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 ). 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.