Headlines about North and South Koreans reuniting at Mount Kumgang resort last week evoke a different feeling than those of last August, when two South Korean soldiers were permanently maimed when a landmine detonated in the DMZ and a subsequent exchange of open fire ensued. These manic fluctuations in North Korea’s image, however, are business as usual — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), led by infamous western-educated Kim Jong-un, is known as a loose cannon in terms of international PR.
So, among all of this, how should the American media deal with North Korea?
Stopping the sensationalism as well as shifting focus away from tabloid-like retellings of Kim Jong-un’s every trivial move and inflammatory fib would be a good start. The American media seems to take jocular leaps between North Korea as a serious nuclear weapons heavyweight and as a financially-collapsing nation led by a Korean Eric Cartman from “South Park.” Sometimes, North Korea is treated as a country whose doom is only a matter of time; other times, it is treated as the sole factor of a crossover into World War III.
Headlines about the opening of coastal Sijung’s surf resort in North Korea as well as Kim Jong-un’s claim to cure a series of illnesses like AIDS, MERS and SARS were unnecessarily bountiful. In January 2015, TIME Magazine Journalist Denver Nicks wrote that “serious talks” with South Korea that had an “important, conciliatory message” were “overshadowed … by the leader’s shrunken eyebrows.” The piece’s headline, not pretending to be a serious attempt of international news coverage, was “Kim Jong Un’s Magical Disappearing Eyebrows.”
We love to laugh at Kim Jong-un like we loved to laugh at Adolf Hitler through cartoons and comic strips, but somehow almost completely lost in Kim’s narrative is the suffering of the millions of people under his rule. Even more astray is the reality that he is an intelligent, calculative politician able to oppress millions of people and, at least for now, able to keep afloat in a capitalizing grey market and in face of natural disasters. “The Interview” didn’t help to refute the common Kim caricature, not that there was any sort of expectation to from the likes of James Franco and Seth Rogen, but the film’s general racist caricature of Koreans did provide a subtext to why we may not take Kim so seriously.
Yeonmi Park, a prominent North Korean escapee advocating for awareness and human rights, has vocalized this same observation in several interviews. In a talk at the Women in the World event in London, she said, “Please don’t see Kim Jong-un as a joke. He is killing millions of people.”
Similarly, author and journalist Suki Kim, who posed as a Christian missionary English teacher and infiltrated a North Korean school for elite young men in 2011, condemns the notion of North Korea as funny.
“What frustrates me is that the country is often portrayed in this very shallow light,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald. “It is the world’s most brutal nation. It’s not some kind of joke. It is shocking to me that people make light of it.”
To be fair to journalists in the current American media landscape, North Korea’s closed doors make it difficult to report accurately, and the lack of resources on North Korean research in the West provide little for expert sources. However, reporters make a conscious choice in setting the image and the agenda of how the public sees a nation each time they report on it, and the choice to cartoonize a political figure guilty of some of the worst human rights tragedies of the present is a bad one.
Kelly Kasulis, firstname.lastname@example.org