The enduring cliches of North Korea coverage

April 2, 2013

If the family of nations has ever known a more recalcitrant son than North Korea, journalists have neglected to include it in their pages. No treaty, armistice, agreement, compact, or covenant signed by North Korea can ever be considered a done deal. A North Korean signature marks only a prelude to renegotiation or default on the part of that nation. It’s the sort of country that would phone in an immense take-out order and then, as the delivery man pedaled the bags of food through the Panmunjom checkpoint, would call back to demand a volume discount, stipulate that the meals be placed on a running tab, and then cancel the order before reordering, this time insisting on going off-menu. Upon receiving the check, North Korea would likely torch it.

North Korea doesn’t change its views very often. Why should it, when it can hold two opposing points of view in its mind at the same time, campaigning simultaneously for war and peace, capitalism and communism, diplomacy and confrontation? Oscillating inside the moment has given a spiral quality to the country’s voyage since its establishment in the late 1940s. Like riding a corkscrew through history, North Korea does everything it does over and over again. When an old Kim dies, the country finds a new Kim to lead the state. It makes nuclear pacts and then breaks them. It freezes and then thaws its nuke program. It talks peaceful unification with South Korea while engaging in unprovoked military assaults on South Korea’s citizens, attempting and sometimes carrying out  assassination plots against its neighbor’s leaders, and on one occasion even detonating a bomb on a South Korean airliner.

On rare occasion, North Korea apologizes for its transgression, but it’s usually the one who is demanding the apologies. When the U.S. and South Korea stage joint-military exercises, North Korea frequently claims that renewed American aggression has forced it to assume a war-footing (1983, 1988, 1993, 2003, et al.), something it did again last week, promising the Armageddon of  “all-out war, a nuclear war” in response to the current joint exercise, Foal Eagle 2013.

All this yo-yoing by North Korea has made the correspondents covering it a tad dizzy. The beat reporters know that Pyongyang tries to make every day Groundhog Day, that the country’s meaningful oscillations never stray outside the hash marks between regime survival and southern conquest. They know that North Korea has dreamed of military overthrow of the South for decades. They understand perfectly that the world’s sole Communist hereditary dynasty (as one scholar describes it) will do anything for Western concessions of food and financial assistance or deletion from the state-sponsors-of-terror list, as long as it can later reverse those qualifying deeds.

Yet dismounting from this perpetual news wheel to provide this context proves tough for most foreign correspondents. Like sportswriters, political reporters, financial news staffers, reporters on the police beat, and other breaking-news artists, foreign correspondents must tell their story with economy and describe what has happened as opposed to why something happened. “Typical Mindbending $#*! By the North Koreans” may accurately describe the latest provocation or retreat by Pyongyang, but it’s not the way breaking news generally gets framed.

Nobody better understood the reliance of beat reporters on boilerplate language when composing against a deadline than Alexander Cockburn. In a May 1976 [More] magazine essay titled “How to Earn Your Trench Coat,” he curated the best (or the worst) of foreign correspondent clichés: Singapore is a fast growing economic center; peasants experience the timeless rhythms of the countryside; Hong Kong is a time bomb and a listening post; Germany has either exorcised the nightmare of Hitler or is displaying a new interest in Hitler; long democratic traditions have been reluctantly abandoned; a newly affluent middle class has appeared; island nations are tiny, yet strategically vital, hotly disputed by giant neighbors, lying athwart crucial waterways or threatened by volcanoes/ideal waves/nuclear fallout; and so on.

A brief survey of North Korea news clips reveals a spate of clichés unremarked upon by Cockburn. Pyongyang reliably remains defiant; talks have resumed or been proposed, canceled, or stalled, while a U.S. envoy seeks to lure the North back to those talks to restart the dialog; North Korea is bluffing, blustering, or is engaging in brinksmanship; tensions are grim, rising, or growing—but rarely reduced, probably because when tensions go down it doesn’t qualify for coverage; North Korea seeks recognition, respect, or improved or restored relations, or to rejoin the international community, or increased ties to the West that will lead to understanding; deals with North Korea are sought; North Korea feels insulted and is isolated by but threatens the West; the Japanese consider the North Koreans “untrustworthy“; the West seeks positive signs or signals or messages in North Korean conduct but worries about its intentions; diplomats seek to resolve, solve, respond to, overcome, defuse, the brewing, serious, real crisis; the escalating confrontation remains dangerous; the stakes are high, but the standoff endures.

The reliance on stock phrases indicates a lack of imagination on the part of foreign correspondents (and their editors), who if they are serving old wine they should find some new bottles from which to decant it. But it also confirms Shafer’s First Law of Journalistic Thermodynamics, which states, “Copy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form.” North Korea coverage reiterates itself in language that as pale as dead coral because, of course, the North Koreans insist on echoing themselves, even when acquiring new weapons, such as nuclear bombs and missiles. We’re in no position to ask the North Koreans to speak their minds more articulately (or honestly) but we’re within our rights to ask our favorite hacks to dump the hackneyed.


A great description of North Korea that I failed to find a place for in my column: “A model failed state,” which comes from the the same scholar I cite above, Sung-Yoon Lee. Speaking of Cockburn, his memoir, A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption, And American Culture, comes out in September. Send colossal email to or just follow my diminutive  Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.







PHOTO: The State Merited Chorus of North Korea play a performance titled “(North) Korea does what it is determined to do” for the deputies to the 7th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly of the North, at the People’s Theatre in Pyongyang April 1, 2013.  REUTERS/KCNA


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Add “bellicose rhetoric” to the long list of stock phrases.

Posted by beefsox | Report as abusive

Thanks for the tip about Cockburn’s memoir. It’s on my pre-order list.

On a related note Jack, I’m glad you sent us to the Random House website for more info about the book. But have you ever seen an uglier and less-useful marketing site about any book than what Random House is doing over there?

Sure they can claim that they have links to all the major retailers (But only Amazon and B&N are on there), but when your business is selling books and getting people interested in the books that your authors are writing, you should be able to do at least as good a job at information design and website design as a retailer like Amazon.

I’m not saying Random House needs to have all of the back-end stuff of Amazon, but it should definitely have all of the useful stuff like links to reviews, author bio, author interviews, snippets of other writings from the author, links to other writers who cover the same material, historical and other context about the book, and those are just things off the top of my head.

Random House does hardly any of that. For shame.

Cockburn should have self-published for all the good his publisher is doing for him and his book.

Posted by lauradeen | Report as abusive

Not exactly sure what this writer’s point is. First he goes through the predictable litany of North Korea’s transgressions. First listing how they do the same thing over and over, he then seems to castigate writers for using cliches. What would he have the reporters do, invent a new word to describe the same action each time it recurs?

Posted by BillyFLA | Report as abusive