North Korea today constitutes one of the most isolated countries in the world. Precious little information is known about the regime; people do not come in, people do not come out. Until recently, there was only one known photo of Kim Jong-un, the purported successor to Kim Jong-il – and even today the most recent photo of the man is decades old.
North Korea is also supposedly a living hellhole. To live in North Korea is to reside in one of the poorest countries in the world. North Koreans are raised to believe that Kim Jong-il is literally a God. They live in perpetual fear of the secret police. Millions are starving from the failed economic policies of the authoritarian government.
Wait a second – if North Korea is such a mystery, how do we know all this?
The answer is that we read this in American newspapers. There is reason, however, to carry a bit of skepticism when reading the newspaper accounts of North Korea. Think about it. Most North Korean reporters have probably never set foot in the country itself, let alone talked with an actual North Korean. They file their stories from Seoul. For research, they speak for North Korean “experts” who likewise have never been in the country. If lucky, they might meet with a few exiles – but the very nature of an exile may lead to distorted information, as the United States unfortunately found out with Iraqi exiles. One enterprising journalist from the Economist literally went to the North Korean-Chinese border and spent several hours waving at North Korean farmers (who did not wave back), before writing a 2,900-word special report on the country in Seoul.
So reporters turn to previous stories about North Korea, written by similarly clueless journalists. These accounts contain the same narrative that most of the media uses when referring to North Korea: a brainwashed populace, a ruthless and authoritarian regime, an economy in chaos, famine and deprivation. And this is what ends up on said reporter’s brand-new story – and thus on the newspapers Americans read and televisions Americans watch.
All this is not to defend North Korea, but rather to say that much of the news reported about it may not be fully sound. Hard evidence does exist of North Korean poverty; satellite pictures, for instance, indicate that much of the countryside lacks electricity (although before the Soviet Union fell and its subsidies ended, this was not the case – a fact few people know). Reports of the public shaming dealt to North Korea’s World Cup team probably constitute the truth. So does analysis of the failed currency reform this winter, which ended with a government apology (!) and the execution of a scapegoated official.
But when you read yet another newspaper account of abhorrent conditions in North Korea, check out where the story was filed from. Chances are that it comes from Seoul. Take the reporting, therefore, with a grain of salt.