Narratives of Ignorance: How We Fail To See North Korea

Ridiculous headlines about North Korea

In 2014 Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen wrapped filming of The Interview, an action comedy in which a fictional documentary team that is scheduled to make a trip to North Korea is "ordered to" assassinate the real-world president, Kim Jong-eun. The reaction by North Korean media was swift and predictable. The Interview was denounced as "an act of war", and North Korea — this may very well have been music to its producers' ears — demanded that it not be released.

This movie's fame further exploded when the computer networks of Sony Studios were broken into, data stolen and displayed, or, in jargon of experts, combusted. What followed (and what continues at this writing) was a news story that was part geo-political gamesmanship, part Keystone Kops, and part exercise in stereotyping, as mass media latched onto the news story and began generating a considerable amount of speculative journalism that was based on intuition-based opinion. As the news story evolved, and skepticism was raised about whether the evidence conclusively showed that North Korea committed this crime behind the mask of a secret organization called the Guardians of Peace, there were other news stories claiming that the evidence was sufficient not on the basis of rules of evidence but on the basis of common sense.

For example, the actor George Clooney received considerable press when he was interviewed on the subject. He stated categorically that North Korea was behind the hack, and used a Socratic method for deducing this:

A good portion of the press abdicated its real duty. They played the fiddle while Rome burned. There was a real story going on. With just a little bit of work, you could have found out that it wasn’t just probably North Korea; it was North Korea. The Guardians of Peace is a phrase that Nixon used when he visited China. When asked why he was helping South Korea, he said it was because we are the Guardians of Peace.

Clooney, as it turned out, had good intuitions on this subject. However, intuition is not categorical proof, and was not the proof the Obama administration ultimately offered. Similarly, in the Jan. 5, 2015 edition of Variety, Andrew Wallenstein wrote a piece entitled “Skeptical About North Korea’s Role in Sony Hack? Don’t Be”, in which he argued that while the Obama administration was not at the time of his writing making public conclusive evidence of a link between the hack and North Korea, its extra-evidentiary reasons for not exaggerating were so powerful that Wallenstein felt strongly that the case should be considered solved.

After acknowledging that even the experts “don't have all the facts”, Wallenstein writes:

But there’s an even simpler reason I am willing to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt that North Korea is the culprit.

Consider the Administration surely understands that given the U.S. was essentially hoodwinked by the Bush Administration into believing there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there would be some understandable cynicism about retaliations of that type in the future, even of the counter-cyberterrorism variety.

So it stands to reason that it would be an act of monumental stupidity capable of singlehandedly destroying Obama’s legacy if he was to recklessly rush to crucify North Korea without being damn sure the rogue nation was actually responsible, lest it somehow come to light by other means that he was wrong all along.

In fact, Wallenstein's instinct proved sound insofar as the Obama administration did have solid evidence -- which it revealed after Wallenstein wrote his piece. But Wallenstein was not willing to wait for this evidence to be produced, again instead resorting to a Socratic style of argument. One can, of course, support Socratic styles of argument, especially given twenty-twenty hindsight. But a little patience might have been called for; by January 18, 2015, David E. Sanger and Martin Fackler of the New York Times were reporting that:

The trail that led American officials to blame North Korea for the destructive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in November winds back to 2010, when the National Security Agency scrambled to break into the computer systems of a country considered one of the most impenetrable targets on earth.

And so it was that the Obama administration was put in the awkward position of having to reveal its intelligence success in order to provide evidence that its claims about North Korean involvement were justifiable. This is understandable. However, just as understandable is the desire of the public to be presented with that evidence, especially in cases where war might result from overly emotional response. And given the stakes where a region like the Korean peninsula is concerned, remaining skeptical in the face of the initial theories of who was behind the Sony hack -- which, recall, included other plausible culprits, such as disgruntled ex-employees or high-level pranksters -- meant that insisting real evidence be produced was not only a prudent idea but a necessary one. Frustrating as the North Korean regime might be, there is no rush. Carefully producing reasoned arguments and evidence, such as the United Nations did when it cataloged human rights abuses in the North, makes more sense than using bogey-man style rhetoric.

The point here is not to defend North Korean foreign policy -- one of the most aggressive on the planet -- but to point out the degree to which commentators feel free to project onto it in an emotional manner. In the case of North Korea, the country is so much a form of political/cultural “other” that standard rules of the gathering of evidence apparently do not apply. Really, where professional journalism is concerned, certain standards of fact-checking and evidence gathering would, one would think, be adhered to. With North Korea, that is not the case; one finds the phenomenon, instead, of gossip journalism … a depressing circumstance if one's goal is deeper understanding of a phenomenon, and not just a merry-go-round of “feelings”.

Crisis Overkill

In the spring of 2013, the United States and South Korea began a month-long exercise in joint military drills that the two allies conduct every year. This year, however, the North responded with a series of threatening statements that escalated in their aggressiveness until the North was making not-very-thinly-veiled threats of nuclear war against both the U.S. And South Korea. As the war of words became more intense, news coverage of the episode (actually, a series of episodes) also increased in ferocity and alarm, until news articles and broadcasts (particularly Western) discussing the possibility of war/nuclear war became a staple of daily coverage (CNN). These broadcasts were inflammatory enough that they caused significant worry among the usually sanguine South Korean population – including the many expats who live and work in Korea.

However, the news casts also had a different quality, which is that a lot of them … were not news. In discussing North Korean threats (usually delivered via North Korean government press releases and/or television) , the English-language news coverage speculated heavily on the psychology of the new northern leader, and the psychology of North Korea as a whole. This led to a series of news pieces that were essentially anecdotal in nature. They were not news. They were a different form of discourse masquerading as news. This is not to say there were not sound news articles as well; rather, it is to point out that North Korea is one of those societies that is so isolated, so “mysterious” to Western media, that it provides a blank screen onto which anxieties and stereotypes can easily be projected. At the same time, more balanced news coverage did not act effectively to counterbalance the emotion-driven, quasi-hysterical news coverage, because, of course, other outlets' news is not news itself: the job of a reporter is to report on events, not other reporters. This dynamic created a form of “understanding vacuum” in which it seemed that the stereotyping of North Koreans became permissible because there was little discourse that succeeded in treating them, including their leadership, as three-dimensional human beings.

What discourse can treat the citizens of another – and feared – nation as three-dimensional? Of course, there is a school of liberal journalism that attempts to do just that. But its “lifestyle” stories on “regular people” have the unfortunate side-effect of only shifting the stereotyping of the Political Other; we are told that, for example, only a small percentage of North Koreans are evil. But the people at the top are evil. Therefore, war – de facto war, with all its huge numbers of civilian casualties as a tragic but unavoidable side-effect – becomes a viable option within the discourse that dominates the newspapers and channels during a time of crisis. As Noam Chomsky has observed, the role of media in times like this is to “manufacture consent”.

The political crisis that unfolded through March and April 2013 was, apart from the geopolitical tension it generated, another extraordinary example of journalistic overkill. One alarmist news story after another helped fan the flames of a global anxiety that put significant downward pressure on the Korean currency and trigger (once again) of flights of foreign investment capital. (These economic side effects of the crisis were predictable and though one is tempted to ask whether or not they were unspoken goals of the North’s foreign policy tactics, that remains a question for another article.) In Seoul, where I live, the level of anxiety became so intense that several non-Korean colleagues wondered out loud whether one should stock up on water or buy emergency flight tickets back home. On a supra-anecdotal level, the economic repercussions of the crisis mentioned above are relatively easy to document.

While most of the journalistic coverage was of a putatively professional sort (quotes from histrionic North Korean governmental threats, endless interviews with experts, almost none of whom were themselves North Korean, amounting to a discarding of the principle of balance), some of it was risible in its open indulgence of prejudice. What one found, in its unadulterated form, was yellow journalism, torn, its spleen still throbbing with life, from the 19th century.

In some cases, North Korea was held up to ridicule. For example, one story on April 11, 2013 from the New York Post with the provocative title “North Korea's high-heeled female soldiers go on patrol as tensions rise”, showed a large photograph of North Korean female soldiers in thick-heeled high heels, and then proceeded with a news story that … made no reference to the photo.

Matt Gurney, writing in the National Post, one of the largest newspapers in Canada, wrote a piece entitled “Happiness is raining missiles on your American enemies from space” on February 6, 2013, focusing on a propaganda video produced by the North that was posted online. Gurney began his piece: “As dangerous as North Korea is, and it’s plenty dangerous, and as brutal as it is to its own people, and it’s plenty brutal, it also has to be the most amusingly bizarre nation on Earth.”

Other examples would hint darkly at special knowledge of the country without substantiating it to a credible degree; Bob Schieffer, a journalist for CBS, wrote an article that appeared online on April 7, 2013 with the (again provocative) title: “Why Kim Jong Un scares even Fidel Castro” Schieffer wrote:

You know things have taken a dangerous turn when Fidel Castro joins the United States in calling on North Korea to tone down its rhetoric about the threat of nuclear war.But that's what Castro did. At such times you have to wonder if there isn't someone within the North Korean government who is trusted enough to warn the impetuous young leader Kim Jong Un that he may be on the wrong path. Well, a story making the rounds in intelligence circles helps us understand why, if there is such a person, he or she might be reluctant to offer Kim advice on anything.

Well, a story making the rounds in intelligence circles helps us understand why, if there is such a person, he or she might be reluctant to offer Kim advice on anything. According to this report, there were seven military generals who served as honorary pallbearers at the funeral of Kim's father. Four have disappeared without explanation, vanished. No one knows where they are. The fifth apparently offended Kim in some way, and was marched before a group of contemporaries, strapped into a suicide vest packed with explosives, and simply blown up before their eyes.

What is striking is the degree to which Schieffer uses a chatty tone and qualifies most of his evidence with anecdotal turns of phrase like “a story”, “if there is such a person”, “apparently”, “no one knows”.

Once more, Scheiffer's article, when viewed in hindsight, has a point: in a recent article by Sam Kim published on January 13, 2016 in Bloomberg, Kim provides tangible evidence of the ways in which Kim Jong-un rules by terror, citing, for example, a photo of the North Korean general Hwang Pyong So "kneeling and covering his mouth" in from of Kim Jung Un. Similarly, the Sam Kim article lists several high level advisers to Kim Jung Un who have died of alleged accidents or illnesses, but whose elimination shows a pattern.

The point here is that Sam Kim is using verifiable evidence available to average readers. Emotionalism is not required in order to convey the instability of Kim Jung Un's governance. Schieffer's article, on the other hand, has the tone one finds on, say, a blog. But it not only seems out of keeping with what one expects from a serious news organization, it also sets a tone that is adopted by other journalists. Patrick Howley, writing in the Daily Caller, wrote on April 10, 2013:

Generation Y, the most special and self-important generation of all time, will push their parents’ values to dangerous new extremes, whether those values involve the role of progressivism in America or the forceful unification of the Korean mainland.

Secretary of State John Kerry must tread carefully in his dealings with Kim Jong-eun. North Korea’s Reagan-baby savior didn’t become a trending topic and a friend to Dennis Rodman overnight. Kim’s ego must be carefully massaged. This is no mere third-world rogue leader we’re dealing with here. No. Much to the contrary, this guy is the man. And he’s aiming to make Daddy proud.

All of this would be fine … over a beer. As newsworthy analysis, it is sorely lacking.

The issue here is twofold: first, that in incendiary political situations with a mega-mystified, putatively demonic Other, the hysterias of emotion-driven journalism create a narrative gestalt that has real-world consequences. Call this form of journalism an Ignorance Narrative. The second issue is that these Ignorance Narratives succeed to no small degree because there are no countervailing narratives to stop their movement. More like a brute, inertial force than an intellectual entity, journalism of the Ignorance Narrative sort has social effects because, as in the laws of Newtonian physics, there is nothing there to stop it. The self-styled Journalism of Reasonableness does not have this effect. Its mass is too small, too feeble.

Hermit Kingdom

In North American popular discourse, the assumption that North Korea is a threat is built upon the notion that North Korea is a “hermit kingdom”, has leadership that can be personified in the body of one individual (the ruling member of the Kim family), and is “Stalinist”. North Korea, furthermore, is repeatedly portrayed as fanatical to the point of being suicidal: news stories speculating that North Korea, if it achieves the ability to build nuclear-armed missiles, would preemptively fire those missiles and that the only “defence” America has is missile defence systems have recently gained currency.

In the remote Alaska wilderness, some 3,800 miles from Pyongyang, North Korea, the United States' last line of defense against a nuclear warhead from North Korea or Iran stands ready to attack.”


The U.S. military, however, confident that Greely is poised to swat away any missile threat.

"Basically central Alaska was an ideal spot because of the geometry you'd have to conduct a hit-to-kill intercept from a country like Iran or North Korea," said Ralph Scott, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency in Alaska.

"Alaska is like the top of the world, and the only way you can view it as a missile defense benefit would be to look at a globe. You can see the routes the missiles from North Korea and Iran would take to get to the U.S. Having the system there in central Alaska would give you that geometry," Scott said.

Nuclear deterrence theory is a grisly business, and its concepts have been traded in policy circles for several years now. But it worked, so to speak, on the basis of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), and found a discourse that was politically palatable enough to eventually marginalize a serious peace movement in the West.

In the case of North Korea attacking the United States, the precepts of Mutually Assured Destruction would be moved back a massive notch: it would be the North that would be destroyed (as well as much of South Korea and Japan) … not the United States, which, terrible as the cost would be, would only lose, in this scenario, one or two cities. The leadership of the North presumably is sane enough to grasp at least this. Missile defence (which has a current effectiveness, according to optimistic estimates, of 50%) is not necessary in such a scenario. Bluntly put, missile defense would only serve as a first line of defense – in order to protect all American cities, as well as any Canadian ones an errant North Korean missile might fall upon – with the USAF's counterforce acting as a punishment for North Korean aggression. The logic of the nuclear deterrence that came into being in the 1950s and 1960s would still hold … and be even more pressing than it would be in a scenario in which two advanced nuclear weapons states have an interchange.

But the missile defense news articles are written in all sincerity, as if traditional nuclear deterrence is a non-issue. These sorts of news articles, then, are founded in emotion, not research or expert understanding of the issue at hand. What is the source of this emotion? It is to a significant degree a result of ignorance of North Koreans as people. Generally speaking, reduced to two dimension in news articles that portray them as performing one of two actions (goose-stepping or starving), they exist almost solely as screens upon which an average American news reader can project the emotions of fear and a deep-yet-disgusted pity. American discourse has trouble seeing North Koreans as living, breathing people because its mind is already made up (the North is already “rogue”). South Korean discourse has trouble doing so because literature by North Koreans is not available there.

Alternatively, North Koreans can be held up as examples of eccentricity (tinged with ridicule), as in the news story cited earlier that featured a photo of female North Korean border guards wearing high heels. As previously stated, in this particular news story, the photo – essential to the headline – was not even contextualized. It was presented as a form of journalistic window-dressing; the focus of the story was entirely on a possible missile test by the North. No connection was drawn between the photograph of the female soldiers and the missile test. The underlying message of the photo was that the North, as a political entity, is not psychologically balanced – ergo, a missile test (which many nations have) is freighted more disturbing weight than it already has. (Recall Herman Kahn's concept of nuclear war as all-destructive; the fact that North Korea has a particularly brutal regime does not allay the fact that fear of it is not objective: all nuclear-armed states should be feared.)

What is of greatest importance is the necessity of escaping two-dimensional depictions of the North. But while news coverage can of course be balanced (or partaking of both cliché and insight, as in Philip Gourevitch's long article, “Alone in the Dark”) , and while of course the appalling human rights abuses that take place in the North and which can be verified via eyewitness accounts require documentation, the discourse of news systematically falls short of moving North Koreans into a sphere of understanding in which they gain three dimensions.

Literature: An Antidote to Ignorance?

What can stop the dangerous velocity of Ignorance Narratives? Part of the answer, I hold, is in the narratives of fiction. The war-mongering journalism of the 21st century (and we have been living with this phenomenon since the least September 11 – though arguably, in its current incarnation, since Gulf War “One” in 1991) has at least this positive potential: to revive the idea of fictional narrative as a social benefit. And fictional narrative need not gain this benefit by being directly “political” itself; it can do so partly via means of metaphor and the honest depiction of emotion. This paper will not argue for a “reversal of values”; it will acknowledge that fictional narrative’s place within contemporary, new media-driven political discourse is not strong and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

This article on Pacifism for the 21st Century is the first of two parts; in the second, we will begin to explore works of literature emerging from North Korea as an experiment in understanding. We are looking for an “improvement of degrees”, and a reevaluation of contemporary society’s presumption that fictional narrative must remain marginal.

The balance of power in our world's current crisis over North Korea can be shifted. This is not only possible but necessary – viewed in a general sense, the present state of journalism is so dismal, so caught within the trap of its own biases and paucity of insight, that this journalism has itself become a danger. Fictional narrative of certain sorts, then, can be seen as an antidote ... an essential antidote.

Coming Next: A Literary Glance at North Korea ...

Finn Harvor is a writer, artist, filmmaker and academic. He lives with his wife in South Korea, and has published work — both literary and academic — in The Puritan, Eclectica, The Brooklyn Rail, Dark Sky, The HUFS International Journal of Foreign Studies, Canadian Notes and Queries, and elsewhere. He has written on William Blake, Thomas De Quincey, Yoon Heung-gil, and Richard Kim and graphic fiction, and presented papers to conferences in Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Oxford and Jember, Indonesia and Berlin. He is currently at work on a 22-volume mega-project entitled Plastic Millennium that includes novels, poetry, art, and film-making.