In fact, a lack of information characterizes articles on North Korea. Journalists' accessibility to Pyongyang is extremely limited. Until recently, we were even not sure whether a nuclear device had been tested. Yet despite this lack of information, media worldwide are full of lengthy reports on the nuclear test. Why? It seems that the world has returned to the Cold War, when ideological labeling of the opponent guided news production.
Especially in South Korea, lack of information does not bother Korean journalists, who readily produce stories with an ideological adversary in mind. "North Nuke May Aim at China," "The Test May Have Failed," "The Regime May Collapse with Additional Test" -- these headlines on October 15 in Dong-A-Ilbo, the third-largest national daily, are representative of South Korean coverage of the North's nuclear test.
What's being left out? Primarily, the voice of the actors, Kim Jong-Il and lower level leaders. The isolation of the regime itself should be the main reason, of course. But editorial omission of these voices has also happened frequently during the nuke-test coverage. For example, the story of the Russian foreign minister who conveyed the comments of North Korea's vice foreign minister on his country's wish to return to six-party talks was posted by Yonhap, the major news agency in South Korea at 2:23PM on October 15. Most national dailies, however, didn't pick up the news. Likewise, the speech by the North Korean ambassador in the United Nations mentioning "North Korea's final goal" of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula policy was given small space at the end of an article that emphasized the ambassador's claim that any sanction may be regarded as a war action.
Mainstream media coverage on North Korea also fails to put facts in context. It is not hard to imagine the insecurity that must be felt in North Korean society, the only communist system in the continent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Various statistics show the hard situation that North Korea is facing. North Korea's economy is 1/30 the size of South Korea's. Also, a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Britain shows that South Korea spent $12.6 billion dollars in military expansion while North Korea spent only $4.7 billion dollars in 1992. The gap must be wider today.
The question of why North Korea did the test, of course, was a main topic in media worldwide. But even here, contextual information is rarely considered. Most stories in South Korea and the United States seem to be based on the concern about the disruption of NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) system, which leads to a focus on sanctions. No story conveys the context wherein North Korea is in a defensive, rather than aggressive, situation. Yet it is not hard to imagine that an isolated society with poor economy and military capacity would be concerned for its safety, especially after watching Iraq bombarded after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the overthrow of the Hussein regime by the United States in 2003.
Political scientists such as Murray Edelman have described the ways in which symbols rather than detailed facts guide the public's political decision making. "Republican," "Democrat," "Communist," etc., contain symbolic meaning to the public. The concept of Symbolic Politics provides a way to understand current media coverage of North Korea's nuclear test as well as political leaders' responses to the event.
So how can journalists better cover the North Korean nuclear issue? I think we may need a new perspective that fits the "real" post-Cold War era.
A new label or identification for North Korea may be necessary. Although North Koreans have maintained their communist system for about 50 years, they are part of a Korean nation that has never invaded other nations in its 5,000-year history. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that North Korea, without a big ally such as the former Soviet Union, would attack South Korea or Japan.
North Korea is a desperate survivor with a poor economy that can't keep up with its military demands. This implies that North Korea is no longer an aggressive intimidator that can distribute and expand its communist regime in the Far East. This is a departure from the perspective provided by the Cold War paradigm.
If we drop the ideological labels for North Korea, we journalists will have more angles to cover North Korean issues, including nuclear ones. New, richer story lines and frames would let North Korea's inner perspectives be seen by the world, something that could open up new channels for real communication.
Young Kee Ju is the editor of the Korea Daily, a Korean-language newspaper in San Francisco
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Albion Monitor October
17, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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