North Korea: Why does Western media paint a distorted picture?

As North Korea dips in and out of the media’s spotlight, breaking stories such as the nuclear war threat of 2013 and the execution of leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, the country is forever at the scrutiny of the Western public. I find myself asking what else has happened in North Korea. Who are its people and how do they live? Are they in poverty? Where are the labour camps and what do they entail? These are the kind of questions I expect journalists to answer, but instead, when watching documentaries on the subject, I find myself perplexed as to how little these reporters reveal, especially when they have fought so much red tape to gain entry to country.

In her book, Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick depicts an emotional account of six North Korean citizens as they go about their everyday life. It plunges far beyond the depth of Western reporters who only tell part of, and at times exaggerate, the nation’s story.

For two years (2011-2013) I lived and worked in South Korea. While I don’t claim to have a profound knowledge on either parts of the peninsula, I do, to an extent, understand the views and beliefs the South and have noted that they parallel those held in the North, something reporters fail to highlight in their stories.

Last Monday, BBC1 aired Chris Roger’s documentary, Educating North Korea. Although it was interesting to watch, it didn’t bring any new evidence to the puzzle of the DPRK. The programme demonstrated how Pyongyang University aims to open the minds of its students with a mocking tone and many a misinterpretation.

During Roger’s visit to Pyongyang, he and his colleagues were invited to a church service. As the ceremony was closing, he tried to speak with a group of women, who, from an objective view, appeared timid and unwilling to talk. But when you take into account that the women may not have been comfortable speaking in front of a camera, especially with a stranger, in a language that wasn’t their first, it doesn’t seem all that strange. Koreans are simply very shy people. When my South Korean co-workers first met me they acted similarly to the women in the church. Their meekness is due to their nature, not the regime of the government.

One particular scene that undoubtedly roused emotion from the viewer was one in which where Rogers captured a young boy, probably not much older than 18, stating it was his duty to work for his country. Sounding Orwellian and morbid, many would express sympathy toward the teenager who felt obligated to serve his country, when actually, there’s a similar view south-of-the-border. Citizens in the Republic of Korea, particularly the older generation, feel their purpose is to serve their nation. It stems from traditional Korean culture and isn’t just a consensus in the North. The difference in the North is that it’s illegal to openly disagree with it.

By not portraying the counter-types between the two Koreas the creators of the programme have have failed with their journalism on two accounts. First, the way in which this story was told manipulated the audience’s impression of the country in order to produce, perhaps what they felt was a story that would get more views. And secondly, if the similarities weren’t shown because the creators weren’t aware of them, then they haven’t investigated the story efficiently.

The point of investigative journalism, or any journalism, is seek the truth and tell it without causing offence to those involved in the story. Roger’s interpretation of students at Pyongyang mocked the students and citizens who were willing to be interviewed. The production team lacked an understanding of Korean culture and their sources’ behaviour. Spending a few days in a country one knows little of will not grant a full perspective on the issues that lie within it. Barbara Demick interviewed her sources for years before she wrote Nothing to Envy; fellow reporters need to follow suit in order to understand Korean culture as a whole before reporting stories on North Korea and without assumption and exaggeration. 


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