Some time ago, I had a rather telling conversation at an office of a media outlet for which I have, for many years, been a frequent contributor.
The editor told me that he was not very happy about the columns I submitted recently since they were “not topical enough.” The editor said that they would much prefer to publish things related to breaking news, like nuclear negotiations and rumors about Pyongyang factional struggle, not stories about North Korea’s black markets, or North Koreans’ attitudes to the outside world.
It makes no sense to argue with publishers and editors, so I surrendered immediately and promised to change my ways. From now on, therefore, most of the columns that I will write for this publication are likely to deal with such thrilling topics as another round of preliminary talks about the possible resumption of the Six-Party Talks, or “leaked” Pentagon reports that describe some possible minor improvement in North Korean missile technology. Such things are indeed topical, no doubt, but are they really useful for understanding North Korea?
This ‘topical’ approach, while understandable from a media point of view, is inherently dangerous and seriously misleading
This “topical” approach, while understandable from a media point of view, is inherently dangerous and seriously misleading. Due to such attitude of the media, North Korea watchers are implicitly discouraged from doing and/or introducing research that deals with deep underlying trends, even though these trends will ultimately determine what will happen in the coming decades.
To understand why an events-oriented approach is misleading, let’s imagine somebody back in the early 1920s reporting on China of the era. There is little doubt that newspaper editors of the time would expect her/him to be topical and thus produce countless stories about battles the between roaming warlord armies, new demands by European powers and complicated negotiations regarding railway rights in strategically important Zhejiang province. If such a person had taken editorial pressures too seriously, he/she would be unlikely to write about such non-topical issues as, say, the spread of communist ideas amongst both peasants and educated urban youth, the steady increase in the allure of militant nationalism amongst the Japanese military, or the slow rise of support for Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalists.
Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, we know that it was the latter deep trends that determined the subsequent decades and changed China (and the entire world) forever. Meanwhile, nobody but a handful of professional historians would now recognize the names of successful warlords whose spectacular turf wars used to be a major topic for newspaper space back in the 1920s.
Another suitable example is the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Back then the Western media paid much attention to the SALT arms limitation negotiations, including such thrilling topics as the now nearly completely forgotten arguments about medium-range bombers. They wrote about Soviet activities in Africa and other Moscow foreign policy adventures. They discussed Politburo promotions and speculated on the future fates of such promising personalities as Grishin and Romanov.
Few people would now disagree that agreements on bombers (you remember the Tu-22, a.k.a. “Backfire” bomber issue, do you?) or the outcome of a proxy war in Angola (how many people can tell UNITA from MPLA nowadays?) had virtually no impact on the fate of the Soviet Union. Both Grishin and Romanov are safely forgotten nowadays, too. The fate of the communist superpower was largely sealed by the slow-motion decline of its economy and the subsequent loss of popular faith in the system. However, such trends were seldom reported or even discussed in the media, which concentrated on the seemingly more newsworthy diplomatic and policy intrigues.
There is little doubt that similar trends are present in the writing on North Korean issues nowadays. Nuclear negotiations and the Six-Party Talks have long since come to resemble soap operas with their countless repetitive episodes in which nothing new is likely to happen. However, even if we assume that some diplomatic breakthrough is possible, it is still clear that, in the long run, the future of North Korea and adjacent areas is not going to be sealed by some spectacular diplomatic coup: other forces will be at work.
The old hyper-Stalinist centralized economy has quietly disintegrated, to be partially replaced by a multitude of private and semi-private enterprises
It is clear what matters in the long run: glacial changes in North Korea’s economy and society. Indeed, over the last 20 years, such changes have been tremendous in their scale and scope. The old hyper-Stalinist centralized economy has quietly disintegrated, to be partially replaced by a multitude of private and semi-private enterprises. Self-isolation has become unsustainable, and information about the outside world is now seeping in. At the same time, the nascent merchant class is gradually asserting its own political interests, which (contrary to common view) do not necessarily contradict those of the government and old party-state nomenklatura. It is the outcome of these glacial social and cultural changes that will ultimately determine North Korea’s future, but such topics are seldom presented to readers of the popular media.
Indeed, it is not sexy enough to write about the growth of private kitchen plots, or the emergence of private libraries in North Korea, or mobile phone culture. It does not sound topical, since it is not related to certain recent events. As a result, most publications limit themselves to repeating outdated and seriously misleading clichés with respect to North Korea’s society and economy. In one article after another North Korea is described as a “Stalinist state,” a “country on the brink of starvation” in which all people with money are by definition “high-level government officials.”
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Journalists have no choice but to use such clichés, even if some of them understand that the reality is rather different. This result is the reinforcement of stereotypes and brings with it a grossly simplified or even distorted worldview. The serious changes North Korea has experienced since the late 1990s have been largely overlooked by the media and general public – mainly because such information does not easily fit into the standard newspaper format which is designed to deal with events, not long-term trends.
Such attitudes are indeed not limited to North Korea alone, since the social issues and cultural trends of other countries are rarely deemed newsworthy
Being a realist, the author understands that perhaps he is asking too much. Such attitudes are indeed not limited to North Korea alone, since the social issues and cultural trends of other countries are rarely deemed newsworthy.
By the same token, the author, being a Russian citizen, is often surprised by just how simplistically political developments in his homeland are presented in the international media, and how little coverage there is, for instance, of the popularity of Vladimir Putin’s policies, like the annexation of Crimea, amongst the Russian public. The general mindset of present-day Russia is also ignored. This mindset might be based on false assumptions and inherently dangerous, but even if this is the case, this current atmosphere should be at least reported faithfully.
However, this is not the case. The Western media is very interested in the diplomatic negotiations or, sometimes, trials and tribulations of Russian opposition leaders and activists, even as the Russian public nowadays is overwhelmingly indifferent or even actively hostile toward these people. In order to understand what is going on in Russia, one should have a look at the deep trends, the slow-motion resurgence of Russian state-oriented nationalism, the sense of wounded pride and humiliation at the hands of the triumphant West. These trends determine and drive Putin’s policy, but they are seldom reported in media. One of the reasons is, of course, bias: It might be psychologically difficult for many a Western journalist to admit that the average Russian does not dream of living in a liberal democracy. However, it also happens because such trends are seldom directly connected to spectacular events and hence remain insufficiently newsworthy and topical.
Newspapers, websites and TV channels cater to a specific audience. Domestic agendas and foreign policy priorities of particular audiences largely determine what is considered by producers and editors to be newsworthy, and the available space is always limited. The average CNN viewer in Newark, or Washington Post reader in D.C. is unlikely to consider the changing fashion tastes of residents of Chongjin to be newsworthy. However, when it comes to understanding North Korean life and predicting North Korean future, the changing fashion tastes might be more important than, say, a story about some high-level meeting in Singapore where nuclear issue is discussed.