North Korea news coverage, whether it's about a mysterious political assassination or the latest missile tests, has a way of making the threat of nuclear war sound simultaneously imminent and...cliche. If news coverage of North Korea is cyclical, then how can news consumers parse the alarmism from the genuine threats? Bob talks to David Kang, director of the Korea Studies program at the University of Southern California, about how widespread myths about North Korean politics give way to misleading news.
Then, he talks to investigative journalist Suki Kim, who reported undercover from North Korea in 2011. She says that the comedic sensationalism that fuels North Korea coverage detracts attention from the suffering of its citizens.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you heard? We’re about to be at war with North Korea.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: There has been a new act of defiance from North Korea, firing banned ballistic missiles overnight. But tonight, North Korea is making an alarming claim, that those launches were a trial run for a future strike on US military bases in Japan.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The White House calls North Korea's latest missile test a provocation and the top US defense official tonight confirmed to NBC News that a major policy review is under way to confront and contain the threat of North Korea's missiles and nuclear weapons.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: How big of a threat do you see the North Koreans right now?
WOMAN: It’s the number-one threat. It is the absolute number-one threat.
BOB GARFIELD: Miniature nukes, long-range missiles, murdered officials, poisoned half-brothers, bellicose threats of US annihilation. The erratic totalitarian cornered rat of a regime is out of control and we are on the brink of catastrophe - or not. David Kang is a professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and the director of USC’s Korean Studies Institute. He says that North Korea is a horror show, all right, but a predictable one and one that lashes out mainly only when provoked.
DAVID KANG: I think the biggest crucial thing that we keep missing is that North Korea's threats are almost always couched in defensive terms. It’s not, we will attack you, out of the blue. It’s, if you attack us first, we will take you down with us. And they’re pretty consistent. They say it pretty clearly. And the media tend to overlook that first part of the commentary from North Korea.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I want to ask you about that. It seems that North Korea sees the United States, which it portrays in actual Satanic terms, as an ongoing existential threat to its existence. But are we that? Is this just a paranoiac fear on their part? Where do they get the notion that we are a threat to them?
DAVID KANG: Because we say it over and over again, and this is what we ignore. We’re in the same place that we were 20 years ago when I was in graduate school. We threaten them, they threaten us. Secretary of State Tillerson just went to South Korea and said, all options are on the table. We are openly talking about pre-emptive strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities. And we had our B-1 stealth bombers running exercises in South Korea. Now, these are the stealth bombers – you’re not supposed to be able to see them, but we show these photos where they – this is what we can do. It’s just blatant chest thumping on our part. But we either ignore the threats that we make towards North Korea or we say, well, look, we would never really do that, we’re not really a threat to North Korea. Then they say the identical thing. Then we say, oh my God, they're out to get us.
And you know what? Once we get past all the rhetoric, both sides believe each other, which is why we haven't started a war. And I'm not saying it's all fluffing, right? Deterrence rests on some pretty horrific consequences. But the fact is deterrence has worked for almost 70 years now. Deterrence is not a solution. It's just status quo. Nobody wants to live with North Korea the way they are. We all want it to change. But nobody has a really good idea how to do it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is one difference, and that is we periodically do exercises with the South Korean military and others in the region to kind of thump our chests about our capabilities. The North Koreans do actual provocative violent acts in the region. They’ll sink a Japanese ship here. They will fire a test missile into Japanese waters. They will actually do stuff that has life-and-death consequences. People died when they torpedoed a South Korean ship. So if this is kind of an ongoing battle of chest puffing, isn't their end of it more dangerous and provocative than ours?
DAVID KANG: You know, what's interesting about the ship that they torpedoed, the Cheonan, in March 2010, it was portrayed as an out-of-the-blue attack on a South Korean naval ship that killed 46 sailors, absolutely life-and-death consequences. What we forget is that four months earlier, in November 2009, a South Korean ship shot up a North Korean naval vessel, engulfing it in flames. We don’t know how many people died because they’re North Korean; we don’t care. But what the North Koreans explicitly said in November 2009 is, you will pay a dear price. Four months later they sank the Cheonan. I’m not saying it's okay, but it was not a surprise. When people said, this is the start of World War III, I said, no, it's not. It’s one for one. It’s an eye for an eye.
To explain the dynamics of confrontation does not mean I am defending North Korean actions. It is so hard to say, look, there's a cycle going on here, without appearing like you're defending North Korea. And I'm not. It's a horrific regime. My point is, though, that the dynamics of confrontation are much more complex than we view. And the Cheonan is the perfect example.
BOB GARFIELD: I must ask you about the sense of insecurity because the regime itself just seems so nutty and erratic and desperate, because their economy was long since flattened and they can only sustain themselves with foreign aid. People are starving. A lot of people are in jail. There's constant talk of dissatisfaction in the upper ranks. There’s talks of murderous purges of generals, including relatives of Kim Jong-un. Are we wrong to think that there is such chaos there that anything could happen?
DAVID KANG: Yes, absolutely. I think this is one of the biggest misperceptions about North Korea that we have, which is that it is a regime sitting on top of a seething mass of chaos and resentful people that at any moment can collapse. And I think one of the biggest reasons that American policy towards North Korea has had problems over the decades is that we cannot see it as a real country with real people and a real government. We don’t like it but there are plenty of dictators and undemocratic regimes out there that are nasty that survive. And probably [LAUGHS] one of the most enduring things about North Korea is it hasn't collapsed, and I see no indication that it’s going to collapse.
Everything you have said is sort of roughly true. They’re starving, there's famine. But you know what, the famine was far worse 20 years ago, when maybe a half a million people died. That was a real famine. It didn't collapse then. And compared to that, it's actually doing better. And I was skeptical when Kim Jong-un, the current North Korean leader, took over six years ago. He has ruled for five or six years and there is no indication he's losing power.
BOB GARFIELD: What should the news consumers do, when reading these hyperventilated stories or seeing them on cable news, to have a better frame of understanding about how seriously to take all of the scary headlines?
DAVID KANG: The one thing that I would [LAUGHS] point out to the listeners, whenever you hear something about North Korea, take it with a massive grain of salt. Discount it by 90% because most of these reports of coup attempts or of rice riots or anything almost always are from one anonymous inside source somewhere, a defector, total rumors that are made up and then repeated among the small circle of policy analysts and journalists and scholars, which we then repeat and then we go back and cite each other for having said it, so it must be true.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so if this is, in fact, a cyclical story that bubbles up and then it settles down and bubbles up again predictably a year or two later and then settles down, when will we know that it's time to really pay attention? Are we at risk of the boy who cries – Kim Jong-un?
DAVID KANG: Well, I mean, one of the first things is that there is a method to the missile launches. These things don't happen, again, in a vacuum. Every country that’s trying to develop missiles and nuclear weapons wants to test because that's how you improve them and get better. But even so, North Korea does them in a calculated fashion. And while we're in negotiations with North Korea, they never do these provocations, so partly is looking at how often they're doing the missile and nuclear tests. In many ways, it's been a very slow-motion proliferation by North Korea. We’re going onto the third decade. We’re 25 years in to the nuclear crisis. This has not been a headlong rush, the way Pakistan and India did it. The biggest sign that I think there's going to be change is going to be inside of North Korea. I think we overlook the fact that this is a country and has leaders and people with their own agency and probably we have a limited ability to affect anything that they do. To me, the real canary in the coal mine is real domestic turmoil of some type, and we don’t really see it yet.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you so much.
DAVID KANG: My pleasure, anytime.
BOB GARFIELD: David Kang is director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.
In the absence of information about the government and citizens of North Korea, lurid rumors fill the vacuum: North Korea executes purged officials using a flamethrower. The government forces young men to have the same haircut as its leader, Kim Jong-un, who, by the way, is addicted - to cheese. Piece by piece, they put together a bizarre cartoonish depiction of this mysterious nation.
[THE INTERVIEW CLIP]:
“PRESIDENT KIM”: If a billion people across the earth and in my own country must be burned to prove it, then my worthiness as a king will be demonstrated!
BOB GARFIELD: That’s from the notorious failed missile launch of a comedy, The Interview. But you don't need to go to Hollywood to find absurd great leader fodder.
WOMAN: Kim Jong-un, him and his bad haircut and those half eyebrows. Have you seen those? Those are awesome.
WOMAN: No, I had not noticed the eyebrows.
WOMAN: Oh, yeah.
MAN: Three-quarters, three-quarters.
WOMAN: He’s got some freaky stuff going on with the eyebrows.
WOMAN: Is it shaded [?]?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: [ ? ] the fan of Western culture, here’s the North Korean leader watching a performance by Disney characters. And who can forget his fascination with American basketball star Dennis Rodman.
SUKI KIM: What we think of as this caricature is actually 25 million human beings trapped in there.
BOB GARFIELD: Suki Kim is an investigative journalist and author. In 2011, she went undercover to report from within North Korea, eventually to publish a book about her experiences, titled, Without You, There is No Us. She says that while the US media trades in black humor where North Korea is concerned, she could find nothing about life there to laugh about.
SUKI KIM: The reality, as I began to dig into it, living in there inside the system, is worse than my worst nightmare because yes, there are political concentration camps within North Korea, but just the basic human right of being alive and moving about and thinking, none of that is allowed within North Korea. On top of it, they’re one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the most violent places, where public execution is sanctioned by the government. I think that covering that as a journalist is a huge responsibility because you are creating a public perception of the level of gravity of the entire issue.
BOB GARFIELD: So you believe that the press, in gaping at North Korea and constantly expressing astonishment at the rigidity of the regime and the plight of the people, actually gloss over the plight of the people.
SUKI KIM: Don’t get me wrong, I think there are amazing journalists working incredibly hard to get into this truth, which is impossible to get to because North Korea only issues propaganda. But when you do look at the way North Korea is covered, you will see a lot of sensational headlines, let’s say some execution or, of course, the murder of Kim Jong-nam that just happened in Kuala Lumpur Airport.
BOB GARFIELD: Smeared with poison in a Malaysian airport by Vietnamese agents of Kim Jong-un, with the cameras rolling, for what reason, it's hard to know because he was a half-brother long since in self-imposed exile. How did we cover that story wrong?
SUKI KIM: The real seriousness of that news was really not about these details on those two hired killers.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: One seen in surveillance images with an LOL shirt, the other an Indonesian woman. Her family claims she thought she was part of a candid camera TV show.
SUKI KIM: I couldn’t believe that respectable media spent any energy recycling that information of the t-shirt design of one of the hired killers, when the reality really was, number one, the choice of weapon, which was this VX agent which they call one of the most toxic chemical weapons known to mankind and second, of course, his murder was not really necessary because Kim Jong-nam was exiled since 2003, at least, so it was not a rival particularly for the current Great Leader to order execution, so then why? What is going on within North Korea? The timing of the entire murder because, obviously, the surrounding countries, South Korea going through an impeachment of a president, the United States with a new president, with this unknown policy towards North Korea, what is going on with China currently – all these issue are really important ones to ask.
BOB GARFIELD: What is it about this regime that our failure of imagination forces us to snicker, instead of to be appalled?
SUKI KIM: No one can go run about North Korea and investigate to really understand what's going on. You know, it’s almost like celebrity reporting where you might write about Angelina Jolie's hairstyle for an entire page. Literally, there would be articles about the Great Leader’s haircut over and over and over. When he had his uncle killed in 2013, there were articles about how he fed his body to dogs. You don't look at them as human beings, so that their suffering becomes funny.
I do think also North Korean regime is very good at manipulating that. That’s kind of what they want, to distract from the real news. The year I was living in North Korea, all North Korean universities were shut by force and all the university students were taken out of the university for a year and put into construction field, except this one university where I ended up teaching undercover to write the book. There was like these 270 young men in a really fancy school funded by foreign money and, you know, the media was invited in to cover the school as a propaganda tool. BBC went in there.
BOB GARFIELD: It was a Potemkin village.
SUKI KIM: Yeah, they did this coverage of this really fancy school with healthy-looking kids, but the reality was all university kids were in construction field doing manual labor. So now you’ve done reporting that is really actually a press kit.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s another example you cite about the press being just totally played by the regime, 2008, New York Philharmonic.
SUKI KIM: I went in for Harper's Magazine to cover New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang, and about a hundred journalists were officially invite in. And that event was generally covered as a musical diplomacy, how New York Philharmonic’s music moved North Koreans to tears. You know, I'm sorry, that just was not true. North Koreans would not be crying at Gershwin’s music. That is not their culture.
There was some American fantasy. You know, Pyongyang was beautiful that day. All the lights were up. It’s a country that has virtually no electricity among its citizens. You know, the problem between North Korea and also South Korea and the United States and the nuclear issues or their torture of their own citizens, it's not a problem that can be fixed with a concert.
BOB GARFIELD: There is very little access to North Korea. You certainly have no reason to believe anything from the official line. The propaganda comes at you relentlessly. Everyone is afraid to speak to the Western press, assuming they ever have access to the Western press. How in the world are we supposed to do it right?
SUKI KIM: One thing that I have learned is when the core is so rotten, everything around it will also be rotten. It’s like, you know, investigating mafia. Everyone you talk to are also going to be a bit of thugs. And I think that that’s sort of true with North Korea but I think through time, when you talk to enough people and you start comparing numbers or what they have said, you start getting a bit clearer picture of how that society functions. So it just takes more work because you just have to sift through all this extra stuff, a lot of which will be lies. But isn’t that what investigative journalism is?
BOB GARFIELD: Suki, thank you.
SUKI KIM: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Suki Kim is an investigative reporter whose book on North Korea is titled, Without You, There is No Us.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Coming up, the Secretary of State leaves the annoying diplomatic press corps at home and instantly pays a price. This is On the Media.