COMMENT: by William JamesNews Weekly
Media's North Korea blindspot
, February 24, 2001
The media coverage of events in the two Koreas would lead some to believe that it is the South which has the human rights problem. William James wonders why the closed, repressive North escapes due scrutiny.
It is one thing to accuse the media of bias, but another thing to cite evidence. Back in 1977, someone had the bright idea of comparing The New York Times's coverage of human rights in North and South Korea, two countries with a common cultural, ethnic and linguistic heritage but radically different political systems.
The result? Forty-eight stories of human rights violations in South Korea and none about the North.
I decided to carry out a similar exercise with the Melbourne Age in 2000, which turned out to be a busy 12 months for the Korean peninsula. Highlights included Australia's resumption of diplomatic relations with the North in May (which The Age tucked away inside because the front page was needed for Ms Jerry Hall's decolletage); the summit meeting of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in June; and Olympic teams from the North and South marching under the same flag in September.
In October Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel peace prize and Madeleine Albright visited the North. It would be nice to be able to attribute my choice of such an eventful year to preternatural political prescience but it was, unfortunately, purely serendipitous.
South Korea, since the end of fighting in 1953, has progressed from physical devastation, through authoritarian quasi-military government and financial corruption, to a state of prosperity and democracy which is the envy of most other countries.
During the same era, with the possible exception of Hoxha's Albania, North Korea has exhibited the world's closest approximation to totalitarianism. Over the last few years it has added to its repertoire of human rights abuses the avoidable starvation of about two million people.
This radical difference has not prevented some commentators from treating the two countries as Tweedledee and Tweedledum as regards human rights. A recent example of the old moral equivalence fallacy can be found in Australian QC Geoffrey Robertson's Crimes Against Humanity, which mentions North Korea only to claim that it behaved no worse than the South during the Korean War.
During 2000, The Age published 111 pieces on the two Koreas over 88 days, including five editorials. Its coverage was representative not only of the Western media - tabloid as well as broadsheet, electronic as well as print - but of Western politicians' attitudes as well.
Articles on South Korea tended to exemplify the "real news is bad news" philosophy, featuring bankruptcies of major companies, strikes, industrial accidents, student unrest, demonstrations and police violence, often accompanied by dramatic photographs.
The treatment of North Korea did not attempt to disguise the nature of its administration, but relied too frequently on general and possibly misleading descriptions such as "Stalinist". Stalinism is more than simply empty shops and drab clothes and boring architecture. It is not even just regimentation and lack of democracy. Stalinism is ordinary people being ordered out of bed at three o'clock in the morning and dragged off on unspecified charges to undisclosed locations where interrogators kick their teeth in - literally.
The Age did not run one single explanatory background story during the whole year spelling out the human rights situation in North Korea - the justice system, religious persecution, secret police, torture, labour camps or executions. For example, there are at least 47 capital offences in North Korea, including prostitution and sedition. (The United States executes murderers and attracts media outrage; China executes embezzlers and the fact is reported without comment; North Korea executes innocent dissidents and is effectively ignored).
Photographs of North Korea were strictly tourist snapshot standard, showing either clean, orderly citizens and soldiers in clean, orderly streets, or else smiling children.
Of course it is notoriously difficult to get information and pictures out of dictatorships. One of the instructive features of the Vietnam war was Hanoi's ability to conceal its atrocities at the same time as the relatively free South was becoming identified with the pictures of a naked girl covered in burning napalm and a police chief shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the head.
But responsible journalism should make every effort to get at the truth, or else publicise available material from agencies such as Amnesty International, or as a last resort kick up a sustained and unholy row in order to expose the regime's lack of transparency.
The Age has campaigned long and sedulously for human rights in countries such as South Africa, East Timor and Burma. These governments, which left sufficient leeway for the emergence of a Nelson Mandela, a Jose Ramos Horta and an Aung San Suu Kyi, have drawn the unremitting searchlight of the global media.
There would appear to be a certain irony in the fact that, on the other hand, an autocrat who successfully crushes all trace of dissident expression, thus obviating the "human interest" angle afforded by an opposition figurehead, is left to operate virtually free of international surveillance and opprobrium.
For most of his political career, Kim Jong-il was treated by Western journalists as an enigmatic recluse, a sort of Asian fusion of Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson, who whiled away his time with imported cognac, imported movies and imported women. Occasionally editors reproduced, deadpan, hagiographical reports from North Korean newspapers of his superhuman intellect and physique.
The tradition of ridiculing despots goes back at least as far as Charlie Chaplin and The Great Dictator, but contains inherent dangers. During the seventies, Punch magazine came close to turning the poisonous Idi Amin into a harmless buffoon by running a regular column allegedly written by the Ugandan sadist in African English.
Since the death of his father, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung in 1994, and particularly during the last year, Kim Jong-il has been increasingly portrayed as an affable statesman, a "regular guy" as the Americans would say. His bouffant coiffure, elevator shoes and zip-up khaki windbreakers are now presented as lovable eccentricities rather than risible grotequeries.
But no amount of spin can change the fact that he directs an inhuman prison-state which "squandered ... resources on grandiose arms projects" (The Age editorial, October 20) while children starved to death. He almost certainly master-minded the 1983 attempted assassination of South Korea's President in Burma which killed 17, and the blowing up of a South Korean airliner in 1987 which killed 115.
Dictator Augusto Pinochet killed 13,000 people and has been pursued ever since by contumely and lawsuits. Dictator Fidel Castro has so far killed at least 14,000 and has become an avuncular icon. Dictator Kim Jong-il has presided over the deaths of millions, and is courted and feted by world leaders who are practically queuing up to have their photos taken alongside the beaming and cherubic Dear Leader.
This inclusiveness provides an interesting contrast to the common policy of treating flagrant human rights offenders, such as pre-democratic South Africa - or even merely alleged potential offenders, such as Jorg Haider - as international pariahs.
No-one can blame South Koreans for wishing to deflate tensions on the peninsula. After all, they have had to live next door to the ticking time-bomb of an over-militarised and trigger-happy neighbour for 48 years of armed truce, and millions of them have relations in the North whom they still hope to see one day.
It is understandable, too, that the United States should welcome the possibility of eliminating the world's most volatile flashpoint, particularly since it maintains nearly 40,000 American troops along the DMZ separating the two countries. But why Australia? What reason do we have for appeasing murderers?
We are a minor to medium power which has little to lose from incurring the Dear Leader's displeasure, and are therefore ideally situated to publicise and denounce his hell-hole of a fiefdom. Yet when Foreign Minister Alexander Downer visited North Korea in November he discussed (commendably) humanitarian aid for hunger victims, but did not mention human rights.
Later in the same month, in an Opinion article "Advancing human rights, the Australian way" (The Age, November 29), he referred to Cambodia, Rumania, Chile, the former Yugoslavia, Indonesia and Burma - but not North Korea, where he had been only days earlier! This was despite his claim earlier in the year, at the time of Australia's resumption of relations with the North, that "the best way to influence North Korea on human rights ... was through diplomatic re-engagement" (Age, May 9).
It is interesting to note that when Prime Minister Howard visited the Philippines in November there were calls for him to raise human rights issues, but that no such admonitions accompanied the announcement of the Foreign Minister's trip to North Korea. How is this lack of interest in North Korean human rights on the part of The Age and other watch-dogs of Western liberal democracy to be explained?
At the time when Stalin and Hitler were allies, the communist-influenced Waterside Workers' Federation, forerunner of the MUA, obstructed the loading of ships taking Australian soldiers to fight fascism. But even at the height of their popularity, when they were riding on the reputation of the all-conquering Red Army at the end of WWII, there was never the remotest possibility of their assumption of power.
Today, they are irrevocably divided into multitudinous splinter factions, which have been reduced to recruiting school children. Cuba continues to enjoy a lingering vogue, and there is a niche market for retro Russian and Chinese communist memorabilia, similar to the surreptitious trade in Nazi collectables.
The most important survival, however, is an incorrigible residue of anti-anticommunism on the part of the West's opinion controllers. This is no doubt usually an unconscious accomodation to the zeitgeist rather than a deliberate ideological or fashion choice.
It will pass through the system when the baby-boomers, who currently dominate academe and the media, and whose lives have been an anticlimax since they marched the steets chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" in 1968, eventually move on. It is true that the Western media run the occasional, dutiful piece on Pol Pot or Tiananmen Square.
Overwhelmingly, though, when it comes to Western compassion and concern for justice, the victims of left-wing tyrannies such as North Korea continue to receive very much the rough end of the pineapple compared to their former counterparts in Indonesia, South Africa or Chile.