Detained and interrogated for 10 hours in North Korea

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, pushing an airport trolley, surrounded by reporters and camera operators in the arrivals hall of Beijing International AirportImage copyright

The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was last week expelled from North Korea and forced to apologise for his reporting. He was held incommunicado for 10 hours and interrogated. Here he gives his first account of what happened.

After a week in North Korea I was more than ready to go home. The trip, to cover a visit to Pyongyang by a delegation of three Nobel laureates, had been exhausting and stressful.

I couldn’t move anywhere in Pyongyang without a team of five minders following my every step. At night the BBC team was confined to an overheated villa in a guarded compound. We’d fallen out with pretty much everyone. Our North Korean minders were now openly hostile.

We were all looking forward to a cold beer and a good night’s sleep in Beijing.

For some reason the female immigration officer at Pyongyang airport was taking a very long time with my passport. By the time she finally stamped it everyone else had cleared security and gone to the gate. It felt odd, but I wasn’t immediately alarmed.

Then a North Korean border guard called me over – in his hand, my digital recorder.

“We need to check this,” he said pointing down a corridor.

In a back room another border guard was trying to open the files from my recorder on a laptop computer.

“What is the problem?” I asked. “There’s nothing on that card.”

“Just wait,” he responded.

“I can’t wait,” I said. “I have to get on my flight to Beijing.”

“The flight is already gone,” the border guard said looking straight at me. “You will not be going to Beijing.”

Now my sense of alarm was rising fast.

“My God,” I thought. “This is real. My flight is leaving and I am being left behind in North Korea!”

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Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, Matthew Goddard and Maria Byrne in North Korea

Actually I wasn’t. At that moment my colleagues Maria Byrne and Matthew Goddard were refusing to board the plane, shouting at the North Korean guards who were trying to push them on board.

But I knew none of this. I felt very alone.

Two of our old minders now appeared at the door.

“We are taking you to meet with the relevant organs,” they proclaimed. “All will become clear.”

I was marched to a waiting car and put in the back, a minder on either side.

As we drove through the almost empty streets of Pyongyang no-one spoke. Looking at the drab concrete apartment blocks, I contemplated my situation. Even in North Korea you don’t detain a visiting journalist unless it has been approved from high up. I thought about American college student Otto Warmbier, sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour for stealing a propaganda banner from his Pyongyang hotel. Would I be the next to be paraded on state TV?

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Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in the interrogation room – image provided by North Korea

The car pulled into the driveway of an old grey hotel. I was taken into a conference room and told to sit. Huge portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il looked down from the far wall.

A group of officials in dark Mao suits walked in and sat opposite. The older one spoke first.

“Mr Rupert,” he said, “this meeting can be over quickly and simply, it will depend on your attitude.”

I was told that my reporting had insulted the Korean people, and that I needed to admit my mistakes. They produced copies of three articles that had been published on the BBC website, as I reported on the visit of the Nobel laureates.

Part one: North Korea inches open its doors

Part two: The limits of small talk in Pyongyang

Part three: Searching for self-reliance and ‘real people’

“Do you think Korean people are ugly?” the older man asked.

“No,” I answered.

“Do you think Korean people have voices like dogs?”

“No,” I answered again.

“Then why do you write these things?!” he shouted.

I was confused. What could they mean? One of the articles was presented to me, the offending passage circled in black marker pen:

“The grim-faced customs officer is wearing one of those slightly ridiculous oversized military caps that they were so fond of in the Soviet Union. It makes the slightly built North Korean in his baggy uniform comically top heavy. “Open,” he grunts, pointing at my mobile phone. I dutifully punch in the passcode. He grabs it back and goes immediately to photos. He scrolls through pictures of my children skiing, Japanese cherry blossom, the Hong Kong skyline. Apparently satisfied he turns to my suitcase. “Books?” he barks. No, no books. “Movies?” No, no movies. I am sent off to another desk where a much less gruff lady is already looking through my laptop.”

“Are they serious?” I thought. They had taken “grim-faced” to mean “ugly”, and the use of the word “barks” as an indication that I thought they sounded like dogs.

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The two men who led the interrogation – image provided by North Korea

“It doesn’t mean what you think it means.” I protested.

The older man squinted.

“I have studied English literature,” he said. “Do you think I do not understand what these expressions mean?

For two hours they demanded I confess my mistakes. Finally the older man got up to leave.

“It is clear that your attitude is going to make this difficult,” he said. “We have no choice but to carry out a full investigation.”

Now a younger man took charge.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“No,” I answered.

“I am from the judicial authorities. I am the one who investigated the case of Kenneth Bae, and now I am going to investigate you.

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Image caption

An activist in Seoul holds a placard calling for the release of Kenneth Bae, February 2014

The pit of my stomach turned cold. Kenneth Bae is a Korean American who was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour by Pyongyang in 2013.

They began going through my articles word by word – finding offence in almost every one. But the words were not important; they were ammunition to throw at me, to force me to confess.

“We can sit here all night,” I said. “I am signing nothing.”

“We have plenty of time,” the young man shot back. “This can take a night, a day, a week or a month. The choice is yours.”

Hour after hour they repeated the accusations. The pace was relentless. Every two hours they took a break and another team stepped in. They began to use the term “serious crime”.

“What crime?” I asked.

“Defamation of the Korean people and nation,” the interrogator said.

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in North Korea

In one of the video reports filed from Pyongyang before he was detained, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes is accused by North Korean authorities of not showing respect for the country’s leader.

Media captionA rare look inside North Korea’s Kim Il-sung University

By now the interrogation had now been going for more than five hours. Unknown to me, at another hotel in Pyongyang the alarm was finally being raised.

A second BBC team, led by Asia bureau editor Jo Floto, was in Pyongyang covering the North Korean Workers’ Party Congress. They’d been phoned by colleagues in Beijing who told them my team had never made it to China. Jo now started to try to find us. He got his minder to call the foreign ministry, but they had no idea where we were. It took another two hours the minder to find out where I was being held.


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