Covering the Koreas

How misreading a culture changes the story

Illustration: Hannah K. Lee

Korea stories are not easy to sell. But in May, since President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, had taken a macabre interest in each other, I took a gamble and flew to Seoul. Before my jet lag wore off, it was clear that it would be a newsworthy summer. Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, went to Washington to meet with Trump and lay the groundwork for a US–North Korea summit—the first of its kind—only to see Trump cancel it days later. Moon, flummoxed, took a call from Kim; then, in secret, he entered the demilitarized zone between their borders to convene in person. It was an extraordinary, rare overture. Feelings were massaged, in Pyongyang and Washington, and within a few days, the meeting was on again.

To refer to the summit as “historic” or “unprecedented” (as all of us writing about it did) was accurate but emotionally inadequate. It wasn’t just that Trump would be the first US president to meet with a North Korean head of state; it’s that the two men had, until recently, traded threats of nuclear annihilation. Last year, when Trump and Kim sparred dangerously on Twitter and North Korea fired missiles into Japanese airspace, major American news outlets set aside their skepticism of Trump and embraced belligerence toward Pyongyang. A particularly reckless Foreign Policy piece was called “It’s Time to Bomb North Korea.” 

In contrast to this American angst, South Koreans, even with their literal attachment to the North, were not overly concerned. Hostilities bred by an ongoing but cold Korean War had come in waves for nearly seven decades. (An armistice was signed in 1953.) The Kim dynasty had made its nuclear ambitions clear all along. More to the point, around the time that Trump came to power, 17 million South Koreans occupied their streets in a show of force called the Candlelight Revolution. Park Geun-hye, a corrupt, monarchical president, was impeached and, in May 2017, Moon, a mild-mannered liberal, was elected. Moon had served as chief of staff in a previous South Korean administration, and promised to resurrect a discarded “Sunshine Policy” with North Korea. Using the bonhomie of the 2018 Winter Olympics, in PyeongChang, he lured Kim into diplomacy—cooperating on artistic and athletic exchanges, agreeing to meet in person, and communicating via a long-dormant inter-Korean phone line. On April 27, 2018, after the first summit between the Koreas in 11 years, Moon and Kim issued the Panmunjom Declaration, promising “a new era of national reconciliation, peace, and prosperity.”  

It was thanks in large part to Moon that Trump could now cast himself as a peace seeker on the Korean peninsula. His new solicitousness toward Kim seemed good for everyone, in the sense of avoiding nuclear war. Yet the US media were unwilling to change course. It was shameful to engage with a “brutal dictator,” as Kevin Liptak wrote for CNN, or a “murderous tyrannical regime,” as Alex Gladstein, a human-rights advocate, asserted in Time, unless extreme concessions were obtained immediately. The catchy but unenforceable aim of “CVID” (complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization) became the demand du jour, and seeped into the South Korean nightly news. Ordinary South Koreans care more about peace than uranium counts, but to a disquieting extent, their media outlets and politicians pay close attention to what Americans say. 

On June 12, Trump and Kim arrived at the Capella, a lavish resort on the Singaporean island of Sentosa. The summit was unlikely to result in instant denuclearization, but would anything short of that undermine future diplomacy? I wondered this as I watched the event unfold, which mostly meant streaming monotonous footage of secret service agents, packs of sweaty journalists, and tropical landscaping. The two heads of state sat with their translators for a brief photo opportunity and some awkward chitchat. The good stuff all took place behind closed doors.

Finally, in the afternoon, Trump emerged for a post-summit press conference, holding forth from the stage of a large auditorium. Gathered to see him were the White House press corps and the lucky winners of a reporter lottery. (Some 3,000 journalists had come to Singapore from around the world.) Trump called mainly on those he knew, and their questions reflected American priorities. “The man you met today, Kim Jong-un, as you know, has killed family members, has starved his own people, is responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier—why are you so comfortable calling him ‘very talented’?” an NBC reporter asked, referring to the young American who died last year after being released from North Korean detention. Other questions: “Denuclearization—nuclear weapons and biological weapons and whatnot—is one problem in North Korea. Another huge problem is the horrible record that they have on human rights. Was that discussed at all?” “But what do you, President Trump, expect Kim Jong-un to do about the human rights record regarding the North Korean people?”

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Every country has its own parochial interests when it comes to North Korea. American journalists will reliably ask about denuclearization and human rights, the Japanese will ask about the dozens of its citizens abducted by Pyongyang, and South Koreans will ask about peace and reunification. “Western media is focused on the security threat and the national-security problem,” Elise Hu, until recently the Seoul bureau chief for National Public Radio, says. “For Koreans, this is about a divided country. This is about brothers and sisters on the other side.”

After the Singapore summit concluded, I tuned into a Korean radio station, which interpreted the day’s events as a meaningful start and expressed surprise at those who saw things otherwise. “At the press conference, the American journalists asked such conservative questions,” one of the hosts said. “They were so focused on human rights.” 

The joint statement signed by Kim and Trump was pithy, and thus interpreted a million different ways. What was the meaning of “complete denuclearization”? South Korean newspapers (and North Korea’s party mouthpiece, The Rodong Shinmun) were upbeat: “Beyond Cold War wall, holding out hands of peace,” The Seoul Shinmun proclaimed. “From Seven Decades of Animosity Toward Peace,” read the left-leaning Hankyoreh. It was the start of a “great journey toward peace,” according to The Kookmin Daily. 

The American press remained largely skeptical, if not hostile. Media Twitter, left and right, dismissed the summit as vapid, Trumpian showboating. The Washington Post observed that “it remained highly uncertain whether the young dictator” would “eliminate his nuclear arsenal” and that “the North’s brutal human rights abuses” weren’t discussed. The paper’s editorial board called the meeting “a victory for Kim Jong Un.” The New York Times labeled the joint statement “as skimpy as the summit meeting was extravagant.” The Wall Street Journal was more attentive to South Korean interests: the summit represented “an initial step” toward “ending more than six decades of enmity” and “enough for each side to claim an achievement.”

It’s worth noting that most American journalists on the scene weren’t those based in Seoul, or even Tokyo or Beijing. They were the White House press corps. I asked a veteran Korean journalist employed by a major American outlet what he thought of this arrangement. (He did not have permission to speak on the record.) It made sense for White House reporters to be there and even take the lead, he said. But “the thing is, in the case of North Korea, we don’t really know what North Korea is thinking, what their intentions are. And in terms of historical and cultural dimensions, the White House reporters at the center of this coverage don’t know a lot about
the situation.”

The Moon administration worries that its peace-first approach to North Korea could be undermined by the American media’s cynicism. A bilingual reporter I spoke with at Bloomberg News in Seoul sees this as a valid concern. Just before Moon was elected, as tensions mounted between Trump and Kim, she noticed that Voice of America, an outlet funded by the US government, was blasting news about North Korea nonstop. “They were doing it so much that South Korean media was picking up on this coverage,” she says. The news began to affect the polls, giving a boost to Hong Joon-pyo, an extreme right-wing ally of Park, the impeached president. “These people were just interested in feeding Donald Trump’s vision of North Korea,” it seemed to her. Margy Slattery, a senior editor at Politico Magazine who participated in a US-Korea journalists exchange last year, recalls, “One source described US coverage of North Korea as ‘surreal’ and ‘detached from reality,’ in terms of the cartoon-like way American media outlets sometimes depict Kim Jong Un and his ‘hermit kingdom.’ The source said that such coverage can be dangerous because it gives leverage to the North Koreans by making their actions seem all the more unpredictable.”

It doesn’t help that most North Korea watchers in the US, whether nuclear experts or foreign-policy wonks, show little interest in South Korea. This gap in audience—between those who can rattle off Kim Jong-un’s family tree and those engrossed by the latest scandal at Samsung—results in lopsided coverage. North Korea stories are plentiful but either grimly sensationalistic (executions, corruption, prison camps, starvation) or dryly tactical (rocket tests, nuclear inventories). South Korea stories, comparatively rare, hew to what my veteran reporter friend describes as a rerunning shortlist: “chaebol conglomerates, K-pop, kimchi, dog meat, and the aging society.” During the Olympics in PyeongChang, there was resurgent media interest in Koreans’ taste for canines. Frank Shyong, of the Los Angeles Times, critiqued this tendency from an Asian-American perspective: “I braced myself for a Western journalist to conclude that the practice of eating dogs was one of the main things American audiences should know about South Korea and, like clockwork, CNN delivered.”

This problem is not unique to the Koreas. In a world dominated by a single superpower, many countries are affected by the peculiar interests and biases of the boomeranging American news cycle. Sub-Saharan Africa is a prime victim, on account of neglect as much as stereotypical treatment: the baseline is no coverage at all, so stories in times of crisis get mangled. A reporter I know who worked in West Africa for many years cites the Ebola epidemic as a case in point. Most American media paid attention only when the virus came to their shores—that is, when a Liberian man infected with the disease flew to Dallas. Meanwhile, the stories told by the US press in West Africa failed to understand culturally rooted responses—traditional burial practices and faith healing were derided—and tended to ascribe victories to the Pentagon, rather than to local volunteers, despite the fact that medical units promised by the Americans were never built. In Liberia, the net effect of this coverage was to undermine the legitimacy of President Ellen Sirleaf. 

The ongoing “drug war” in Mexico presents another example. According to journalist Michelle García, US outlets have focused on “sexy narco culture” as victims and investigative reporters on the ground struggle to highlight government corruption and impunity. (The same has been true in Colombia.)

American accounts tend to echo the talking points of politicians and military leaders in the US, García says. Historically, this has meant that Mexican law enforcement, armed literally and rhetorically by the Americans, has been regarded as capable, while “concerns about ‘human rights abuses’—and that’s how it was often reported, as simply a paragraph about ‘concerns about human rights abuses’—were secondary.” Thus, in 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón embraced his appointed role as a “brave” leader in the drug war, bypassing accusations of voter fraud and ignoring economic unrest in the country’s south.

Trump has a habit of making everything about himself, but American journalists need not do the same. Not every story should be told from the view of Washington.

An opposite dynamic can be seen in Iran, whose leaders have long been demonized by the US press. During the hostage crisis of 1979, the saturation of American reports exaggerating Tehran’s threat to the West validated Ayatollah Khomeini’s warnings of foreign interference. “The core idea in this rhetoric is that America is the enemy seeking intervention and Iran has been able to stay independent,” Kiana Karimi, an Iranian writer and women’s rights activist, says. Recently, anxious coverage of Iran’s nuclear program—not to mention Trump’s withdrawal from the deal brokered by Barack Obama—has had much the same effect, bolstering President Hassan Rouhani’s arguments for proliferation. Ditto North Korea before the spate of summits.

During the few months since Kim and Trump met in Singapore, years of diplomatic progress and a commensurate number of editorial takes have come to pass. In mid-September, President Moon convened again with Kim—this time, in the North Korean capital, accompanied by first lady Kim Jung-sook and a large entourage of politicians and CEOs. The summit was equal parts diplomacy and tourism, culminating in a pact on economic exchange, remediation of the demilitarized zone, cross-border rail lines, a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics, and denuclearization. South Korean press accounts were enthusiastic; predictably, foreign-policy pundits and the editorial boards of The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times published articles bemoaning the lack of nuclear accountability. 

Less than two weeks later, the UN General Assembly provided an opportunity for followup statecraft and showmanship. Trump and Moon signed a revised version of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with North Korea’s foreign minister, and Trump gave a speech decrying internationalism while praising “a bold and new push for peace” on the Korean peninsula. Moon also delivered remarks and then, outside the stuffy confines of the UN, did something unorthodox for an avowed progressive: he sat for an interview with Fox News. 

With a smile, Moon explained to Bret Baier, a Fox correspondent, that peace was a precondition for denuclearization, reunification, and other vague but worthy goals on the Korean peninsula. Here, Moon realized, was a chance to shape the public narrative and speak directly to Trump and his supporters. It was a savvy political maneuver tinged with media critique. While more reputable outlets condemned Trump’s performance at the UN, Moon took the timeslot valued most by the White House.

The Koreas will likely remain in the news as Trump and Kim plan for another summit and Kim prepares to visit Moon in Seoul. Trump has a habit of making everything about himself, but American journalists need not do the same. Not every story should be told from the view of Washington, nor should the White House press corps dislodge local reporters. 

America’s obsession with Kim Jong-un has, in fact, produced an expanding pool of journalists for US outlets in South Korea—and it’s their bylines I seek out as a reader. National Public Radio opened a Seoul bureau in 2015, The Wall Street Journal has grown a team there, and the Los Angeles Times recently hired a correspondent. A significant number of these staffers are native Korean speakers or at least proficient in the language; many belong to the Asian diaspora. It’s my hope that these developments will lead to more nuanced, varied reporting on the Korean peninsula, even if North Korea stories continue to be what pays the bills. 

I, too, have benefited from the surge in demand for North Korean coverage. The  pieces I wrote over the summer were all adjacent to, if not necessarily focused on, Pyongyang. The Trumpian progression from antics to diplomacy opened a precious window of interest, and in that space—however temporary—I tried to expand what’s “relevant” to American readers.

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E. Tammy Kim is a freelance reporter and essayist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and many other publications. She coedited 2016’s Punk Ethnography.