North Korea detains, expels BBC reporter

Seoul, May 9

A BBC reporter in North Korea was detained, interrogated for eight hours and eventually expelled over his reporting in the run-up to a rare ruling party congress, the British broadcaster said today.

Foreign reporters invited to cover specific events in North Korea are subjected to very tight restrictions, regarding access and movement.

Numerous journalists have found themselves prevented from returning to the country because their previous coverage was deemed “inaccurate” or “disrespectful” -- but detaining and then expelling a reporter while still in the country is extremely rare.

The BBC reporter, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, was about to board a plane departing Pyongyang airport with two other BBC staffers on Friday when he was stopped and taken into detention, the BBC said.

He was then questioned for around eight hours, apparently over one of his reports which questioned the authenticity of a hospital his team was visiting.

“He was taken to a hotel and interrogated by the security bureau here in Pyongyang before being made to sign a statement and then released” on Saturday morning, said John Sudworth, another BBC reporter covering the congress in the North Korean capital.

Sudworth said the BBC had sought to keep the detention and expulsion order quiet out of concern for Wingfield-Hayes’ safety and that of the two other members of his team, who had refused to leave on Friday after he was detained.

However, the news broke following a press conference early today by the North’s National Peace Committee.

China’s official Xinhua news agency, which has a permanent bureau in Pyongyang, cited the committee as saying he had been expelled for “attacking the DPRK system and non-objective reporting.”

The DPRK is North Korea’s official acronym.

The three-person BBC team was taken to the airport on today. “They were certainly very shaken,” Sudworth said, adding that Wingfield-Hayes had suddenly found himself “under a huge amount of pressure.”

During their interrogation, the North Korean authorities had made it very clear to Wingfield-Hayes that they saw the content of his reporting as a “very, very serious issue,” Sudworth said.

The BBC team had been working in North Korea for several days ahead of the party congress opening on Friday, accompanying a delegation of Nobel prize laureates conducting a research trip.

Sudworth said Wingfield-Hayes’ expulsion had raised serious concerns among those reporters still in Pyongyang.

“The idea that somebody would be prevented from leaving the country and put under this kind of pressure simply because the North Korean authorities disagree with the content of his reporting ... is not just for me, as one of his colleagues, but for other journalists here, of deep concern,” he said.