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My first encounter with Kim Jong-un

(People's Daily Online)    08:09, January 27, 2015

Two years and four months in North Korea flew by in a flash. After I left the country, many people asked me whether it had been possible to see Kim Jong-un in person as a foreign correspondent. I answered in the affirmative; in fact I have seen him many times.

I still remember our first encounter. I first arrived in North Korea on April 10, 2012. The DPRK’s new leader Kim Jong-un had taken office in 2011 after the death of Kim Jong Il. The whole country was in preparation for a major holiday - the "Festival of the Sun" (Birthday of Kim Il Sung) on April 15. Many journalists from several countries were arriving in Pyongyang to cover the event.

An intensive series of interviews had been arranged for the purpose in North Korea. But no journalist knew the time, place, or content of the interview until the day itself. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK only informed journalists of their appointment at Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang one day in advance. All journalists and cameramen had to pass a security check and get on the same bus. The process involved a long wait. From the intensity of the security check, correspondents could guess what was scheduled for that day and who would be involved.

I took my usual video camera and tripod, and my favorite 5D Mark II camera, and arrived at the Yanggakdo Hotel in the early morning of April 13. On arrival, I found the security personnel in the line-up unusually strict and the security check extremely tight – things like mobile phones, keys, and lighters were all forbidden. In addition, all equipment and back packs had to undergo a thorough inspection. Batteries were removed, lenses were disconnected from the camera and then reconnected. I was asked to do a test shot to ensure that my equipment was genuine. Even the thermos flasks in the journalists' backpacks had to be examined. I was asked to take a drink to make sure that mine contained only water.

Such a rigorous inspection led me to think that the coming event would involve top leaders of the country. After a long wait, I put away all my equipment, and we left.

Arriving at the foot of a hill, we got off the bus. Within a few seconds the other journalists were all running, apparently in search of the ideal vantage point for their photos. I had a tripod in my left hand, a camera in my right hand, my 5D Mark II around my neck, and a backpack on my back. I ran towards a spacious area where a huge crowd of people was gathered. Ten thousand people? No. More like a hundred thousand people. I was impressed by such a spectacle. I started to assemble my equipment. At that very moment someone pointed out to me that I had chosen the wrong place. I foresaw the collapse of my plans.

I forced my way steadily to the front of the crowd, where a thick rope blocked my progress. It was not going to be possible for me to film the rostrum from that spot.

Suddenly a storm of applause rose from the audience. In the distance I could see a group of people standing in front of the rostrum, with Kim Jong-un in the center. The ceremony was about to begin.

Very quickly I moved back into the crowd to find a better spot. But the heads of the spectators kept intruding into my frame. In desperation, I tried to raise my tripod in the air in order to be able to focus on Kim Jong-un. In no time sweat soaked my clothes, and my whole body was trembling along with my camera.

I saw a North Korean reporter standing on a box. I asked him if I could film from his position for a couple of minutes. To my gratitude, he readily agreed. Three times he made a convenient space for me on his box, allowing me to get some good shots of Kim Jong-un. I felt a great sense of relief.

I well remember a man in splendid uniform standing next to me, who helped me carry my bags and tripods. Afterwards, I learnt that he was a military attaché from the Chinese Embassy in North Korea. I am very grateful to him.

This was my first encounter with North Korean leader Kim Jong–un. That day, Kim Jong-un was elected chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in the unveiling ceremony of the Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il statue in Pyongyang.

In my subsequent years working as a foreign journalist in North Korea, I encountered the country's top leader several times while reporting march-pasts, high level meetings, and New Year Galas. I can confidently tell you that in common with many others from the post-80s generation, like myself, the North Korean leader is a big fan of basketball. 

Translated from Chinese version of 《我与金正恩的第一次见面 Author: Zeng Tao, correspondent with Xinhua News Agency

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