bangkok – Imagine going to bed one night as the little-known foreign minister from one of the world’s most secretive nations and waking up the next day as Princess Diana.
That is roughly what has happened this week to North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, who has been something of an unwilling celebrity at virtually every turn of his diplomatic debut at the Asean Regional Forum.
With only a handful of Thai security officers on hand to greet him at the Bangkok airport late Tuesday night, a terrified-looking Paek Nam Sun ran the gauntlet through a noisy and aggressive scrum of journalists, many of them South Korean, who shouted questions and pulled at his sleeves.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one foreign reporter who covered the arrival. “It was vicious.”
Since Pyongyang banned all but a handful of carefully selected media from covering last month’s historic summit between the two Koreas, the forum marks the first major event at which an envoy from traditionally isolated North Korea has faced the international press on open turf.
The North Korean envoy is holding landmark meetings with his counterparts from traditionally enemy nations—Japan, the US and, most importantly, South Korea—during his attendance at the forum.
“You’d better get used to this,” Thailand Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan told Paek Wednesday morning as the two pushed through a similarly frenzied media mob camped outside the venue for their bilateral meeting.
A crowd of photographers, TV cameramen and reporters knocked down a flimsy red velvet rope barrier and surrounded the North Korean minister, who remained silent and kept his head down.
Speaking to reporters after a one-hour chat with Paek, Surin Pitsuwan said he tried to advise his North Korean counterpart on how to deal with the media, something most high government officials are accustomed to, but seemed to have taken the North Korean envoy by surprise.
“I told him that this is how the press works, and you just have to be patient,” Surin Pitsuwin said, adding that he told Paek jokingly that most of the unruly journalists came from South Korea.
“I told him the Thai press is usually very well behaved,” Surin Pitsuwin said. “He said he didn’t believe me.”