Accuracy in Media

The situation must be getting increasingly desperate in North Korea. They recently allowed the first American news crew, from ABC’s Nightline, into the country since then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s official visit in October of 2000. And On July 9th they agreed to return to the negotiating table in late July to participate in the six-party talks that will hopefully lead to them finally abandoning their nuclear ambitions. But don’t count on it.

It is a familiar ritual. Bad rice crop. (Somehow those Communist governments always seem to face drought and famine. Could it possibly be the system?) A return to the negotiating table, once again offering hope that this time they are prepared to negotiate seriously. But in the meantime they need food, money and fuel.

And apparently it still works. Just days after North Korea’s announcement, which came just days after their Nightline charm offensive, the South Koreans agreed to provide a half million tons of rice aid, materials for making clothing, shoes and soap, and an office to test run a restored road and rail links. Additionally, the South agreed to supply the North with 2,000 megawatts of electricity through power lines across the border, in exchange for the North agreeing to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program.

The Nightline episode was apparently meant to soften up the West. It was a sympathetic look at the failed tyranny, though the correspondent, Bob Woodruff, did make some obligatory comments indicating they weren’t completely taken in by the propagandistic tour they were given.

To set the tone, the introduction showed clips of a bellicose President George W. Bush criticizing North Korea for possessing weapons of mass destruction and starving its citizens, and calling them part of the axis of evil. That was contrasted with a North Korean woman smiling uncomfortably, when asked if she could think of anything positive about America.

The producer Clark Bentson and other members of the crew also reflected on their impressions. They said that the reason the North Koreans let them in was because they needed them to tell the world that they do indeed have nuclear weapons, and want to return to the table after walking away more than a year ago. The report said that ABC foreign editor Chuck Lustig had sought this access for a Nightline story for 10 years.

The ABC crew’s minders, who were also their translators, were with them the whole time. They could only shoot pictures of what was allowed. Statues of Kim Il Sung, the father and “great leader” of North Korea, were everywhere. They showed images of wide downtown streets and tall, majestic buildings. But few of the 2.5 million people who live in the capital city of Pyongyang were visible. Those who were were described as robotic. “We’re told that most of the people were out helping to harvest the rice crop.” They were “having difficulties with their harvest.”  Even most of their minders had gone out to help harvest the rice crop.

The current head of state is Gen. Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung. He has a museum built to further brandish the cult of personality. Factoids in the museum claim that he had bowled a perfect game and shot a hole-in-one on a par 5 hole.

Then came the expected America and Bush bashing. Woodruff talked about how it is the view of the North Koreans that the U.S. started the Korean War, rather than that it started as an invasion by the North into the South. As Woodruff said, if they can convince the people that the U.S invaded first, “it would explain why the country is so badly off.”

He spoke of one official who told him that his mother was killed by American bombs when he was 8-years old. Another told of the U.S. bombing a Buddhist temple. No skepticism offered. When asking their minder if she had anything good to say about Americans, she said she likes the American people, but not the American government. Then, through a translator, she said, “I really don’t like the policies of the current administration, and my impression is they only want war.” Then they met a “little fisherman boy,” and he wanted to join the army to fight their sworn enemy, America. A little girl said that what she knew of Americans is that they kill Koreans.

Bob Woodruff did acknowledge at the end that “There are also horror stories of starvation,” but gave no real sense of how grave these “stories” are.  He pointed out that this Nightline episode may, over time, help make their country seem more normal, less threatening, and that maybe they’ll let more news teams in and become less isolated. And he said their biggest desire is for reunification with South Korea, though without ever suggesting under what type of government. More on this story in the next Media Monitor.

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