Scarcely had the dust settled at the site of North Korea's supposed nuclear test before the finger-pointing began in Washington this week. Former East Asia correspondent Dan Sneider has been following the political fallout in the nation's dailies. He tells Bob we'd all be better off if the American press focused less on our own blame-game and more on how people in the region are reacting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
WOLF BLITZER: Who among U.S. administrations bears more blame for the escalating situation, the Bush Administration or the Clinton Administration?
BOB GARFIELD: If a nuclear device is detonated but there's no American to hear it, does it make a sound? It turns out it does, and it sounds a little something like this. Hillary Clinton.
HILLARY CLINTON: Some of the reason we are facing this danger is because of the failed policies of the Bush Administration.
BOB GARFIELD: John McCain.
JOHN McCAIN: I would remind Senator Clinton that the framework agreement her husband's administration negotiated was a failure.
BOB GARFIELD: And George Bush.
GEORGE BUSH: Bilateral negotiations didn't work. I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. Just didn't work.
BOB GARFIELD: Such was the fallout this week on America's airwaves as the political class locked horns not only over the best course for the future, but also over how we got to where we are now. And, with a few exceptions, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times and The Baltimore Sun among them, the media have done little to clarify the picture for people who haven't been paying close attention until now. One person who has been paying attention is Dan Sneider, a Korea expert at Stanford's Shorenstein Center, who covered East Asia for The Christian Science Monitor in the '80s. He says journalists would be more useful if they behaved less like stenographers.
DAN SNEIDER: So when John McCain says during the Clinton administration the North Koreans shut down the international inspection, withdrew from the NPT, started reprocessing their plutonium, it would be useful if someone pointed out that actually, factually, that's simply not true. The President, the other day, made the statement he's made many times: direct negotiations with North Koreans do not work. I see that reported all the time, but what's the basis for saying that? What's the evidence for that? I never see that explored.
BOB GARFIELD: There seems to be one particularly salient fact that has been utterly absent from all the reporting, and that is nuclear weapons are not -- the North Koreans have always, at least for the last 30 years, been one lanyard pull away from sending thousands of megatons of conventional missiles to destroy Seoul in a minute's time. The basic security status quo seems to not be part of the discussion.
DAN SNEIDER: No, I've seen almost no discussion of that. I mean, if you look at the Chinese media and the South Korean media, you'll see that the fear of war is very [LAUGHS] very much at the top of their minds. I mean, here's a question somewhat along the lines you raised. What's the status of U.S. forces in South Korea, for example? How prepared are we, the United States, to respond to an outbreak of war in the Korean Peninsula, given the commitments in Iraq? I haven't seen a single article discussing that. What's the sort of state of play on the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea? Over the weekend, just before the explosion of the nuclear device, there was an exchange of fire -- South Korean troops firing on North Koreans who had crossed over the DMZ. That's the first time that's happened in a long time. It got no coverage that I'm aware of. You know, always at moments like this, we sort of get very myopic. It's all about us. And not only that, it's all about our politics, and, you know, we don't seem to think about, well, what does this actually mean to not only ourselves, but how about the people right close by, South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese?
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, it would be easier for U.S. news organizations to report what was happening on the ground in South Korea if we had anybody on the ground in South Korea. But -
DAN SNEIDER: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - retrenchment, especially at the major networks, has really had an effect on how far-flung they are in terms of foreign bureaus.
DAN SNEIDER: Right. There were only two major American newspapers that I know of that had bureaus in Seoul. One was The Wall Street Journal and the other, The Los Angeles Times. And [LAUGHS] The L.A. Times just closed their bureau, so now it's down to one.
BOB GARFIELD: If the networks and the major newspapers were heavily invested in the Pacific Rim, what stories would we be seeing now that we simply aren't seeing at all?
DAN SNEIDER: I think what you would see much more of is how is this rippling out into these populations of people that sit right next door to North Korea? I still haven't seen a good story, for example, on what this has meant to South Korean public opinion. I go and read the South Korean media, and this has triggered a huge debate, a rip-roaring debate in South Korea. There's a lot of coverage that says, oh, China, how China responds is pretty crucial. Now, are the Chinese going to crack down on the North Koreans? Are they not? What are they doing at the U.N.? You get that, but again, not a whole lot of sense of how does this ripple out in China? It's pretty important for us to understand, you know, how these governments are going to react based upon the pressures that are on them from their own people.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there the same kind of finger-pointing going on in South Korea and being played out in the South Korean media as we're seeing here?
DAN SNEIDER: Yes. They're having their own blame game going on, and it's a pretty vicious one, I might say. Is it the Americans? Is it the party in power, the conservative oppositions going after the ruling party? The parliament's been in a big debate. But, you know, unlike our administration, the current administration in Korea, their first reaction was, you know, my gosh, we've been pursuing this policy of engagement with North Korea, the so-called "Sunshine Policy," for 10 years, over two South Korean administrations. Clearly, it's failed, and the South Korean president basically said that this engagement policy has failed. So now they're trying to figure out, well, what do you do? I mean, do you abandon engagement or is there another way to pursue it? I see more reflection on [LAUGHS] failure in Korea and China than I do in Washington.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Daniel. Thank you very much.
DAN SNEIDER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Daniel Sneider is associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]