Most of us understand reporting on North Korea can be difficult. The majority of internal information is considered a state secret, media access is extremely limited, and its people rarely speak to outsiders (and when they do its only they’re accompanied by minders). However, these difficulties seem to have created an unfortunate ‘anything goes’ policy towards reporting on the DPRK. Often this articulates in an almost ‘comedy’ style reporting of North Korea (especially regarding its leaders) or through articles that demonstrate a lack of even basic fact checking (as NKNews recently highlighted). Now, The Economist enters the fray, with an article entitled “In praise of North Korea and Uzbekistan”, showing another of the risks when reporting on the DPRK, – suspicion to the point of bias.
In dealing with North Korea there are of course many morally difficult decisions. Politicians and diplomats regularly face these: how to deal and talk with a nation without legitimizing its actions? What concessions should be made to improve the life of the North Korean people, and when does help become a step too far?
The Economist faced such a situation with regards to statistics it labeled as “spurious”, just released by Save The Children. The statistics list the countries that have made the most and least progress in regards to the fight against child malnutrition, and North Korea, surprisingly, finds itself sixth on the list of those who have progressed the most in reducing the proportion of stunted children. Good progress in fact, with an average annual decrease of 5.5% between 1990 to 2010. But as any North Korea watcher will tell you, this shouldn’t come at much of a surprise when you consider North Korea’s starting point – the dire famine of the mid 1990s.
But despite an extremely thorough report which details research techniques (p.57 of the report) and Save The Children’s standing as a recognized and reliable international charity, The Economist has took issue with their findings, labeling them “counter-intuitive”.
That’s fine. Statistics are a tricky business and often don’t tell the whole story. They should of course be under scrutiny. So where does The Economist’s complaint stem from? Improper data collection? Misleading presentation of findings? Suggestions of cozying up to the nation’s governments?
No, essentially The Economist’s position can be summarized as “it just doesn’t feel right” to be praising these countries in any way. Progress in dictatorships it would seem, is not possible.
In the article, we are told often that these nations are ‘the bad guys’. Uzbekistan is “a vicious dictatorship which imprisons political opponents”. While Turkmenistan’s crazy leader “renamed the days of the week after himself and members of his family”. These environments, The Economist suggests, makes Save The Children’s data unreliable, because unnamed villagers may mistake international NGO workers for state spies.
NGO’s have admitted in the past the difficulties of operating in North Korea, but this report’s figures weren’t the work of one lone NGO worker, who could be easily manipulated and controlled. They were drawn from the work of the WHO, UNICEF and World Bank over a span of the last 20 years (all of which is fully referenced and available online). The Economist even admits DHS surveys (on which much of the data was based) “are the gold standard of social research”. Essentially, it is justifiable to treat these statistics with a grain of salt, but the data accumulated by an independent NGO with over a 20 year period cannot simply be disregarded as “spurious”. At least, not without some semblance of proof or evidence, of which The Economist has none. In their article, Save the Children’s report data and evidence is questioned, despite The Economist’s own inability to provide any such data to counter the study.
More bewilderingly, and even less related to the issue at hand, readers are then helpfully reminded how bad the guys running these countries are – another chance to talk about how crazy the Kim family is:
“Of course, there is another possible explanation. The sixth most successful country on the list is, according to Save the Children, North Korea, where children are doubtless stuffed full of sweets and other good things as they march off singing to the gulags. The founder of North Korea’s dictatorship, Kim Il Sung, elaborated an obscure ideology of his own called juche which more or less replaced normal education in the country and is obligatory for Koreans to learn”.
The Kim’s have a personality cult, and they created the Juche ideology. Fine, that much is at least correct. But despite the opening sentence of that extract, the writer in no way goes on to demonstrate how the cult of the Kims or following Juche is remotely related to his argument that we cannot trust the statistics we have just read.
Why does all this matter? Does NKNews just revel in snipping at other media? No, it matters, because there has been solid movement forward on an important issue. That does not therefore mean the Kims should be praised. However this progress at least needs to be recognized, especially if the international community wants the DPRK to feel it is in their interests to at all listen to NGO or international opinion in future. If Pyongyang is continuously lambasted for its situation, listens to NGO opinion, makes progress only to be lambasted again, then policy makers may one day wonder why bother playing this game at all (and they are only just barely playing now).
Recognizing this progress does not legitimize the regime’s actions. It does not equate to support. These are just simple statistics and facts that show some progress from within the country. Support it and it may continue. Of course it also may not, but dismissing all DPRK attempts at progress (and there have been many, however misguided and stuttering) simply because you don’t like them won’t get anybody anywhere. More than this, the article takes unnecessary shots at the good work of Save the Children.
The Economist concludes “this table will not do its (STC’s) credibility many favours”. In fact this article may have damaged The Economist’s reputation much more than Save The Children’s.
The report itself can be found here.