Media Alarmism and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies about War in Korea

Scheuer should stick to Al Qaeda and his Middle East expertise…


For the last week , I have read and watched a lot of the coverage. Most of it was pretty good, to my great surprise, although the international media were too, almost intentionally, alarmist, with little coverage of the fact that South Korean citizens all but ignored this and went on with their daily lives. I didn’t even know about the shelling until my classes had ended that day and a BBC reporter told me. South Koreans have become inured to these outbursts, because they happen so often. This life-went-on-normally story needs to compete with all the images of smoke from the island and the USS George Washington deployment. The Korean media noted this problem as well.

There was a clear tone difference between international media outlets like CNN, Reuters, SkyNews, Fox (above), and the NYT, and the local Korean media. Friends in the US emailed me after watching US news coverage, because they thought a war was imminent. (What are the networks telling you guys?) I get CCN International in my house, and the initial coverage was unhelpful too, with flashy graphics of ‘Breaking News!’ and its on-site reporters got a little carried away with the claim that Korea is close to all-out war. More generally, the tone seemed to be that this was one of the  worst crises since the war. Really? You mean that? Do you see Koreans running around with their hair on fire? Didn’t everyone just stay to work that day and the next? Did they run civil defense drills? Did the KOSPI drop? Does Scheuer (above, whom I think is quite good on Middle East) really think we should sink the NK navy? Interviewing expat English teachers in Seoul whose mothers don’t know anything about Korea and are freaking out is not reporting. It was noticeable and disappointing that none of the foreign outlets hit the news conferences at the MND or MOFAT or Blue House, where an admirable restraint and seriousness prevailed. There is an obvious audience-expansion incentive to hyping the shelling (it’s World War III in Korea!), but the blowback problems created for policy-makers are serious and threaten a self-fulfilling prophecy: they don’t look ‘tough’ if they don’t hit back in a CNN-hyped crisis, so they hit back, thereby worsening that very crisis.

So please don’t portray the Yeonpyeong situation like the first step toward war in a wholly unique provocation. It was neither. NK does this stuff all the time; the NK elite doesn’t want a war because they will lose and all hang afterwards (this is why SK retains the death penalty which they almost never use at home anymore); NK frequently does these things for internal, intra-NK in-fighting reasons that have little to do with the rest of world; SK doesn’t want a war, because it doesn’t want its rich democracy nuked. So please, control the hype and hysteria. If it is both unwarranted and a bit dangerous, because it pushes SK’s elites toward macho, George-Bush-style decision-making so they don’t look ‘weak.’ Raising the temperature artificially to gain viewership is unethical and retards de-escalation.

Korea has ALWAYS been geopolitically tense in this manner. NK has regularly bullied SK; SK’s belligerent rhetoric has never been seriously followed-up; the US routinely steps in to back up its ally; there have been lots of these sorts of crises before, and many far worse: the tree-cutting incident (1976), the cabinet bombing (1983), the KAL bombing (1987), the Cheonan (2010), plus lots of little Yellow Sea skirmishes before (1999, 2002, 2009). NK is always saying they will bomb SK and turn Seoul into a sea of fire. So come on, wae-guk-sarams; put in some context, as if you are genuinely a qualified Korea expert and didn’t just fall off the plane from Tokyo or Hong Kong. For my previous thoughts on CNN, which broadly apply this time around, try here.

By contrast, I was struck by how good the Korean media was on this. I watched a lot of the KBS and SBS TV reports in the last week. They were very informative, full of interviews with government officials and academics, with lots of imagery and maps and such. They walked you through exactly where the NK rounds came from and which SK units returned fire, what the rules of engagement are, who might have been responsible in the KPA. They explained in detail about the in-theater US and Korean forces. So far as I have seen, none of this detail was presented in external media, although I tried. The context I mentioned above was fully presented, as most Koreans roughly know this history anyway. All sort of talking heads from universities and think tanks were rolled out to give lots of perspective and policy suggestions. There was no scary music or quick-cut graphics, although you can always read the Chosun Ilbo for your saber-rattling fix. Usually I am pretty tough on the Korean media on this site. Among other ills, they are endlessly jingoistic, fact-check even less than Dan Rather, are far too statist and deferent to elites, and tilt toward xenophobia on the English teachers here (underqualified, pot-smoking child molesters from Canada, they tell me). But this time they were measured, focused, and professional, maybe because of the gravity of the situation. Hear, hear.

So everyone should relax. If Glenn beck sounds off on the Rapture and North Korea, ignore him (in fact, ignore almost everything Beck, or worse, Palin on NK, says). If the neocon-industrial complex fires up on the necessity of NK regime change and starts claiming Obama is weak, don’t listen to them either. By Korean standards, this is not scarcely a crisis yet (you’d be amazed how blithe they are about these sorts of things), so let’s not raise the pressure on them for ratings or politics. This stuff is far more manageable than those early images of smoke rising from the island lead you to believe.

NB: if I sound to too sanguine, here is the threshold when you should indeed panic about Korea: when South Korea shoots back. Then  you can run your Michael Bay war-time stories, because SK is super-vulnerable to NK. Hence if they still shoot back, they are taking a huge risk and that means the debate here really has shifted. To date, SK has never struck back militarily after one of these sorts of things (no airstrikes, port mining, etc). So that is the real benchmark for ‘Krisis in Korea on Fox!’

NB2 for US readers in Korea: in event of a war, the embassy plan is for us all to head for Pusan and then be flown/shipped to Japan. You can bring your Korean spouse too, but not her family (so I won’t be going Sad smile). You will be notified via the embassy’s email registration system. Sign up here if you haven’t already. No joke on this info, btw.

12 thoughts on “Media Alarmism and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies about War in Korea

  1. The TV reports stateside are alarmist because spinning news in this fashion that keeps the viewer engaged is their business model. The more we watch, the more commercials we take in, so more money can be collected by the news empires as a result of our captivation. I cannot watch stateside TV news because of their lack of ethics and spin. I bet AFNK gave the story a more accurate treatment.

    However, there was valid reason to be concerned to an extent. This was the first time that the North had shelled the South since the “end” of the war. Sure, the North has had many such “firsts” throughout the years, but the first use of artillery and rockets gave pause for the recollection that there are thousands of pieces of artillery trained on Seoul.

    Further, the South did retaliate. They launched shells back in the same direction from which they came, serving to up the tension. What if the North responded to the incoming shells with additional shelling of other parts of the South? What if the South scrambled fighters that actually dropped bombs? The South always has to walk a tight line over how to respond to engagement from the North, what if they went slightly too far? It’s always been a possibility.

    The immediate threat has passed for now. There were some tense moments, but this incident can now be filed away as more of the same from the North. The fallout has resulted in a change in the rules of engagement in the South, which I’d like to see you do a writeup about because these changes could make the possibility of an accidental war more likely in the future.


  2. My wife’s cousin is in Seoul with LG for about four months, learning the wonders of battery technology. Anyway, I heard from the grapevine that his fiancee was freaking out over the news. I thought this was a bit unusual given the lack of escalation after the initial barrage. What was there to freak out about? 24 hours later, it was winding down.

    The problem was, on American cable TV, it was just winding up. I agree with everyone on one point: cable television relies upon a continuous drumbeat to keep people tuning in, and short of actual information, or new information, tends to turn to talking heads who say a lot of frankly idiotic things. I told Ben’s fiancee to turn off TV and to start following key people on Twitter. It’s near-real time information that may not be perfect, but it’s stripped of the profit margin.


    • That last clause is a particularly good insight. I didn’t think of it quite that way. I noticed a week later that CNN’s correspondent in Korea – Stan Grant – was STILL talking in that hyperbolic, over-enunciated manner about the possibility of war. Very unhelpful. All it does it make harder and harder to de-escalate…


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