Hyeonseo's Surprise

This was written while I was a producer on the Insight program on SBS in Australia.

Work can throw up some interesting moments. I had one such moment working on the North Korea show. You can watch it here: http://www.sbs.com.au/insight/episode/webextra/538/North-Korea#.Uja0O6wWI4k

It was always going to be tricky finding a North Korean who escaped their country and was willing to come on our show. A little trickier still to find one who spoke English, and maybe I was being a little bit delusional thinking I could top that off with having an Australian angle to it as well. The prospect of any of this happening was only ever a fantasy until I spoke with Sokeel Park from an organisation called Liberty in North Korea. They are an organisation that help resettle North Koreans and he told me about Hyeonseo who was saved by an Aussie backpacker in Laos who gave her $1000 that ultimately helped her get her Mum and brother out of a detention centre and on a plane to safety in Seoul. Unfortunately she had lost contact with him and had been trying desperately to find him again. I had myself a challenge.

Checking the news on the bigpond web site from his home on a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand Dick spotted what seemed like a very familiar story. Hyeonseo had given a TED talk on her experience of twice escaping North Korea and had acquired some global media attention off the back of it. Recognising ‘the mysterious Australian who gave her money’ to be him, he resurrected her email address and re-established contact. Word of this reconnection quickly made its way to me and before long I was talking to the nomadic Dick about the possibility of flying him back to Australia to meet Hyeonseo. He was interested.

But what to tell Hyeonseo? A surprise would work best but that would mean lying to her by saying Dick was not coming. We also had to strike the balance of keeping her interested enough to come over. Her main motivation for doing a show in Australia was to meet Dick again. Heck, every time I spoke to her that was the first question she’d ask me. And the second. And the third. After a couple of these conversations, like a cool poker player, she raised the stakes by casually mentioning that both BSKY and CNN had been in touch with her about setting up the reunion in Seoul with Dick. Far from being the only player at the table I now had some serious competition.

I still had a card or two up my sleeve though. I took the bold move of contacting her fiancé in order to bring him in on this ever developing conspiracy. Brian loved the plan and assured us that he would make sure she was on the plane. Meanwhile Dick emailed her saying he had a meeting in Bangkok and was hoping to fly out to us after, depending on the success of his meeting. The stage was set.

There’s a nervous excitement on any show day that is ramped up if it’s a live broadcast like ours was. Throw in an exclusive internationally sought after reunion and we were reaching fever pitch. Well, at least that’s how I felt. 

I had never done anything like this in my career before. The whole operation was fraught with difficulty and was almost foiled by her reluctance to come without knowing he was coming. Convincing management that it was a good idea to fly them both in was no mean feat and then the plot was almost scuppered by a chance encounter at the airport (as their flights arrived in at around the same time), but it was worth it to see her face when she met Dick in the SBS foyer. It was worth it to realise that I could play a small role in reuniting her with him. After all, not only did his money get Hyeonseo, her mother and her brother to safety, it was also an act of kindness that restored her faith in humanity.


Photo Credit: Insight SBS