they should not be doing. Plus, spies have much bigger budgets, all kinds of fancy James Bond toys and other scary gizmos, and are backed by the full resources, authority, and protection of their governments and I don’t.
Most journalists know who are spies and most spies know that the journalists know they are spies. Usually, it is just not polite to raise the topic.
Many spies are fun people to hang around with, unless you are their wife, which can be a real headache.
North Korean spies are an exception. They are not fun to hang out with, at all. In North Korea, everybody is a spy.
In 1992, I was invited to attend the 80th birthday party of the Great Leader Kim il Sung in Pyongyang. This came about because I was living in Cambodia at the time and the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, was the Great Leader’s best friend.
Sihanouk was a journalist’s dream, sort of like a flip side of Donald Trump– the good angel on your shoulder (Sihanouk) encouraging one to do what’s right as opposed to the devil with a nuclear arsenal and metastasizing psychological warts (Trump) on the other shoulder awkwardly wooing one to come to the Dark Side to sabotage civilization and centuries of human progress as we know it.
But never mind that for now.
I knew King Sihanouk and heard he was going to attend the Great Leader’s birthday party, so, on a whim, while riding my motorcycle by the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh one day, I dropped in, tore a piece of paper out of my notebook, and scrawled a note to the Monarch and gave it to his chief protocol officer, who was a friend. “Dear King: I understand you are going to North Korea. I have always wanted to visit that fascinating country and anything you could do to facilitate my getting a visa would be most appreciated.”
Within 30 minutes two palace minions showed up at my house and said, “Give us your passport. You are going to North Korea as a guest of King Sihanouk.”
If one is North Korean, one does not say no to the best friend of the Great Leader because if one upsets the Great Leader very bad things can happen to you, and the next three generations of your family. So I was issued a visa by the North Korean embassy in Phnom Penh.
The Great Leader threw a heck of a birthday party. When I arrived in Pyongyang on the world’s worst airline, Air Koryo, uniformed North Koreans boarded and announced that the passengers would be disembarking according to their nationality. “Cuba!” the North Korean’s called out. And Cuban students bearing gifts marched out. “Libya!” they said. Then “Iran!” Then “United States of America!” I swiveled my head looking for the official U.S. delegation. The man in charge pointed to me, so I got up and exited the aircraft to a red carpet on the tarmac lined with thousands of citizens waving fake flowers welcoming me. “Is this a great fucking country, or what?” I thought. There were 200,000 people lining the boulevards for the 7-mile ride from the airport to my hotel welcoming their new foreign friend—me.
That honeymoon didn’t last long.
After the Great Leader’s birthday party, where 80,000 people showed up to perform choreographed acrobatic shows, each displaying colored placards that, when displayed in unison, revealed revolutionary slogans such as “Make the whole country seethe with a high-pitched campaign for producing green-house vegetables!” and “Should the enemy dare to invade our country, annihilate them to the last man so that none of them will survive to sign the instrument of surrender!” and “Yankees are wolves in human form!” in a stadium.
Afterwards, the North Koreans asked me if I wanted to stay to attend the 60th anniversary celebrations for the Heroic Korean People’s Army.
Of course I did.
But my visa did not extend from the April 12th birthday celebration to the army celebration on April 25th, so they asked for my passport to extend my North Korean visa and to get a re-entry visa from the embassy of the People’s Republic of China.
But the North Koreans didn’t return my passport and my visa then expired. So now I was illegally in North Korea with no visa and no passport in a country with no U.S. embassy because North Korea and the United States were still technically at war.
Being a guest of the North Koreans can be problematic. Everybody in North Korea is a spy, even the hotel chambermaids. Whenever I would leave the room to venture out to experience the day-to-day life of a North Korean, they maids would rifle through all my belongings. So I would take every notebook and every roll of film with me, kept on my person, at all times. I even slept with them.
After 19 days in North Korea, my pockets were so stuffed that I looked like a ghetto junkie on a shoplifting spree at a chain convenience store trying to muster up enough street negotiable valuables to fund the purchase of my next fix.
Then the North Koreans tried to entrap me as a spy.
Two North Korean agents approached me and whispered that they were from an “anti Kim Jong Il faction within the foreign ministry” who wanted to get their message out. They slipped me a piece of paper with a fax number on it. “Please write down any questions you have and fax them to us at this number,” they said.
This was not good.
I am many things, but I am not an idiot. There wasn’t a chance in Hell I was going to put in writing my interest in establishing a working relationship with purported North Korea underground agents conspiring to overthrow the world’s most repressive government.
They were trying to set me up to arrest me as an American spy, a scenario that would not have made my mother, my government, my editors, my girlfriend, or me happy.
And to add to the already stressful situation, two years prior to being an invited guest at the Great Leader’s 80th birthday bash, while riding in a captured Russian Zil military transport truck, I lost a fight by technical knockout with two Chinese anti-tank mines buried under a dirt ox-cart path in the Cambodian jungle. Dozens of little pieces of metal shrapnel from the unpleasantry remained embedded throughout my body. As anyone who has had a tussle with a landmine knows, these pieces of metal eventually try to find their way out of one’s body, and shrapnel in my right leg decided to do that while I was visiting North Korea. I had a hole ¾ of an inch deep, oozing very nasty colored and icky scented stuff that left the bone in my right leg visible. My very painful leg was swollen to more than twice its normal size. But there was zero chance I was going to have the problem attended to by North Korean doctors who would give me “medication” and inject needles into me.
On April 25th, the Heroic Korean People’s Army held their 60th anniversary parade, where tens of thousands of soldiers marched in lockstep displaying an alarming number of very large missiles and bombs and other military toys they had developed to blow up the world.
The day before, I had a very heated argument with my Korean spy guide/handlers. After two weeks of waiting around for this parade, they informed me that I was not allowed to bring cameras. “Look, I am a journalist. That is why I am here. Of course I need to bring my cameras,” I argued. After a back and forth, they compromised and agreed to let me bring my non-threatening looking automatic Nikon with an extendable 35-105 mm zoom lens, but not my Nikon’s with interchangeable long lenses. “Look, if I was a spy, it would not matter. It just means the pictures are more grainy. Spies are good at analyzing grainy pictures. I need pictures for magazine readers that are pretty looking.”
But I was not unaware that I still did not have a valid visa or my passport so I was negotiating from a position of weakness. They darkly threatened to expel me from the country if I continued to object.
As it turned out, I got photographs of 7 different long-range intercontinental ballistic missile systems and other weapons never before seen in the west which were later displayed as the cover story in Jane’s Defense Weekly. Everytime I snapped the shutter of the camera to take those photographs, an octogenarian in full military uniform in front of me at the parade turned around and would slap me upside the head in protest and yell things at me I did not understand, but I am confident were not very nice.
Also, while sitting in the VIP section at the parade, the crowd erupted in roars of applause and eruptions of tears when a speaker, at the North Korean leadership reviewing stand 20 meters from me, got up and made a short speech. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Kim Jong-il. These were the first and only words he had and would ever speak in public during his 19 years in power: “Long Live the Heroic Korean People’s Army!”
I was on assignment for the Associated Press, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the military specialist publication Jane’s Defence Weekly.
It was rare for a journalist to get a visa to visit North Korea. The Asia Editor of Jane’s, Robert Karniol, was a friend of mine, and like me, based in Bangkok. He and another friend, Bertil Lintner, the storied Burma expert and Review correspondent, and I gathered for dinner prior to my departing for Pyongyang, and they informed me that my mission was to get laid in North Korea, as apparently there was no evidence that had been previously achieved.
After the parade, I called Karniol from my certainly bugged Pyongyang hotel to inform him that I had obtained photographs during the military demonstration of weapons that had not been known to be in the North Korean arsenal so he could alert the Jane’s editing desk in London prior to deadline.
“Never mind that,” he said. “Have you completed your mission?” And then we both went silent. “Robert. Remember, I am in North Korea. That is not funny. Someone could misinterpret this conversation.”
“Well did you or didn’t you?” he said, snickering on the other end of the phone. The phone then went dead. I was not amused.
I never did get my visa extension from the North Korean’s, but they shortly afterwards did return my passport. I had booked a ticket on a sleeper compartment of the North Korean train from Pyongyang to Beijing but I was illegally in the country, having overstayed my visa. “Just tell the border checkpoint guards you are Nate Thayer and they will let you leave,” said one of my spy/minders.
So I did just that and they did. That is how controlled North Korea is. When the train crossed out of North Korea over a bridge on the Yalu river separating North Korea from China, there was a ruckus in the hallway outside my compartment. I opened the door to find a woman in her 50’s, a Finnish diplomat, in tears and on her knees, popping open a bottle of champagne.
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, I am Free at last!,” she cried.
Another Finnish diplomat, who had come from the embassy in Beijing to extricate his distraught colleague, turned and assured me “Don’t worry. This happens to our diplomats assigned to the embassy in Pyongyang all the time.”
When one thinks that one is fleeing to freedom to China, things have to be pretty bad. In China, I immediately saw a doctor who told me that if I had waited one more day, they likely would have had to cut my leg off from the infection.
It was worth it.