Albert Hong has what he describes as a “super difficult” job. His main responsibility as a reporter for RFA (writer, broadcaster, news anchorman) is covering issues pertaining to arguably the most internationally reclusive and repressive country in the world – North Korea. He reports on issues such as human rights, rocket-missile firings and food aid, all the while knowing that he must dig incredibly deep for accurate information in a country where the government has a lock on the truth. But he welcomes the challenge.
“As a reporter, I always have to double-check and use multiple sources. But in this very limited situation it’s not easy to do that even though I do my best. I’m very happy when North Korean defectors say ‘your report was right’ a long time after the report is released. That’s because it’s very difficult to get feedback about my articles from North Korean listeners.”
Because state media is the only legal source for news and information in North Korea, does that motivate you more to uncover the truth about that country?
“Yes. As you know, North Korean (citizens) don’t know what’s going on in the outside world or even inside the country. So I just collect and organize information that North Korean listeners can easily understand and that lets them know North Korea is not a paradise of people.”
Earlier this year, you investigated and wrote a blockbuster two-part series that looked at the substandard conditions and practices of medical facilities run by North Korean transplants in Tanzania. Your reports found that the treatment provided by the medical staff is putting the health of Tanzanians at serious risk.
“First, the medical staff can’t speak Swahili or English very well, so it’s hard to communicate with patients. Second, they use medicine without instructions and ingredients, so nobody knows what it is. Third, they give prescriptions to patients with false medicine. For example, they give fake Viagra to cardiovascular patients.”
How passionate were you in preparing that series? Did you see it as your responsibility to call out the North Korean regime for its abusive practices?
“There have been many stories and articles about North Korean laborers in China or Russia. But I knew that many countries in Africa have a good relationship with North Korea, so I began to find sources who can tell me what’s going on in Africa. I prepared almost a year and fortunately found some good sources.”
You’ve been in your role as an RFA reporter for 5 ½ years. What’s your key takeaway?
“For a long time, North Korea has believed that the U.S. is a monster and enemy that is out to break their regime. But thanks to RFA Korean, many North Koreans today don’t believe that. At least, they don’t think America is a monster. They’re hearing that many people, organizations and countries are making an effort to help them with their human rights and to gain a better life. So I’m very proud of myself that I’m someone who is trying to help North Korea’s freedom.”
What would you tell someone about RFA to try to encourage them to work there?
“I’d like to tell them to do something valuable that can help others who are under political pressure.”
Prior to RFA, you worked as an investigator for a year at the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration in Washington, D.C. What was that experience like? Is there anything from that job that you’ve applied to your current position at RFA?
“It was tough. I had to work a day shift for a week and a night shift for the next week. I couldn’t sleep well. I had to go restaurants, bars and even strip clubs. I saw drunken people, angry owners of bars and minors with fake IDs. Working with police, I saw the dark side of Washington, D.C. And I realized that ‘this is life and wherever you go, nothing is different.’”
Why did you step aside from journalism for a year?
“I’m an immigrant from South Korea. I came to the U.S. in 2007. So I wanted to know about the real culture of America and other ethnic groups. And I found a good opportunity to see American culture. It was a good time to me to see a different world.”
What did you learn in your previous experiences as a staff writer at The Korea Daily and a reporter-news anchorman at G1-Gangwon Television Broadcasting that you apply to your work today?
“When I worked for G1, I learned what broadcasting is and what a reporter is. And most of all, I learned that relationships between people are the most important factor to be a good reporter. At The Korea Daily, I saw many things in the Korean-American community. I thought that we have to do something more for our next generation to be a good leader.”
Why did you study Geophysics while pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at Kangwon National University in South Korea?
“I like traveling. I’ve always been curious about what exists under the ground and above the sky. Geophysics was perfect to me to go out in the field and look for underground water. Now, I’m going out to find new people and a new story.”
What made you inclined to pursue a Master’s degree in Mass Communication/Media Studies at Kangwon National University?
“When I was a junior in college, I got a chance to assist in making a documentary with a local television station. For three months, I had to stay in the middle of a mountain during the winter, and I fell in love with a TV camera, program staffs, people and nature. I decided to be a broadcaster and took a mass communication and journalism class during my senior year before pursuing my Master’s degree.
What convinced you that journalism was the right path?
“Last year, I visited Tanzania and wrote about North Korean medical clinics there. After my articles were released, the Tanzanian government shut down some North Korean clinics. I was thinking, ‘the suffering of Tanzanian patients could be reduced or stopped, and I made it happen.’ A reporter has to stand on a weak person’s side. I believe I’m doing a good thing.”
What has your experience at RFA meant to you professionally and personally?
“RFA gave me a good opportunity to go and see another world and people in a bad environment. And RFA made me realize that I need to do something more to help people who live under a dictator without freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”