Witness: A day chasing North Korea’s camera-shy Kim

Royston Chan is a television producer and cameraman for Reuters. He was sent to Shanghai in 2006 as a staff video journalist to cover the China story. He was voted the 2009 Video Journalist of the Year for his coverage, which has included the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the devastating Sichuan earthquake and the fallout of the global financial crisis in the industrial heartland of Guangdong.

In the following story, Royston writes about his unglamorous experiences covering North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s secretive trip to China.

By Royston Chan

DALIAN, China (BestGrowthStock) – The day after the glitz covering the Shanghai World Expo opening, midnight found me crouched and shivering on the emergency staircase of a hotel in northeastern China, clutching my video camera.

I had rushed to the border town of Dandong amid speculation that the reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, was about to visit China. His trip would begin when his armored train crossed a bridge into Dandong, over the river that separates the Communist neighbors.

Rumors of a visit had been circulating for months, and several colleagues had already been sent up to Dandong on futile “Kim watch” missions that involved long shifts of watching and waiting. But on the early hours of May 3, I sensed that this time might be different.

The town’s train station was cordoned off and a four-star hotel facing the border bridge was shut. A suspicious number of stocky men in black jackets loitered around the bridge.

The city seemed primed for Kim’s arrival, but with my usual hotel off limits, I had nowhere to film from.

Hordes of Japanese and Korean reporters had booked all the river-front rooms in the only other hotel near the bridge to secure their “train shot”.

Reporting on a leader so secretive that his visit was not confirmed until he returned home, and who never wants foreign media near him, is always difficult. Text journalists can seek out government sources, but we need images.

In desperation, I found the emergency staircase with a view, and decided to camp out there for the night, armed with only my video camera, some water and two slices of bread.

I sat on the steel stairway until 2:30 am when a convoy of minibuses drove into the North Korean border town across the Yalu river. An hour later I watched a slightly different convoy make its way back to the Chinese side.

I filmed and I waited. Two hours passed, but there was still no train. I started to wonder if Kim was taking the bus.

When day started to break, around 5 am, I could see no signs of a train, but realized the security officials milling around on the ground would have a clear sight of me.

So I decided to go and recharge my batteries in the room of another journalist, where we were soon joined by police and military officials asking everyone to show their identification. They left after registering us, but by then it was too late.

South Korean media reported that Kim’s armored train was seen crossing the border bridge at 5:20 am. And I had nothing to show for my night on the stairwell.

But now he was in China, the chase was on.

Dandong was in lockdown, with security officials every 20 meters along the main roads, and so after sending the footage I had shot to my editors, I waited again — this time under the bridge of an expressway out of town. After an hour, I was rewarded by the sight of a convoy of cars and minivans heading toward the port city of Dalian.

With the motorway blocked for Kim’s entourage, I raced off after them down smaller roads. A six-hour detour brought me to another city under siege by security officials.

STICKING WITH KIM

We fought through traffic chaos caused by blocked roads to the Furama Hotel, where Kim was rumored to be staying, and to my disbelief I managed to book a room in the hotel of the “Dear Leader”, as North Koreans call Kim.

North Korean officials were chatting in the hotel lobby, marked out by black suits and red pin badges bearing the face of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the communist dynasty.

But I got to my room to find its window faced the back of the hotel — so it was useless for filming Kim’s arrival. The front facing rooms were fully booked, staff said.

My efforts to film a story on the streets were equally fraught. With police cars parked and officers on guard at the corner of every road, I had to do a lot of hiding for just a few shots of the hotel and its security lockdown.

Soon enough, colleagues told me Japanese and Korean media, for whom this was a huge story, had sent more than a dozen people each to cover Kim’s arrival. They had shots of the train crossing the border bridge, and Kim walking into a limousine at the hotel.

The pressure was on.

I decided to check out of the Furama and into the New World Hotel across the road, where I grabbed a room with a good view — of the Furama entrance — and settled in to wait again.

Four hours later, a short man with distinctive hair and khaki suit walked slowly into the Furama from his vehicle.

I finally had my shot.

Stock Market Research

(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Nick Macfie)

Witness: A day chasing North Korea’s camera-shy Kim