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From Plano To Seoul, NPR's Elise Hu Threads The Needle Between Missiles And Motherhood

Byron Harris
Special to KERA News
NPR correspondent Elise Hu and her husband, Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Stiles, wrangle two of their three daughters, 10-month-old Luna (left) and 2-year-old Isa.

SEOUL, South Korea – Balancing family and work is always delicate. Few parents face as delicate a balance as Elise Hu, a graduate of Plano Senior High School who’s now NPR’s correspondent based in Seoul.

Just 45 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, she and husband Matt Stiles are raising three girls age 5 and younger.

“My 5-year-old daughter has been to 12 countries and a U.S. territory,” Hu says. “I hadn’t been to that many countries when I was a kindergartener.”

On this Sunday afternoon she’s having lunch in a Korean restaurant in the heart of throbbing Seoul with that daughter, Eva. With her sippy cup on the table and her hand making a fin on her head, Eva is doing her shark imitation — freak flag flying, as Hu calls it.

Life is pretty fine, thank you. Hu, 35, is having the time of her life doing what she set out to do at age 8: journalism.

Credit Byron Harris / Special to KERA News
Special to KERA News
Elise Hu reports for NPR from a subway station in Seoul.

Three years ago she’d never been to Korea. After working for NPR in Washington, she got the Seoul correspondent job, which includes regular trips to Tokyo to cover Japan.

“I never thought that I would ever get to do this, which is to be posted abroad, supported by a national news organization, that largely subsidizes a lot of my life in order for me to do this job,” she says. “And so I consider it a huge privilege.”

She couldn’t pull it off without the guy she describes as the “primary parent” of the family: husband Matt, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and veteran of the Dallas Morning News. With the assistance of a nanny, Stiles makes sure Eva gets to kindergarten, 2-year-old Isa gets to pre-school and 10-month-old Luna, still nursing, is taken care of when her mom is out on assignment. As Hu puts it, “He’s far more involved in packing snacks, picking up from ballet and having diapers in his bag than I am.”

Sometimes the orchestration is tricky. Take August, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un threatened to bracket the island of Guam with his ever-more-sophisticated missiles.

Hu knew that it was going to be a big story and that she would have to go. And that required the launch of a family troop movement. She was still nursing then-5-month-old Luna, which meant the baby would have to go, which meant Matt would have to go to take care of Luna while Elise was reporting, which meant, ultimately, that the whole family had to go.

The children got up one morning, “and we told them, ‘Girls, we’re going to the beach!’”  The beach, of course, was Guam. Hu did several days of reporting for NPR, Matt watched the girls play on a Guamanian beach; in his spare time, he fired off a story for his newspaper.

“So we got it done,” Hu says. “To this day Eva says, ‘Mom, I would like to go back to Guam — that was an excellent holiday.’”

The family lives on the 35th floor of a high-rise in Seoul, which at 25 million is one of the largest cities in the world. Less than 45 miles away is the Demilitarized Zone, poke point in the jousting between "Little Rocket Man" (Kim Jong-Un, as Donald Trump calls him) and the "Dotard" (Donald Trump, as nicknamed by the North Korean leader).

“Do I think it’s risky to live here? No, absolutely not,” Hu says. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been around so many South Koreans, who’ve really normalized the notion of being so close to North Korea, but I don’t think North Korea would stage some kind of preemptive strike.”

Credit Byron Harris / Special to KERA News
Special to KERA News
Elise Hu (right) and her producer/interpreter, Se Eun Gong, on the campus of Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.

And even on a calm news day, home life can be a scramble, in part because of the 14-hour time difference between Seoul and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“I’m often on Morning Edition at 5 a.m. Eastern and 7 p.m. Seoul, which is my kids’ put-down time,” she says. “I usually have my kids running around after bath time being kids, and being very excited because they’re winding down for bed, and I’m going live for Morning Edition, and Up First, which is our morning podcast, at the same time, so it’s always 7 p.m./5 a.m.”

Beyond her reporting, she also delivers a jokey video series for NPR called “Elise Tries," and maintains a blog, "Hey Elise," in which she announced she’d read fifty-two books last year. She includes her ratings of each and a graph describing when she read them.

This week she’s off to cover the Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, east of Seoul.

Stay tuned.

Byron Harris is a Dallas-based freelancer and a former reporter for WFAA-TV.