Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Media and North Korea (Part 2)

A continuation from yesterday's post about the bias I saw in Western media reports about North Korea. Admittedly, only one of the three articles I shared yesterday was a decent example. In any case, here are three more links for you all: one interview, one news story, and a website for a documentary, followed by my own commentary.

Sixty Years After the Korean War, the Cold War's Unending Conflict Continues (TIME, 7/7/13)

This article is an interview with a professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin and author of a new book about North Korea. In the interview, Jager lays out an easily-digestible overview of North-South Korean relations since the end of the Korean War. I appreciate that she gives the side-by-side histories of both nations and strives to highlight the lasting cultural significance of the technically still-ongoing conflict.

The reason I'm sharing this article is that I believe it actually presents an unbiased view of how the politics are playing out at this time. Apart from the casual speculating about the North's nuclear arsenal (note that, of course, the interviewer had to end the article with the customary fear-mongering), I think that Jager gave a fair analysis of what's currently at stake for the North Korean regime in the near future. She did not focus on apocalyptic worse-case scenarios or call into question the sanity of the entire population. In fact, one gem in the interview was when she talked about the two Koreas' "legitimacy struggle". Mentioning that North Korea prides itself on the purity of its heritage, having avoided Japanese and American military and cultural influence (or contamination, if you will) over the past sixty years, she makes an unexpectedly valid point that there is not only one standard for determining which side "won" the conflict, if indeed there can be any victor. I know that Koreans from both the South and the North attach the utmost importance to their Korean identity, so I'm interested to see what they would each think of the other's claims to "true Koreanness".

North Korea Grapples with Crystal Meth Epidemic (Wall Street Journal, 8/20/13)

Okay, now this is the article that sent me over the edge. When I first read an article (or blog post?) in the Washington Post that was based on the information in this one, I was actually indignant because I felt that it was poorly-researched, misleading, and, of course, guilty of the same anti-North Korea rhetoric that has become all too common. The original article wasn't much better, as it turns out. According to these two pieces, it seems as if a North Korean province that borders China has seen a dramatic rise in users or addicts of crystal meth. The so-called epidemic began when North Korea's state-run meth labs become poorly regulated enough for common folks to take what they knew and conduct their own drug-fueled science experiments at home. Now, up to 50% (?!) of the residents of that region use crystal meth for recreation and as a home remedy for various illnesses.

When a fellow Fulbrighter shared this story on our Facebook group, I wrote that it sounded like rumor-mongering and that readers should take the articles with a grain of salt. But I should clarify: I am in no way contesting the truth of the article or the report in the North Korea Review upon which it's based. I'm not crying libel, and I'm not trying to defend North Korea.

The thing is, it is of little concern to me whether or not North Korea has a thriving underground meth trade. If it does, there's little chance of it spilling across the border and affecting me here (unlike the drug wars currently being waged in Mexico). If it doesn't, then that's fine, too. As it is, I have no way of knowing what's true or not. Furthermore, I think that the article's authors are also basing a lot of their story on guesswork. It really relies on the shock factor (I mean, look at that title: is that hyperbole or what?) for its substance.

Maybe there is a crystal meth problem, or maybe it's being overblown. But if I'm going to worry about the livelihood of North Koreans, I'm going to worry about their prison camps and starving rural villages first. You see, what concerns me most about this kind of story is how it typifies the way American media seize any potentially sensational headline related to North Korea and use it to fuel our own nation's xenophobia. It's always, "North Korea is going to bomb us!" "North Korea has spies everywhere!" "North Korea might have crashed the Asiana flight maybe possibly!" "North Korea is batshit crazy!" And now, "North Korea is drowning in crystal meth!"

North Korea is no longer a mysterious country. Though the public hardly knows anything more about it than it did years ago, it has come onto the international scene in an interesting way: it is now a half-feared, half-mocked blot on a map from which only bad news emanates. On the news, we never hear anything about its people. We are rarely encouraged to send aid or to help its purportedly starving millions, but North Korea is completely vilified. The journalism I see today seems only to aggravate this problem, because bad news sells.

We Americans are being fed only what we want to hear, and that, if anything, sounds like an addiction problem.

Letters from Pyongyang

Lastly, here is the website of a documentary by a Canadian-Korean filmmaker named Justin Lee who recorded the journey of his family as they tried to reunite with relatives in North Korea. Their trip played out like any other organized and monitored tour to the country, only they actually were able to interact with their North Korean family members (at least on a superficial level).

The trailer was full of pretty shots and boasted many film awards, but I couldn't find the actual film. In fact, I only happened across it from reading a review of it on 8Asians. The reviewer had an interesting take, calling it well-made but lacking depth, due partly to a dearth of original footage and partly to the absence of any real answers to the questions it poses. Perhaps another casualty of North Korea's information blockade -- not letting any secret information out -- and the Western media's entertainment filter -- not letting any relevant information in.

If I get a chance to watch it in the future, I will.

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