CBS News’ Ben Tracy on ‘Most Surreal’ Assignment in North Korea

Ben Tracy, foreign correspondent at CBS News, offered a rare perspective on the ongoing drama involving the U.S. and North Korea. Based in Beijing, Tracy was in North Korea to witness what the North Koreans claim is the destruction of their main nuclear testing site. Tracy said CBS News and CNN were the only U.S. media there to witness the demolition.

“North Korea does not invite journalists to the country often,” he told B&C, adding that CBS News regularly asks to enter, presumably putting it higher on the list when North Korea wanted to spread the word of its site demolition.

Tracy said about 20 media personnel were in the country for the testing site bombing. They got to the site after an 11-hour train ride, a 1 ½ hour drive, and a hike to Punggye-ri.

Related: CBS News Names Brinda Adhikari Senior Broadcast Producer, 'CBS Evening News With Jeff Glor'

The North Koreans strung explosives inside the site’s three tunnels, which they showed the journalists, then moved the media to a viewing stand to watch the explosion, and finally brought the reporters back to the entrances to see the damage.

Few print outlets were invited to the spectacle, Tracy said, North Korea seeing it as “a made for TV event,” with the explosions playing better in video than in print.

Reporting on CBS Evening News Thursday, Tracy said, “The problem is, this is a group of journalists. Nobody there is a nuclear expert, so we have no way of knowing if what they did in front of us actually does render that site completely unusable or if it simply just destroyed the entrances to these tunnels that could then eventually be fixed.”

President Trump canceled the planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un.

Tracy said on the newscast of North Korea’s reaction, “They will likely react with some form of anger, disappointment. You can expect them likely to blame the U.S. for a breakdown in diplomacy here on the Korean Peninsula, and if they wanted to, this could be an excuse to backtrack on some of the promises they've recently made with South Korea. So, there could be some lasting impacts here depending on how North Korea wants to play this.”

North Korea could also take the high ground, he added. 

CBS News’ boots-on-the-ground coverage from North Korea follows the division’s recent reports from Israel and Syria. CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor was in Israel for the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and went to Ramallah to cover the battles in the West Bank.

CBS News Foreign Correspondent Seth Doane was the only U.S. network reporter in Syria, says CBS News, for the U.S. missile strike there last month.

It is Tracy’s second time in North Korea, the first being last year, when he witnessed a military parade in Pyongyang. He departs the morning of May 26. No government officials were made available to comment on the developing diplomacy between North Korea and the U.S., but Tracy said the government minders accompanying the journalists were helpful, and full of questions about the U.S.’s wishes in North Korea. “They were very nice to us,” he said.

So why is North Korea so intent on working out a positive relationship with America? Tracy said the country, seeing itself as a legitimate military threat to the U.S. and Korea, would prefer to focus more on its ailing economy right now than escalating its weaponry.

Tracy did get a glimpse at the small towns of North Korea as the interminable train ride hurtled to the northern edge of the nation. He, and his fellow reporters, were also treated to a 10-course meal served by white tuxedoed waiters.

“It’s probably the most surreal assignment we’ve been on,” he said.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.