Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Media and North Korea (Part 1)

Anyone who calls South Korea home can attest that the presence of a nuclear political enemy just a few hours to the north does not, contrary to certain expectations, pose such a great threat to the day-to-day normalcy of life here. No matter what propaganda North Korea sends out from behind its tightly secured doors, people in the South don't pay much attention.

The same can't be said of Americans, who seem to fear North Korea more than is warranted. I think that the American media has a lot to do with this. While I don't obsess over the latest news pieces that address North Korean issues, I have been paying enough attention to notice that there is a strong negative bias against this subject. Not only is there never good news from North Korea, journalists tend to blow up the bad news, making problems out to be worse or more worrisome than they have to be.

I am not comfortable with the image of North Korea that Americans are being fed. To them, North Korea is a backwards country and a dangerous threat, a nation of brainwashed Communists who are all starving but also diligently training to go to war against the US as soon as the order is given from their dictator-king. It's like our own propaganda, supported by classic American xenophobia and the need for us to have an enemy so that we can feel protected from them. The more I read about North Korea on American news sites, the clearer this bias becomes.

Here's what I've been reading (3 links out of 6; the rest I'll post tomorrow):

While the Rest of North Korea Struggles, Pyongyang's Fortunate Few Go Shopping (TIME, 8/19/13)

This article seems to give some insight into the changes that are occurring in the North Korean economy, particularly highlighting the signs of an emerging middle class in the capital city, Pyongyang. However, it seems to be more important to the author to sharply contrast this with the survival struggles of the rest of the country, providing caveats to each sign of growth previously mentioned and ending with a criticism of the DPRK's human rights issues.

Now, I know that news reports must give a balanced view of any situation, and I don't deny that the social and economic problems in North Korea are very real. But I'm curious to know what the point of this article was, if not to contribute to the already well-established trope of North Korea being an incomparably problematic country. Even the headline says nothing new. The title could have been, "North Korea Is Just as Unequal and Scary as It's Ever Been, Or Maybe a Little More So". Breaking news, everyone.

Life Inside North Korea Revealed by College Student (Yahoo! Flickr moment, 6/13)

Benjamin Jakabek's flickr photostream
This short video (along with second one on the site and an accompanying blog post) displays some photographs taken by a college student who visited North Korea on a guided tour. I genuinely enjoyed seeing his photos and the moments he captured of happiness and leisure in Pyongyang. He visited during May Day, one day out of the entire year when people were allowed to "wander around freely without anyone following them." He got to see kids playing and families having picnics in the park.

On the other hand, I'm not as impressed by his attitude. Thanks to him being a Canadian "with no real political agenda," he was able to visit the "mysterious" country he's always been interested in. I wonder if he realizes how much privilege he actually has, as a white male Westerner with the means to travel? Did he ever reflect on how much his experienced depended on this privileged identity? I was a bit rattled by his insistence that things in North Korea looked normal, as well as his comparison of the morning Communist broadcasting to the daily calls to prayer of Muslim countries. It reeks of exotification.

At least he was smart enough to acknowledge that his tour was very tightly choreographed and monitored, but I'm afraid that what he's sharing, as well as the way in which he's sharing it, does exactly what the North Korean regime wants out of its rich Western visitors: paint a purely positive and humanistic portrait of the country.

It's difficult to strike a balance between constant vilification and broad stroke of propaganda; in my opinion, Jakabek's skewed piece falls too far on the end of the spectrum that brushes aside the country's problems in favor of a slick slideshow. It wasn't really a "glimpse of what ordinary life looks like for North Korea's 25 million citizens," especially since 22 million of them live behind the curtain he tried to peek behind but never did.

In 1983, All of Korea was Crying (KoreaBANG, 7/24/13)

Jo Rim-hwan's photography
Speaking of photography, this article from KoreaBANG has some very touching portraits. It also taught me something I definitely did not know: in the mid-1980's, about the time when South Korea's economy was rocketing skyward while North Korea's began to crumble, a South Korea television show called "Reuniting Separated Families" aired. This show aimed to bring families separated either by the 38th parallel or by other factors surrounding the Korean War, including Koreans who grew up outside of the peninsula. During recording sessions of the show, "thousands of people brought posters and signs to the front of the National Assembly, where television cameras would pass by and give them a chance at a nationwide audience." A Korean photographer took some very sad and moving photographs of them in their desire -- or desperation -- to see their families again.

This hope and heartache is one aspect of South Korea that I have hardly seen. Since the cessation of the Sunshine Policy, attitudes toward reunification and North Korea in general have cooled considerably. I hear South Koreans talk about the shift in public opinion somewhat sadly but without any conviction that things will change for the better (whatever that may entail).

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Well, it does seem as if the links I posted went off tangentially from my main point. I do have a few more to share, but I'll post them tomorrow. I hope you enjoy reading and looking at those photos! What do you think about North Korea and the American media?

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