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Bradley Martin: From North Korea to the classroom

Bradley Martin was escaping his escorts in North Korea — they had kept him under their watch for long enough, and he was ready to explore the area by himself.

Martin, now a Fresno State professor teaching foreign correspondence, was caught and accused of being a spy. He was interviewed for five hours by one of North Korea’s top foreign policy members.

These are the kinds of adventures Martin has had over the course of his career as a foreign correspondent.

Martin, 71, spent most of his career as an Asia correspondent for news organizations including Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. His reporting has earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He received the 2007 Asia Pacific Special Book Prize for “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Since starting out with the Peace Corps in Thailand during the ‘60s, Martin moved his way up to being one of the few journalists who entered North Korea during the late Kim Il-Sung’s reign in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s.

Despite Martin’s success, he didn’t realize his passion for foreign correspondence until he dropped out of high school, got married and joined the Peace Corps with his then-wife.

Once in Thailand, Martin quickly “realized I had been hoodwinked.”

“This was a bad war, we weren’t going to win it. Newsweek reports were wrong, I realized I’d been fooled,” Martin said about the Vietnam War.

“It’s like when a child realizes that Santa Claus wasn’t real. I knew I could do better than that, and when I became a foreign correspondent, I would make sure to get it right.”

After returning from the Peace Corps, Martin found a job as reporter for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the Observer did not have any foreign correspondents on staff, so he left for another regional paper: the Baltimore Sun, which employed several. After another couple of years at the Sun — and 10 years after leaving the Peace Corps — Martin finally got a foreign correspondent beat in Japan.

Japan was pretty much an economic beat back then, Martin said, but most reporters preferred to go over to Korea, where there were protests. Reporters had to wear gas masks and helmets to shield themselves from police wielding tear gas and students throwing pieces of pavement.

Despite its tumult and unrest, covering North Korea was the real prize during those days because of the lack of reporters allowed into the country.

“As soon as I got into Japan I realized I had to find a way to get into North Korea,” Martin said. “I visited influential North Koreans living in Japan to ask them to help me. Working for the Baltimore Sun at the time, I had to do a sales job to convince them to let me in. After being put on the list to get in the country, I spent three weeks there, and the place just blew me away. The political system seemed to be a religion in the country, and they worshipped their leader, Kim Il-Sung.

“I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by myself. I was totally under the control of my guides and handlers,” he said. “However, I did escape once, and afterward they accused me of being a spy. And because they thought I was a spy, it led to me sitting down and having a five-hour interview with the top foreign policy member at that time.”

Following the interview, Martin left the country but was enamored with North Korea and knew he wanted to return. However, he had been put on a blacklist; his articles about Kim Il-Sung’s movie-making ability were non-complimentary of the leader.

He was “no Alfred Hitchcock,” Martin said.

Yet being blacklisted was not to stop him, Martin finding alternative ways into the country in the future.

While foreign correspondent gigs are fewer now than they were in Martin’s heyday, the dangers are still very much real. James Foley, a freelance journalist embedded in Syria, and Steven Sotloff, a foreign correspondent for Time magazine were both imprisoned and executed by the Islamic State, a jihadist militant group.

Yet opportunities abroad still exist for daring journalists, Martin said.

“Although it’s true that journalism jobs domestically are disappearing, it is still true that if you want to report from abroad, and you prepare yourself, you can do it,” he said. “Nowadays, the method is just to go there having knowledge of the language, or at least go abroad somewhere you can function and start there.”