Guest Post – Is the Media Coverage of the North Korea Crisis Inflammatory?

I’m going to put something on the Diplomat about this preposterous faux-crisis in a few days, and I’ll re-post that here. In the meantime, go here for the many posts I’ve written about North Korea beforehand. And go here for my recent TV appearances where I ague that a war is really unlikely, because North Korea will lose unequivocally, and its elites will wind up in SK jails and then before the hangman like Saddam. (SK still has capital punishment.)

Given my fatigue with NK, I am happy to invite a guest-post on North Korea from John Corrado. John’s a Korea studies graduate student at Seoul National University. Here is his website, on issues similar to those I cover here. And I do like his basic observation that the news media can get carried away with all the talk about nuclear war in Korea. You’ve probably noticed a point I will develop in the Diplomat: the cleavage between the analyst community and the international media regarding the current peninsular crisis. The analysts say it’s a lot of bluster, while reporters react rather incredulously when we say that. Maybe they know something we don’t; in their own way, reporters are closer to decision-makers than we are. But I also have the sense that all this media coverage is one of the things NK wants from this faux-crisis. No would care one bit about crappy, backward, dysfunctional little NK (it is; I’ve been there) if they didn’t make endless trouble. No one likes to be ignored and consigned to the kiddie table, so NK pulls these shenanigans just so we’ll all pay attention. *sigh* It’s all so inane… Anyway, here’s that guest-post. REK


The most "up to date" photo we have of North Korea



On March 30th, the BBC online version ran a story titled "N Korea Enters ‘State of War’ with South." What’s wrong with this? It hasn’t been news in nearly sixty years.

In an April 4th article about hacktivist group Anonymous infiltrating North Korea’s intranet, The Week stated that, "the Korean peninsula [is] one misstep away from a disastrous and bloody war." In fact, South Korean and American government officials and independent analysts insist that this is simply not the case. For decades, tensions have flared up cyclically and are typically a reaction to a regime change, a sanction, or a drill. In this case, all three.

Dramatizing the news might seem like a temporary, even forgivable, misdemeanor. The problem is when such interpretations have the effect of radicalizing and alarming the consumers, who remember the headline most of all, and who may not have even bothered reading most or any of the article. As we’ve seen from studies in the past, emotional and fearsome content debilitates memory recall and general comprehension.

The difference is comparable to meeting your significant other in a park versus in a loud club. A club environment is chaotic, distracting, and filled with competition. As a result, communication becomes exaggerated and distorted. In a park, more time and attention is likely placed on the suitability of the candidate, rather than the drink in their hand or their promise to take you on their yacht. The medium is the message.

Korea’s long standing civil conflict ended with a tenuous and oft violated armistice that has recently been retracted by the North. But war remains far from inevitable. So what’s with the startling, doomsday headlines? They allude to a sky filled with soaring missiles. While tensions are warming, media outlets are certainly turning up the heat in their versions of the story. Here are four reasons to take the threats with a grain of salt. But why has sensationalism increased in the digital age? Hasn’t internet fact checking ushered in an era of journalistic integrity? And why don’t we catch them in the act more often? Are our news habits devolving?

Colonial America in the 1700s was (at the time) the most literate place on earth per capita. News was relevant to daily life in a way that today’s stories just can’t seem to match. I’m sorry but local TV news will simply not suffice: fires and puff pieces about hero dogs are not information in any significant sense. Despite this, TV news remains America’s favorite source.

The truth is that literature was rare and expensive in America’s early days, making newspapers the most easily accessible leisurely read. Today we are inundated with sources. But is the competition for our attention pushing the bulk of the material towards its most lurid form?

TV news in general has become so adept at presenting info with a demographically friendly slant that discerning, moderate viewers have very few options remaining on the tube. This has been proven before so I won’t belabor the point. The surprising thing is that we know it and don’t seem to mind!


When consumers get news through an ideological lens, they can seamlessly integrate it into their worldview without making uncomfortable considerations about how the news has any real relevance. North Korea = secretive band of dangerous lunatics, right?

Social psychologists have long known people prefer to assimilate new information rather than adjust – or accommodate – their worldview (ie: learn as a consequence of experience). But this is taking things a step further. In this format, information is pre-assimilated. Perhaps this helps viewers avoid cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable result of holding two contradictory ideas. This process, while intellectually rigorous, is an integral part of learning. TV news viewers are pandered to like a parent allays an unruly child. So what happens when a spoiled kid grows up?

The practical effect is that the news further entrenches people in their sociopolitical biases, isolates them from the process of deliberation, and transforms them into more easily sellable units. War is sexy. Gay is sexy. Breast Cancer, gun rights, and tax breaks are pornography. Fire, murder, rape, accidents, disasters. These are disturbing things. Offered up in quick succession without any meaningful context or practical relevance. The real offshoot is the elicitation of strong emotions. The underlying point is that we approach news information with the wrong part of our brain, which hinders our ability to remember and think about the content.

Social media has largely outplayed local sources in competing for consumer’s attention. And who can blame the consumer? Indeed, research shows that our motivations for engaging with news affect the emotional and intellectual results of said contact. People who engage for diversion tend to leave happy. People who engage for utility tend to leave angry. Social media enables customization in such idiosyncratic configurations that it’s possible to regulate entirely the forms of info we come into contact with. That means a greater possibility of walking away with a smile on our face, a positive association, and a reason to return with greater frequency.

But there are plenty of consumers who want more than social media offers, aren’t necessarily hungry for TV style bias, and can’t be bothered with the time consuming task of combing through heavyweight news in paper form. Besides, we’re all online anyway. Might as well get our news here as well.

And so even the giants are reliant on provocative titles when seeking exposure across online platforms – news aggregators, social media, etc. And so the content of the written word is increasingly approaching the dramatic style that TV has trained us to seek out.

I won’t argue that there aren’t certain outlets that have amassed such clout and repute that they stand slightly above such obvious contortion. These primary news gathering outlets are like the sun in an ecosystem that has evolved to feast on their glow. Although these sources have historically relied upon intriguing headlines to make sales, there’s an important distinction about how even this has changed in the digital age. You used to pay for a whole newspaper. Each individual article didn’t need to sell itself. Now every article is its own salesman. And it’s so busy attracting attention that there’s less space for meaningful info.

Second tier, analysis heavy news outlets are slave to the user’s click impulse to an even further extent. As a result, news is delivered with cheeky, subtext heavy, misleading, sensational headlines.

Is the West seeing what North Korea wants us to see?


Below are a collection of headlines from a single day – Tuesday, April 2. I deliberately picked the most visible headlines relevant to the Korean dispute. Notice how Korean newspapers put an emphasis on the South’s readiness, the relationship between the Koreas, and the hollow yet unacceptable spike in Northern rhetorical aggression. Meanwhile, Western outlets focus on tracking escalation in the North and painting the picture of a region on the brink of war.

Korean citizens, as well, have grown accustomed to said tension, and are not as interested or impressed as most Westerners seem to be. Accordingly, Western news sites were more likely to feature a related article in one of the top three spots on this day, while some popular Korean language papers – such as Gook Min Ilbo and Maeil Shinmun –did not place top priority to war whispers, instead focusing on a real estate tax scandal, the president’s movements, and the kickoff of Korean pro baseball.


  1. The Korea Times – US says no unusual military move in N Korea, diplomacy still possible
  2. Yonhap News – US says no unusual military move in N Korea, diplomacy still possible
  3. The Korea Herald – Park vows swift reprisal to provocation
  4. The Chosun Ilbo – S Korea, US to keep Combined Forces command
  5. Korea Joongang Daily – Park tells military to strike back if attacked
  6. Hankook Ilbo – Seedlings in North embitter inter-Korean relations


  1. – Kim Jong Un playing psychological war
  2. Foreign Policy – Why Pyongyang is much scarier than you think
  3. BBC – North Korea boosts nuclear program
  4. Washington Post – North Korea secrecy fuels suspicions of bomb design
  5. Fox News – China mobilizing troops, jets near North Korean border, US officials say
  6. The New York Times – US sees only words in threats from North Korea
  7. Al Jazeera – South Korea warns North about provocation

My main point is not that one perspective is more true than the other, although I suspect that this is the case. The general argument is that different societies approach the news with cultural attitudes that predispose them to engage with certain story lines over others. This also makes them either eager or unwilling to view themselves and others as heroes or villains. Instead of challenging their audience’s preconceived notions, media outlets have an incentive to toe the line of audience expectations, lest they risk that nastiest of nasties… cognitive dissonance.

On March 29th, ran a headline stating, “BREAKING: North Korean Photo Reveals U.S. Mainland Strike Plan.” The photo showed arrows pointed at Austin, Texas and Washington DC. Both are well beyond DPRK range capacity. Over the course of the article, the author discusses how the photo, like recent propaganda videos, is likely intended for a Domestic DPRK audience and is not a realistic possibility. Doesn’t this change the meaning of the title in a significant sense? Doesn’t that challenge our understanding of this enemy? Given their practical ambitions, can they even be called as such? What percentage of North Koreans are dangerous lunatics? Who is in any position to evaluate Kim Jong-Un’s ability to assess self interest and the seriousness of his propositions?


As Neil Postman predicted in his text, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death,’ we are not a society being corrupted by top down oppression, but rather one being disfigured by the whimsical demands of impulsive consumers. The problem comes when after a certain threshold is crossed, a sensationalist headline becomes diffused into the national consciousness.

How many American believe war with North Korea is likely at this point? How much closer are we than we were last week? The week before? Has the media’s distortion of events made things ostensibly worse?

I fear that we’ll be so busy navigating obstacles to a future that promises excitement and drama that we’ll forget to consider those obstacles as objects in and of themselves. That the subtle corruptions in information distribution will become so widespread that it becomes impossible to exist as a news source without them. And we’ll all get exactly what we want. But not what we need.

Photos from:

  1. Kim –
  2. Skewed News –
  3. Seeing What they Want –
  4. Map –

5 thoughts on “Guest Post – Is the Media Coverage of the North Korea Crisis Inflammatory?

  1. Pingback: Guest Post, part 2 – Dave Kang: Yes, the Media Coverage of the Korean Crisis is Inflammatory | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  2. Pingback: NK Recap: “North Korea is the Boy Who Cried Wolf – There will be No War” | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: North Korea is an ‘Upper Volta with Missiles’ who Cried Wolf Too Often » Duck of Minerva

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