Monday 24 October 2016

‘Crazy and scary’ – dad’s reaction after daughter trapped in North Korea

Carlow native Maria Byrne was held in North Korea with her BBC crew
Carlow native Maria Byrne was held in North Korea with her BBC crew

The father of an Irish journalist detained in North Korea has described the “frightening” moment he found out his daughter was held in the country – and he had no way of contacting her.

Maria Byrne (35), from Carlow, was held in North Korean capital Pyongyang for three days, after she refused to leave the country when her colleague, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, was detained for questioning by authorities, according to her father.

Ms Byrne, a senior producer for BBC Asia in China, was working in the country for the Congress of the Workers’ Party with reporter Mr Wingfield-Hayes and cameraman Matthew Goddard.

However, when Mr Wingfield-Hayes was detained, Ms Byrne refused to leave unless her colleague was allowed to come with her.

It is understood that the reporter was questioned for eight hours and was made sign a statement by officials, after he was deemed to have “insulted” the country with some of his reporting last week.

Meanwhile, Ms Byrne and Mr Goddard were kept at a nearby hotel.

Her father, Pat Byrne, told the Herald he was aware that his daughter was staying in Pyongyang for three more days, but had no idea her team had been detained until the news broke at 8am yesterday.

However, he had no way of knowing if she was in danger.

“We had no idea and thank God we didn’t because it would have been a hell of a long weekend if we did,” Mr Byrne said.

“I tried to contact her on Monday morning, but she wasn’t contactable.


“I contacted the BBC in London, but they could tell me nothing either until the plane had actually taken off from North Korea.

“It was crazy and we were totally in limbo for a few hours. When Maria got to Beijing, she texted us that she had landed and then she phoned us.

“It was scary, because we didn’t know what was happening or where she was. That was the scariest part of it,” he added.

Today FM presenter Matt Cooper visited the country with basketball star Dennis Rodman in 2014 for a

documentary and to write  a book on his experience.

He told the Herald that he was surprised the BBC  reported while in North Korea and didn’t wait until they were out of the country as a safety precaution.

Due to the paranoia of  officials in relation to journalists, he did not start writing anything until he left the country.

Officials attempted to delete some video footage for the documentary, but never removed it from the computer’s rubbish bin, so he was still able to refer to it.

“Not a chance am I ever going back there again,” he said.

“A large part of it would be that they would be aware of the stuff that I said and wrote after I left, when it was safe for me to do so.”

He said he and the other journalists were kept under constant surveillance for the duration of his trip.

“You could not step outside of the hotel alone,” he said.

“One of the Americans on the delegation went for a walk outside the hotel and was raced after by a group of minders in two cars, bundled into the back of a car and brought back,” he added.

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