Writing About North Korea


It’s uncomfortably akin to writing fiction

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



I was recently invited to appear on a panel hosted by the Korea Economic Institute on media coverage of North Korea. Such invitations are ego-gratifying but then the anxiety sets in about actually having anything to say. But the prospect of public humiliation concentrates the mind. You can be the judge of whether I successfully pulled together my somewhat inchoate thoughts on the topic.

Obviously, I am no expert on the media, though sometimes semioticians and media analysts make appearances in this blog. David Zeglen, who has written about media portrayals (and attendant misunderstanding) of the marriage of Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-ju, is a case in point. And my main point of reference is the mainstream Western or specifically, English-language, press.


Why do I think that writing about North Korea is uncomfortably akin to writing fiction? Start with the fact (or at least the considered judgement) that North Korea is a strange place. It’s not Canada and I think that the argument that it is “normal,” just misunderstood, is tendentious to say the least. And for most folks—readers of this blog excepted—it’s really not a very important place. Few Americans pay it much attention—until it does something strange. Its obscurity and opaqueness are reinforced by the lack of foreign—or at least Western—press access.


In combination these characteristics create a situation in which the generally accepted factual baseline is sparse. It is difficult to falsify statements, hence the comparison to writing fiction. 


From these conditions, I derive two additional points.


First, anyone can be an expert. There are no barriers to entry to fiction-writing. (As former Vice President Mondale once put it, “anyone who tells you that they are an expert on North Korea is a liar or a fool.”)


Journalists typically have little background on the country, and are hence unusually reliant on so-called experts to provide them background when writing their pieces, as well as punchy quotes and soundbites to spice up their pieces.


And because North Korea is obscure, there is a relatively thin bench of such “experts.”


So when something happens, the nature of press coverage is framed by three basic points: it’s a strange place, it only receives periodic episodic attention, and the press has little conventional access. Under such conditions, journalists scramble for expert opinion.


My impression under the pressure of deadlines, journalists sometimes don’t do adequate due diligence, and/or do not adequately frame the views of sources who have extreme or highly idiosyncratic views.

In Seoul, I once had an intelligence official explain to me that Kim Jong-il had the world’s second largest collection of pornography. I repressed my instinct to ask who had the largest. 

To cite one particularly egregious example, years ago National Public Radio (NPR) hosted for a six-minute interview, Alejandro Cao de Benós, a self-claimed employee of the North Korean government. (There is some dispute over this last point, but I am confident that Mr. Cao de Benós has received either direct funding as he claims, or indirect support through the Friendship Society that he leads.) He is a de jure or de facto paid spokesman for the North Korean regime. This status was not revealed in the broadcast, and Cao de Benós was allowed to make outlandish statements about the North Korean nuclear program without challenge. The NPR interviewer seemed to treat the whole thing as a bit of a joke.


(To add insult to injury, Cao de Benós has been accused of threatening and intimidating journalists critical of North Korea.)


Second, there is an echo chamber effect, where once a “fact” gets into the public domain, it is repeated ad nauseum whether it was ever true or remains contemporaneously true. 


Take the example of revenues from the missile sales. As far as I can tell, in 2002, a US government official, apparently from the DIA, told journalist Andrew Ward of the Financial Times that North Korea derived $560 million a year from missile sales.


Once in the public domain, this figure has been repeated over and over and over, regardless of whether or not North Korea has developed new spiffy missiles, exports are under sanctions subject to interdiction, North Korea’s customers are flush with cash or not, etc. etc. etc. This figure, apparently an unverified statement from a single unnamed source, became an unchanging fact.


A more recent example is the seemingly endlessly asserted claim that North Korea is earning “billions of dollars” from the export of labor, a hobbyhorse of mine. 


Putting together these characteristics, one ends up with grotesque exaggerations. The accounts of Kim Jong-il’s record shattering golf proficiency are merely amusing. But others—the claim that Kim Jong-un had his uncle fed to ravenous dogs—spring to mind. Perhaps most damaging are the more prosaic ones—North Koreans, subject to recurrent famines, are on the brink of starvation—which feed particular narratives.


Left unquestioned is whether such tales are simply the work of fevered imaginations or whether they are the product of deliberate disinformation campaigns. In Seoul, I once had an intelligence official explain to me that Kim Jong-il had the world’s second largest collection of pornography. I repressed my instinct to ask who had the largest. 


Apart from obsessives like me, does any of this really matter? I would argue it does. It appears that the US is now led by a president who gets his information as much via the popular media as from the daily presidential intelligence brief. Such a reliance on casual news sources has probably always been the case for some significant share of the Congress. So we are in a situation where these tropes—Kim Jong-un the pudgy guy with the wack haircut feeding his uncle to ravenous dogs, or starving North Koreans on the brink of revolt—inform the intellectual terrain of policy making. Indeed, the exaggerated depiction of “otherness” may contribute to dehumanizing the country, making it easier to contemplate its total destruction, to paraphrase President Trump.


That should be a matter of serious concern, whether Kim Jong-un really fed Jang Song-thaek to the dogs or not.

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