Opinion

Jack Shafer

The enduring cliches of North Korea coverage

Jack Shafer
Apr 2, 2013 21:30 UTC

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.

The fractured brilliance of Alexander Cockburn

Jack Shafer
Jul 24, 2012 00:07 UTC

“He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club,” Richard Wright wrote of H.L. Mencken in Black Boy, his autobiography. “Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were.”

Thoughts like these visited me when I first read Alexander Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice in the early 1970s. Like Mencken, Cockburn excelled at offense – both playing it and giving it. Long before the acid reporting and splenetic commentary of Spy magazine, decades before the predictable venom of blogs, Cockburn had mastered the art of vituperation. Dipping his pen into the sewer of news, he savaged all comers. He went after Nelson Rockefeller after his “coronation” as vice-president, he attacked Commentary Editor Norman “The Frother” Podhoretz whenever the mood moved him (which was often), and returned again and again to the villains he kept in his pillory: New Republic owner Martin Peretz, New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, or the owner of the Village Voice, and others.

When the targets shot back – Podhoretz famously described Cockburn’s pieces as setting “a new standard of gutter journalism in this country” – he loved nothing better than to hammer the trash talk into a medal and wear it proudly. He recycled Podhoretz’s line endlessly in his column, and printed it as a dust jacket blurb for his collection Corruptions of Empires: Life Studies & the Reagan Era.

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