Conversely, Choe’s 16-month-long investigation revealed that the U.S. Army had commanded the killing of refugees who came from the North. As it was difficult to distinguish between South and North Koreans, the order resulted in massive casualties. Choe’s article series “The Bridge at No Gun Ri” led to the investigation of the U.S. government regarding the incident and the enactment of the reparation law for the victims.
The social impact of his article series won him the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, making him the first Korean Pulitzer Prize Winner. The Pulitzer Prize is awarded to distinguished reporters in American journalism.
“I wanted to elucidate that some civilian deaths in the Korean War were caused by our forces and allies,” he said. “In a situation where the victims were submitting a petition to the American Embassy, the American public needed to know about such a massacre.”
Choe remarked that creative ideas and curiosity are necessary to write a good article, explaining that the two assets are not inherent, but are rather the result of effort and courage.
“It is inevitable for reporters to be critical about social issues,” he said. “At times, they have to write articles that criticize powerful organizations or authorities.”
To face dilemmas of doubt and falsification, Choe had to support his articles with extensive evidence, ranging from academic research to interviews with responsible parties and scholars.
“Providing new ideas and having curiosity entails extensive research,” he said.
Although Choe is devoted to his work, he had not expected to become a reporter. He explains Korea was highly influenced by the wave of globalization at the start of his career in the Korean Herald in 1991. Before then, Choe was studying English at the Graduate School of Interpretation & Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. To make use of his English skills, he applied for the English newspaper company Korea Herald, and has been working in the field for 24 years.
Currently, Choe works at the New York Times Seoul headquarters, reporting incidents that occur in Korea to people abroad. Issues surrounding North Korea and the division of the peninsula are topics that he frequently deals with.
“The world sees Korea as a divided country and many international correspondents in the country write articles that reconfirm this perception,” he said. “However, I try to write in a different perspective by mentioning different implications of an event while accepting the established framework.”
He noted that an ideal article by an international correspondent would be one that shows the trend or the situation in a country through a single incident. For instance, a report of the nut rage incident is an interesting story that shows Koreans’ perception of Chaebol, large family-owned business conglomerates.
For Choe, informing the international audience about the difficult nuance and beliefs of Koreans is an interesting job. The daily competition to deliver news stories as fast as possible is hectic but addictive for him as well.
“When the National Intelligence Service made an announcement about the execution of the defense minister in North Korea in the morning of May 13, I had to write an article in an hour to meet the deadline for the international edition of the NYT,” he confessed. “Writing about the context, background and the implication of breaking news in a short period of time is what makes a reporter stand out from other jobs.”
Despite being a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Choe believes a journalist is no different from any other job. In fact, his happiest moments at work are when research for a news report goes smoothly.
“I do not think a journalist works for justice any more than a bus driver,” he stated. “My goal is simply to take responsibility in delivering information to readers by being as impartial as possible.”
Asked to give advice to students uncertain about their future career, Choe emphasized finding a job that is interesting.
“Many jobs including being a journalist require perseverance and concentration rather than intelligence,” he stressed. “Thus, students should find an interesting job so as to make them work hard persistently.”