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.