On Media Coverage of North Korea (Again) — B.R. Myers

Yeats’ characterization of the press as “the roar of the machine” may have been a bit harsh in his day. Now it seems too generous, implying as it does a force and vitality that have long since departed from our media. In The Survival of English Ian Robinson has a brilliant chapter about how, in the mid-20th century, the Times of London went from informing readers to trying to entertain them. Our own newspapers chose the same road, for the same commercial reasons.

The ongoing shallowing has been obvious in coverage of North Korea. Compare John F. Burns’ account of a visit to Pyongyang in 1985, in which he showed a penetrating interest in ideological matters, to Motoko Rich’s flippant report (in a very different New York Times) of her recent trip to Panmunjom.

Compare Burns, for that matter, to Reuters’ James Pearson, who recently tweeted that the notion of a North Korean intention to unify the peninsula is “such a tired old 1990s meme.” You see what I’m up against. To the millennial journalist, the lack of click-baiting novelty is so black a mark against an argument as to obviate the need for refutation. Marx was on to something when he said our economic interests shape our thinking.

The irony is that the various explanations of North Korea’s behavior which the media have served up as self-evident fact for the past quarter-century — it wants an aid deal, security guarantees, nukes for nukes’ sake — are all far more timeworn and threadbare than the theory that it’s arming for unification. Which, by the way, was never less often invoked than in the 1990s.

In a recent book Pearson described or co-described Kim Jong-un’s North Korea as a place “where ideology no longer matters,” and most foreign correspondents seem to agree. Its ideology clearly doesn’t matter to them. To be fair: This results in part from the failed-communist model of the country which (itself a failure) has done so much to divert the world’s attention to inessentials. If you think the regime’s ostensible ideology is a self-reliant form of Confucian Marxism-Leninism, you will naturally search in vain for signs of it in North Korean life. You will then zoom in on reflections of that presumed ideology’s impotence: the black markets, the thriving trade in luxury goods. If you thought New Zealand was a Shia theocracy, you would regard the opening of every new bar in Auckland as a newsworthy Sign of Change.

One also encounters among journalists the assumption that ideological conviction induces a robot-like state incompatible with love, corruption, fun, natural speech and rational thinking. (Orwell has a lot to answer for; Pyongyang watchers can learn far more from Victor Klemperer.) The normalcy of most North Koreans’ lives is thus held up as further evidence that a once-dominant ideology has become “just propaganda,” mere aural and visual background noise. No doubt that’s what Otto Warmbier was led to think too.

But a conspicuous lack of interest in ideology now seems common to journalists around the world. It is itself ideologically motivated. The globalist must always place more importance on the things that people have in common.

Like an interest in celebrities. After the recent ICBM test I was emailed by two journalists (in different countries) familiar, or so they claimed, with my research. Did they want to know how the regime articulates its racial mission? No, of course not. They wanted the lowdown on Ri Chun-hee, the KCNA’s histrionic news announcer. Which is the sort of discussion of North Korea that I consider tired and old.

 

Restored below is a related posting I first put up on this blog in March 2016:

There must have been a last straw, but I forget what it was. Suffice to say that on New Year’s Day 2014, I decided to stop answering requests for comment in regard to North Korea. Over the next few months I sent out dozens of emails saying no, I would not be remarking on the latest weapons test. And no, I had nothing to say about the popularity of Choco Pies in Kaesong. And sorry, there was no good time to call me about Kim Jong Un’s health.

Interviews on topics of interest to me were fine, so long as the contents were broadcast or printed in full, a condition I was right in expecting most people to balk at. Although requests were turned down as politely as possible, I quickly earned the reputation, as I later learned, of “someone who bites the heads off journalists.” This bothered and still bothers me, since most journalists are very nice people, and enlightening to talk with if not always to read. Still, of the two resolutions I made that day (the other being to quit Oreos), this proved the easier one to keep.

Yet in October 2014 I fell off the wagon. The occasion was one of those surges of optimism with which the commentariat tends to greet Pyongyang’s every twitch of the olive branch. Let it be said in my defense that the general response to Hwang Pyong So’s surprise appearance at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon was especially annoying: A new era had dawned, or would dawn, if only President Park were big enough to abandon her hardline policy, etc, etc…. By the time a journalist asked me for comment, I was more than ready to offer it.

From experience I knew that only one sentence was likely to make it into print. If I did get a second one, someone else’s remark would be placed between the two, lest readers got bored. And I knew better than to mention ideology, or to differ with the prevailing model of a communist North Korea; journalists do not like to hear about theory. I was equally mindful of their habit of selecting from any longish answer of mine the one sentence they could have got from a hundred other sources.

What I ended up writing about Hwang Pyong So’s visit ran as follows:

This may well be just another North Korean rope-slackening, by which I mean an effort to lower tensions so that an already-planned provocation does not result in outright conflict.

The journalist responded by calling this “an interesting angle,” and “not one [he] had explored!”

Something about that exclamation mark made me suspect the story was going to run without my input. Sure enough. Still less surprised was I a few hours after that, when the North fired across the DMZ. Whereupon the journalist checked in again. Seeing as how my pessimism had been justified after all, did I want to update the earlier comment he had refrained from quoting?

I did not. Whatever few words I would have been allowed to say would in any case have immediately been balanced out, and then some, by more than one representative of the communis opinio. The episode reminded me why I had stopped talking to journalists in the first place.

You see, they want your bead to provide color and variety to the quote-necklace, but not to clash with it, for that would throw into relief the unhelpfulness and incoherence of this now ubiquitous style of non-reporting. Not that readers aren’t already tired of it. The North Korea buffs of my acquaintance deal with articles much as I do: they read the first paragraph for the hard facts, and then skim wearily through the ensuing fragments of opinions, groaning inwardly at this or that over-familiar name. (The two or three blandest Pyongyang watchers seem to talk to everyone.)

What most of us want, and not just in North Korea coverage, is less quoting and more real reporting, more analysis. At the very least, journalists should pick a source they judge more perceptive and credible than others, and give that person the opportunity to go into depth.

Contrary to a popular excuse, it’s not the editors’ fault. I have had little difficulty getting periodicals to publish op-ed pieces or even cover-articles on the very topics journalists steer so clear of. Nor can anyone claim that space constraints preclude substance, when there is ample room for the tritest and shallowest soundbites. A lot can be said in three sentences, so long as they are not by three different people.

Unfortunately, longer-form discussion with the media does not necessarily mean they will pay more attention to nuance and accuracy. In a recent interview I said enough to fill a two-page spread in a European weekly, only to find myself nut-shelled in the introductory remarks as one who regards North Korea as a fascist state. I have also been outsmarted (to put it politely) on a few occasions. After filming a chat in my office, a TV crew explained that my answers would be cut up into clips, and scattered over various segments as the news demanded. Then there was the radio interview I gave under the condition that I could focus on ideology. When everything was over, I was told that the non-ideological stuff around the edges was more likely to be actually broadcast.

Having statements taken out of context is not the only way in which one can be made to regret speaking to the press. A few years ago a young South Korean questioned me in perfect English, after explaining that someone else would render my answers into Korean. I took care to avoid pronouns, which, as I knew from experience, tend to cause misunderstandings in the translation process. The interview then appeared in English after all, making me look as if all those tautological Juche texts had finally gone to my head.

Surely nothing can go wrong with a recorded Q & A, broadcast in full? Think again. Audio interviews are now transferred to print by some sort of voice-misrecognition software, and posted online without so much as a read-through. As of 9 March 2016, therefore, I am on record as saying (along with various incoherent and wrongly punctuated things) that “the Korean word me-yung …. features prominently in North Korean propaganda.” I can now look forward to an entire journal article setting me straight.

The actual word I had referred to: nyŏn. As in “bitch,” but not sounding quite that bad to Korean ears.

North Korea, Nuclear Armament, and Unification — B.R. Myers

In a recent blog post I mentioned the Great Contradiction in North Korean Studies: the practice of playing up the DPRK’s bold and uncompromising nationalism while at the same time denying its commitment to unifying the nation. The front and back do not match, as Koreans say.

The Great Contradiction in South Korean Studies is the equally widespread practice of stressing the great inferiority of the ROK’s nationalist credentials to North Korea’s, while denying that any South Korean opposition force of note has ever regarded the North as the more legitimate state. (Claims to the contrary are dismissed as McCarthyist fabrications.)

Again, front and back do not match. If the South was such a horrible place for so long, and the North to all outward appearances so much better, why should many South Koreans not have looked up to Kim Il Sung? It’s odd how some of the most North-apologetic Westerners are scandalized by any historical imputation of pro-North tendencies to the South Korean left.

Outright loyalty to Pyongyang is not the force it was here during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Juche Thought Movement reached the peak of its influence on campuses and in intellectual circles. But the fact that so many prominent and apparently unrepentant veterans of that movement now sit in the Moon Jae-in administration reminds us that the ideological difference between the two Koreas is not as clear-cut as Westerners assume.

The last frontier of the Cold War? Nonsense. The DMZ does not divide the last bastion of communism from a liberal democracy; it divides a radical nationalist state from a moderate nationalist one. The ideological gap between northern radicals and southern moderates remains a sizeable one, but has never been narrower. Nor should we forget the rule of ideological communities —  the whole peninsula being positable as such a community — that moderates always feel more sympathy for radicals than vice-versa. Enough to welcome a radical takeover? No. Enough to weaken their resistance to such a takeover? Yes.

That point is vital to understanding why North Korea regards the US military presence as the main thing standing between it and a more or less bloodless unification of the peninsula. That point in turn is vital to understanding that the goal of the regime’s nuclear program — and of its development of long-range missiles in particular — is to force the withdrawal of American troops.

No one has harped on this point quite like I have in recent years (in a Newsweek cover story in 2013, in North Korea’s Juche Myth in 2015, in NK News last year, and so on), but Nicholas Eberstadt and Japan’s Hideshi Takesada, among others, were putting things much the same way years earlier. It took the events of 2010 to make me realize how softline even the South Korean right was, which in turn made me understand that the subjugation of a post-alliance ROK was a goal realistic enough for Pyongyang to be arming for.

The regime has itself long defined unification as the end goal of its military-first policy. Now it does so not only in inner-track, but even in export propaganda, as (according to an NK News report) it did in an Uriminzokkiri piece a few weeks ago:

The current South Korean government has no need to fear or feel unnecessary repulsion about our nuclear weapon. It is a means for securing peaceful unification and the survival of the race (minjok).

South Korean Pyongyang watchers of a conservative bent, who join me in taking the North’s ideology seriously — as opposed to calling it a “reactive” or “survivalist” state, i.e., one without a long-term ideological vision — have been saying for decades that it’s out to unify the nation.

Unfortunately the Western press rarely calls on these experts, despite their being by far the best informed on nuclear and security issues in the narrow (more technical) sense. This has partly to do with the former’s own pro-Sunshine leanings and partly with the latter’s inability to speak English as well as the wealthier, US-educated academics of the Gangnam left. This neglect of their expertise is especially lamentable in view of the fact that they include many defectors from the North.

For a long time there, I seemed to be the only Anglophone Koreanist who kept bringing up unification when discussing the North’s motives. It did no good that I could see. The Western press kept on referring to the North’s arms program as a mere effort to maximize its defenses, or to secure an aid package, or to bring about the normalization of Pyongyang-Washington relations, or simply to survive, to “muddle through.”

Things are finally starting to change. With every new missile launch or nuclear test, a few more people seem to realize that the North is arming too urgently, and at too great a risk to its own security, for such benign explanations to keep making sense. As a result more journalists than usual have been asking me to elaborate on my published views. In February 2017, Slate printed an interview with me. In April Reuters War College interviewed me for a podcast, the almaengi of which was as follows:

Those who treat [George W. Bush’s] “axis of evil” remark and the bombing of Libya as watershed traumas in the North Korean psyche are really lampooning their own narrative, because if a regime has spent 50 or 60 years defying, humiliating and threatening a trigger-happy superpower like the United States, and the greatest shocks it has been dealt in return have been a rude line in a speech and an attack on a completely different country, its safety clearly does not depend on [its] developing a new kind of weapon. Its conventional artillery must have been protecting it very well indeed. The US was never stronger, North Korea never weaker than in 1994, yet even then the fear of an artillery attack on Seoul prevented an air-strike on Yongbyeon. You can put it another way and say that the very success of the nuclear program, the fact that it has gone this far, proves that it was never necessary for North Korea’s security in the first place.  

So the question we have to ask ourselves in 2017 is: Why does North Korea risk its long-enjoyed security by developing long-range nukes? Why is it doing the one thing that might force America to attack, to accept even the likelihood of South Korean civilian casualties? The only plausible goal big enough to warrant the growing risk and expense is the goal North Korea has been pursuing from day one of its existence: the unification of the peninsula. More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.

On 1 May 2017 the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Kaiman put out an article, “Here’s What’s Driving North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” in which he discussed my interpretation of the North’s motives, and related relevant things he had just seen and heard on a visit to Pyongyang.

One mosaic on Pyongyang’s metro depicts Kim Il Sung as the sun, watching over a gleeful scene of reunification under the North Korean flag; another shows the North Korean proletariat, led by Kim, advancing against a backdrop of tanks, planes, and most prominently, flying missiles.

“We want Trump to withdraw the troops of U.S. Army from South Korea,” said Rim Daesong, 28, a North Korean official, as he stepped onto a train. “The U.S. government has to change its policies, in order that our country can reunify independently.”

In February, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA called a successful ballistic missile test “a pride of Kim Il Sung’s nation [that] has instilled vitality into the glorious Kim Jong Un’s era,” adding that “getting firmer is the fellow countrymen’s conviction in the final victory of the cause of national reunification.”

On 2 May 2017, the very day after the LA Times piece, the Associated Press issued a story under the headline “US: NK’s nukes may be a strategy for taking over South Korea.”

Matt Pottinger, the Asia director on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, said there may be some truth to claims that the North wants a nuclear deterrent to protect its communist dictatorship. But Pottinger said the country’s robust conventional military has worked as a deterrent for decades.

Pottinger suggested other “disturbing” explanations for the North’s development of “an arsenal of the worst weapons in the world.”

“They have made no secret in conversations they have had with former American officials, for example, and others that they want to use these weapons as an instrument of blackmail to achieve other goals, even including perhaps coercive reunification of the Korean Peninsula one day,” Pottinger told a conference in Washington.

The North, he added, also wants to coerce the United States “to leave the peninsula and abandon our alliances.”

And on 20 June 2017 the former nuclear negotiator Christopher R. Hill put out an article entitled “North Korea’s Real Strategy”:

In fact, North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons is rooted more in aggression than pragmatism. North Korea seeks nothing less than to decouple the United States from its South Korean partner – a split that would enable the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Kim’s terms. In other words, North Korea does not want only to defend itself; it wants to set the stage for an invasion of its own.

I feel safe in saying that this interpretation of North Korea’s motives has finally “arrived.” I predict more people will begin discussing the nuclear crisis in an inter-Korean context in the months ahead.

My fear is that the consensus will stop halfway to the truth, and the usual op-ed writing suspects will begin arguing a) that the North wants our troops out only because it fears a US attack, and b) that such a move need not diminish the South’s security, because we can bolster its defenses as we reduce our troops in stages, demanding a quid pro quo from Pyongyang each time, etc.

Let me forestall such talk by reminding everyone that North Korean propaganda has always hammered home the assertion that if American troops pull out, unification under the star flag will and must follow. This prediction has informed the entire military-first policy, and motivated the great sacrifices that have gone with it. A takeover would be all the more necessary in view of the fact that a South Korea sans foreign military presence would be the North’s equal even on nationalist terms, leaving the latter state with no more grounds on which to claim superior legitimacy. A withdrawal of American troops would therefore compel the North to attempt completion of the great racial mission, with or without a confederation as a brief intervening stage.