Thursday 29 September 2016

'We are shell-shocked' - Irish woman expelled from North Korea 'for insulting the dignity' of country

Hannah Stubbs, Press Association

Published 09/05/2016 | 11:07

Carlow native Maria Byrne (inset) was reportedly detained in North Korea
Carlow native Maria Byrne (inset) was reportedly detained in North Korea

AN Irish woman working for the BBC is understood to have been expelled from North Korea today, the fourth day of the congress of the country's Worker's Party.

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Maria Byrne, a producer originally from Carlow, was part of team including reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and cameraman Matthew Goddard who were detained on Friday as they were about to leave the reclusive communist state.

Mr Wingfield-Hayes was questioned for eight hours and made to sign a statement by North Korean officials, the corporation said.

North Korea says it is expelling the BBC team for allegedly "insulting the dignity" of the authoritarian country, which has invited scores of foreign media for its ongoing ruling party congress.

The team has now been taken to the airport.

Ms Byrne, who is 35 , is a Senior China Producer with BBC Asia. Her father Pat Byrne told KCLR FM today that the family are "shell-shocked".

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes being led away from the entrance of Kim Il-sung University during a report. Photo: BBC
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes being led away from the entrance of Kim Il-sung University during a report. Photo: BBC

He said they have received no official word as to whether she has been expelled or not.

All three in the team were in Pyongyang ahead of the Workers Party Congress. They were accompanying a delegation of Nobel prize laureates on a research trip.

Another BBC journalist, Stephen Evans, the Seoul correspondent, is still in Pyongyang.

He said the North Korean leadership was displeased with their reports.

Mr Evans said Mr Wingfield-Hayes was singled out over some of his reports for TV and online.

Speaking live to Radio 4's Today programme he said: "They were, as I understand, at the airport waiting to get on a flight.

"Just as they were about to board the flight, Rupert was held back.

"He was then taken to a hotel, a separate hotel to where we were and interrogated for eight hours."

An interrogator told Mr Wingfield-Hayes he had been the official to prosecute Kenneth Bae - a Korean-American missionary who was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour in the country.

Mr Evans said that Mr Wingfield-Hayes was told to sign a confession confirming that his work had been inaccurate and the authorities were particularly concerned about two incidents.

In one, Mr Wingfield-Hayes had questioned whether a visit by VIPs to a hospital had been staged by the authorities to make it seem better than it was, and another one when a cameraman was asked to delete pictures.

He said he believed his three colleagues were currently at the airport waiting to leave.

O Ryong Il, secretary-general of the North Korea's National Peace Committee, said news coverage by Mr Wingfield-Hayes distorted facts and "spoke ill of the system and the leadership of the country".

He said Mr Wingfield-Hayes wrote an apology, was being expelled and would never again be admitted into the country.

In a statement the BBC said: "We are very disappointed that our reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and his team have been deported from North Korea after the government took offence at material he had filed.

"Four BBC staff, who were invited to cover the Workers Party Congress, remain in North Korea and we expect them to be allowed to continue their reporting. "

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