May 9, 2018

What Do U.S. Pundits Know About North Korea That Most South Koreans Don’t?

Recent developments between North and South Korea have been met with widespread optimism and praise from the latter's public. Judging by U.S. media coverage, one would hardly know this.
Ahn Young-joon / AP
Nation: Historic Korean Summit Sets the Table for Peace--and US Pundits React With Horror
“The pundits who shape the US media’s coverage of North Korea were spinning the summit, and Kim’s outreach in particular, as a dangerous, even ominous, event” (The Nation,  5/2/18).

According to a recent poll, 88 percent of the South Korean public viewed the recent peace summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as a success. In addition, 65 percent of South Koreans trust Kim Jong-un on his pledge to denuclearize, and Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have shot up to 86 percent. Broadly speaking, recent developments between North and South Korea have been met with widespread optimism and praise from the South Korean public.

Reading US media, one would hardly know any of this. As journalist Tim Shorrock noted last week in The Nation (5/2/18), the response in US media was the polar opposite to how these peace efforts are being received in South Korea. US pundits met the summit with faux-savvy skepticism, a combination of “nothing to see here” cynicism and suspicions that Trump was getting “played.” As Shorrock wrote:

“Yada, yada, yada,” the perennial hawk Max Boot wrote disparagingly in the Washington Post about the “Korea summit hype,” adding that “there is very little of substance here.” Similar hot takes were offered by Nicholas Kristof and Nicholas Eberstadt in the New York TimesJennifer Rubin in the Washington PostRobin Wright in the New Yorker, and Michael O’Hanlon in The Hill. Their doubts were repeated and amplified as gospel by the usual critics on cable TV.

The kicker came on Sunday, April 29, when the Times’ Mark Landler painted the Korean summit as an affront to US national-security interests. Citing every establishment pundit he could find, Landler argued that a resumption of diplomatic ties between the Koreas “will inevitably erode the crippling economic sanctions against the North,” while making it hard for Trump “to threaten military action against a country that is extending an olive branch.” It was depressing to see such overt cheerleading for US imperial control over Korea in the media.

Foreign Policy: Optimism About Korea Will Kill Us All
Optimism was out of fashion among pundits discussing the Korean talks (Foreign Policy, 4/30/18)

Media abounded with pessimistic takes such as “Optimism About Korea Will Kill Us All: The First Step Towards Peace Is Lowering Expectations” (Foreign Policy4/20/18), “Kim Jong Un Is Masterfully Playing Trump’s Game” (Bloomberg5/3/18), “North Korea’s Warm—and Fuzzy—Peace Summit” (Daily Beast, 4/27/18) and “‘Don’t Pop the Champagne Yet’: Experts Take on the Inter-Korea Summit” (Washington Examiner4/28/18), all of which echoed the conventional wisdom that we have gone through this before, and there was little new or plausible in the peace agreement.

The American watching and reading public was subjected to a lot of critical, cynical and skeptical analysis, but one thing they were lacking—almost to a pundit—was genuine optimism. Not a grudging acknowledgement of a potential upside, thrown in at the end to hedge one’s bets, but an earnest appreciation of how significant this rapprochement might be to a country torn apart for over 70 years. What we had none of was the enthusiasm expressed by the vast majority of the South Korean public—who, incidentally, have quite a bit more to lose if this is indeed all a sinister ploy.

A great deal of what it takes to be a US foreign policy expert is an ability to recap conventional wisdom—to be able to say, “We’ve seen this all before,” and the status quo will likely remain the same. A status quo, it’s worth noting, that means that the decades-long US military presence in Korea will remain for decades more to come.

But the dark mood of the US chattering classes compels one to ask: What do these pundits know that the South Korean public doesn’t? What unique insight into the proceedings do they have that the general South Korean citizenry does not, these publications littered with quotes from the Atlantic Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs—all of which are funded by a combination of weapons contractors and NATO/GCC countries, and which primarily exist to defend the Washington foreign policy consensus?

The point is not to fetishize “Korean voices,” in the superficial manner of demands to “listen to Syrians” or “listen to Libyans” when advocating one “do something” in those countries. (This talking point is usually followed by a post or comment from a hand-selected Syrian or Libyan who supports the Washington consensus on bombing or invading said country.) There is, of course, no uniform voice of Syrians or Libyans or Koreans—or any large group of people—and, indeed, many Koreans are skeptical of Pyongyang’s motives. One can, however, examine polling to judge the relative popularity of a position and compare this to the voices we hear in Western media.

When 88 percent of the subject of a news story think something is good, and 95 percent of US media say that thing is bad, one should ask why that is. And if South Korea is under some type of dictator’s spell, or is a county populated almost entirely by credulous dupes, shouldn’t that itself be a major story in urgent need of examination?

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